I want to tell a story that is filled with pain, fear, frustration, anger and love. I will tell it exactly how it happened in my eyes only leaving out the real names of the others who were involved. Those who are in Peace Corps Botswana with me will know who I am writing about but out of respect for their families who may not know what occurred I ask that you do not post their names here or on any other public site.
This story has both a tragic and a happy ending. Five women were part of a scary robbery, five were exposed to HIV+ blood and are now on PEP (Post Exposure Prophylaxis) and five are forever tied together.
On Friday the 28th of January four friends and myself went out to the capital for an Indian dinner. We had won a costume contest back in October dressed as the Ghostbusters and were treated to a night of good food, good laughs and good friendship but ‘M’ who hosted the Halloween bash. The dinner was full of all those for mentioned things. We ate too much but didn’t care, we laughed so hard our cheeks hurt and we enjoyed each others company to the fullest. Sometimes great moments are shattered. There is a quote I hate to love because it rings true too often and it says, “I think I'm afraid to be happy because whenever I get too happy something bad always happens."-Charlie Brown. As we all walked out of the restaurant we planned to head back to M’s house and have a good old slumber party. On our way to the combi stop we talked and laughed. I was walking ahead a few steps with C while M, K, and R gossiped and giggled behind us about life. There was a moment of silence to which C said, “Mary, there’s a guy” meaning I should move out of the way so he could pass. As I moved to my right I turned and was face to face with a man. I knew in that split second that something wasn’t right. His face was covered in shadow but I could feel his look of cowardness. He immediately grabbed my purse which was slung over my shoulder. I moved away while holding on tight to my bag but his second violent tug ripped my purses strap and as I screamed he ran off into the tall grass with my bag. R and M ran a little ways on the sidewalk after him but soo realized that it wasn’t worth it. I began to cry, not because I was hurt but because of how he made me feel; anger, vulnerable and helpless. As I paced back and forth screaming “Legodu! Legodu!” which means thief in Setswana he still continued to run into the night. I can’t recall who exactly called th police but someone did. I was too upset to do anything but cry and pace. I am thankful for my friends who took charge and made the necessary phone calls to the police and to Peace Corps. The man who grabbed my purse was still in sight while we were on the phone with the police. He was waving his phone light and yelling to us. We stood there in disbelief that this man had the nerve to be calling to us for something. He was about 50 yards away, right off the main road where there were 4 lanes of traffic rushing by. All I remember screaming was “What??! What do you want you have EVERYTHING?!?! EVERYTHING!” R walked a few feet into the grass to try and hear what he was saying and then we all heard him say “Give me 200 Pula!” I absolutely couldn’t believe that he had my purse with p400, my digital camera, my phone, my I.D. and my credit cards and he had the nerve to ask for more money! Anger was seeping out through every pore. C and K helped me calm down because I was yelling “You have EVERYTHING Rra (which mean Sir), everything, just take it and go, leave us alone!” but he kept coming closer and asking for more money. At this point M and R were telling him to give the purse back. I remember R was saying “Do the right thing Rra, do the right thing, give her the purse with the I.D. in it and take everything else. Just leave it there and go.” He kept asking for more money and R said she would give him p200 if he gave her the purse back. I kept begging them to not go near him and bargain, my purse wasn’t worth it. I was so confused and angry that they would risk their lives for my stupid bag. C and K just kept telling me that M and R wouldn’t put themselves in danger and that there’s nothing I could do to stop them. I was freaking out because I didn’t understand why they were bargaining with a man who was potentially dangerous. I paced and watched as the man took off his shirt to hide in the night from all the car lights rushing past. He approached R and M slowly and held out the purse but told them to come closer to him. When they both said they would not come closer he said he would stab them if they tried anything. He said “I don’t trust you two” and I laughed at the idiocy of this man who said that he didn’t trust US. He was shaking and nervous and clearly a coward. The three stepped slightly closer to each other and switched the purse for the money. Then he ran off again into the night. When they handed my purse back to me there was my wallet, no cash but it had all my credit cards, my bank cards and my I.D. He stole my phone, my camera and my money but left everything else down to my chapstick and cosmetic mirror. The police called us back and told us they couldn’t find us anywhere so they wanted us to cross the street to the gas station. Why they couldn’t find us was beyond me...we were in the middle of a busy city, right near a mall and two gas stations standing under a brightly lit billboard and they had been given all this information. All in all from the moment we called the police until R and M made the switch with the man it had been about 25 minutes. I truly believe that if they had shown up on time they would have got there to catch the man who was dumb enough to hang around and bargain.
