Rita the Tiny Giant
On my first visit to Kagando Hospital in Uganda, I met an older fistula survivor named Rita. She had a formidable presence and definitely did not like me. While most of the ladies greeted me with at least apathy, Rita scowled at me with a look of near disgust.
The logistics officer at Kagando saw Rita and mentioned that he remembered her from when he was a child. This man, in his mid-40s, grew up in Rita’s village and had always known her as the woman who smelled bad. Now in her 60s, Rita had spent her entire life as an outcast, scorned by society.
When I first approached Rita to ask to photograph her, she shooed me away with a scowl and the wave of a hand. For such small physical stature, she had an incredible fierceness to her. Of course, I respected her request not to be photographed but as the day wore on, Rita saw how much fun everyone was having with the camera. I could sense that Rita began to change her mind about being part of the pictures. In one instance she beckoned me over, presumably to take her photo, but given how mean she was in our introduction, I would need a little more buttering up than the wave of a hand.
I acted like I didn’t notice her calling me over, but when she caught me looking in her direction, she bore into me with those eyes in a way that said, “You better stop ignoring me and get over here.” By the time I got over to her, she half-smiled and told me to get lost with a friendlier wave of her arm. But as I started to walk away, she protested. I turned around and she made a funny face and told me to take that picture. So of course I did.
Rita later caught me at the hospital store, which is a small shed that sells essentials and cold soda. As I stood there drinking a Krest, Rita leaned up against the counter and stared at me. I smiled at her and she pointed at the shelf of goods saying something I didn’t understand. I looked inquisitively at the woman working the store who picked up a small bag of sugar.
“Oh, you want some sugar?” I asked Rita. She nodded in a quick and economic but almost curt fashion. I paid the lady, who handed me the bag of sugar, which I then handed to Rita. She snatched it from my grip and ran down the hill. A bit confused, I looked at the lady working the store, who simply shrugged at me.
When I went down the hill later that afternoon, Rita came flying up to me and grabbed my arm. She started motioning for me to take a picture of her, but then made it clear she wanted a picture with me.
Only looking at the pictures after the fact did I realize just how small Rita stood. Her ferocity and the way she carried herself kept me from ever noticing that she was so tiny. Just goes to show that stature is not just physical.
Rita’s fistula was small and simple. The doctor told me it could have been fixed in less than an hour if it had been done before she started menopause. Her advanced age made the procedure much more difficult, and Rita was transferred to a referral center that finally ended her decades of suffering.