When we got to the gas station we were waiting about 10 minutes when a police truck pulled in. They were driving really slow and didn’t seem to be in a hurry. M flagged them down and they gave a wave and a smile. We were confused. They drove slowly by and said “Hey ladies, how are you?” Our jaws dropped. They were hitting on us. M was enraged. She went over to the truck and asked them if they were here to help us and they looked all confused saying “No, we didn’t know, we’re out patrolling for muggers.” To which M said “WE JUST GOT MUGGED! Help US!” They said they couldn’t assist us but other officers were most likely on the way if we called it in and then they drove off. We all stood there stunned. M called the police and screamed at them for taking so long. R decided to call my phone that had been stolen just to see if the idiot would pick up and he did. I will not try to write down exactly what was said because I was not a part of the conversation but in short the man said if we didn’t get the police involved he would put the camera in a bag, drop it off somewhere near the police station and then call us to tell us where he put it after he was long gone. After 50 minutes since our first call to the police they showed up at the the gas station. They said, “Get in the back of the truck” which was a pickup truck with a cover. Simultaneously we said “NO!” The fact that the first thing they said to us was get in the back of a truck that is clearly where they put prisoners after waiting as long as we did for help was outrageous. There was no ‘How are you girls doing?’, ‘Are you ok?’ or any other type of comforting words, just ‘Get in the back of the truck and we’ll take you to the station.’ R told them that she had just been on the phone with the mugger and that he said he was going to drop off the camera by the gas station. When she said this all three officers laughed in our faces. One said, “No, no ladies how could you believe him, he’s a thief.” Another said, “Of course he told you that, he was just trying to fool you.” Their smiles continued. I forget who but someone said, “How could you be laughing at us right now?!” Looking back on it now of course we realize that maybe the man was just telling us what we wanted to hear but at the time, after just being robbed and humiliated we believed him and we expected the police to be comforting not condescending. Although every instinct told us not to get in that truck with them we knew we had no other choice. We were scared, they were the police so it had to mean something, right?
At the police station I filled out a police report while the girls helped me remember all the details. Since R gave her p200 in exchange for my purse she also had to fill out a written statement. The female officer laughed at her handwriting and other officers stared and laughed at the 5 of us who were clearly angry, vulnerable and distraught. We were their entertainment of the night. Peace Corps told us not to leave the station without a copy of the police report but when we asked for it they said they couldn’t give us one then, we had to come back on Monday morning. There was some back and forth about the ridiculousness of them not giving us a copy but they still refused. They said it was a new policy that they needed the report to be stamped and registered before they could release it to us and the person who does that only works Monday thru Friday 7:30-4:30. We had lost another battle that night. Feeling defeated, humiliated and tired beyond belief we insisted they give us a ride back to M’s house. Thankfully they agreed. If they hadn’t I am not sure what havoc we would have wreaked in that station.
Waiting for our transport a man walked into the police station asking for someone to help his friend who was waiting outside the station doors. In actuality there were no doors, just an open bay. From where we were sitting we could see a man bleeding from his right arm. He had a piece of cloth wrapped around the wound but it clearly wasn’t stopping the bleeding that was spilling onto the pavement outside. C said “That sound can’t be his blood hitting the floor can it?” I replied, “No, it sounds like rain, there’s no way...” C stood up to look over the counter and when she looked back at me she said, “Mary, it is his blood.” C went around the counter to the man and was miming to him how to hold pressure on his wound. He didn’t seem to quite understand so instead he was squeezing the open gash and blood was going everywhere. She kept repeating and showing him on her own arm how to do it properly. While C was trying to help him M, R, K and myself were begging and pleading for the officers to assist him and get him transport to a hospital as soon as possible. I wish I could explain it better than this but the best way I can describe how the police responded was complacent. They didn’t care, they moved slow, they seemed heartless. I joined C over by the man who was growing weaker and weaker and bleeding more and more. We screamed for a chair and I don’t even remember who brought a chair over but thankfully someone did. In my opinion he wouldn’t have lasted standing much longer with the amount of blood he had already lost. We were finally able to get him to hold his wound correctly and above his heart but the blood was continuously flowing through his fingers and onto the floor. I can’t speak for the others but I felt helpless. Everything inside me wanted to help him but in all honesty my mind couldn’t see past all the facts I have learned about HIV here in Botswana. My heart was screaming for me to help but my mind was stopping me and keeping my feet planted on the ground, I was ashamed because if I had been in America I wouldn’t have hesitated in helping him. Would that be stupid? Yes it would, but watching someone bleed to death when you have the knowledge and ability to stop it is worse. As I wrestled with what to do in my head K came over to C and I and handed us a zip lock bag full of latex gloves that she always carries in her purse. I looked at C and she looked and me and in that moment we both knew we were thinking the same thing, ‘Lets go.’ We put on our gloves and immediately I held pressure on his wound. The gash was so long and barely visible through all the blood that I couldn’t tell where all the blood was coming from. It was still pouring onto the floor. R took off her shirt because she had an undershirt on as well and offered it to us. C wrapped his arm tightly with the shirt. This seemed to stop the constant bleeding although I continued to hold his arm above his heart with one hand and over the wound with the other. It seemed like only seconds later the blood came spilling out again. C and I, who both have medical backgrounds, were frustrated that nothing was working. We were puzzled as to if the blood was coming from his arm or if it was just coming off the soaked shirt and bandage. I looked down at the puddle of blood on the floor and realized my feet had many little drops of blood on them. I’ll never forget looking up at C and whispering, “C, look at my feet...shit.” She said, “Ok, ok, I’ll get some water, it’s ok.” I felt that she was scared too. She came back with water and subtly doused my feet but it was too late, the splattered blood was all over my ankles as well. I said, “It’s ok, what’s done is done, shit.” to her and then to the officers standing around watching the show, “He needs to go to the fucking hospital NOW!” One of them replied “The transport is coming” to which of of us yelled “WHEN?!!??!”
After about 35-40 minutes from the moment the injured mans friend walked into the station asking for help, transport arrived. We were told by an officer that “This is also your ride home. We will drop the man off at the clinic and then give you a ride home.” I said, “Is someone going to take this mans arm from me?!?!” there was no response so I said “Can someone help me take this man to the car, I can’t do it by myself!” and again no response or movement to help. As the man stood up his friend thankfully helped me take him to the car. We were all thinking the ‘transport’ that was coming to help this man would be an ambulance or police car but we were shocked to see it was a white pickup truck, no cover. I asked C to take the mans arm and continue to hold pressure while I climbed into the back of the truck with the injured man. A pool of blood had already formed in the bed of the truck next to the man and mine and C’s glove covered hand prints were all over the tailgate and inside the truck walls. Three officers climbed into the back with me, the injured man, his friend and C, R, K and M. Right as we were all getting situated the driver floored it and I flew back into the tailgate slamming my back into my own bloody handprints that I had left from climbing in. I was wearing a tank top, white shorts and flip flops. My entire backside I would learn later was covered in blood. The driver then slammed on the brakes before he pulled into traffic and I was catapulted into the man, slamming my knee into the bed of the truck and into the pool of blood that had formed by his side. Everyone else in the back of the truck was sliding around but all I remember was my left knee bent in a pool of blood and directly under the mans right injured arm watching his flowing blood pour all over my legs. There was nothing I could do to stop the flow of blood. I was holding as much of his forearm as I could but the cut was so large that no matter what I did I couldn’t cover his whole gash. Literally his blood was spilling onto my legs and feet and the way I had been thrown into him I couldn’t move without slipping or losing grip on his arm which I felt was the most important part. I closed my eyes and prayed that I hadn’t made a mistake by helping this man and I immediately felt I was answered. Of course we did the right thing and again I felt ashamed but this time I felt that way for even thinking that what I did was wrong. This man would have bled to death. Plus, how could I discriminate against someone for having or not having HIV? Everyone is equal and that’s what I am here for, not to stigmatize, not to judge, but to love no matter who the person!
We arrived at the clinic and when I asked for someone to help the man off the truck none of the officers even glanced my way. I told the man that on the count of 3 we were jump together and he nodded. “1, 2, 3..” and then we hit the ground, his knees almost coming out from underneath him but thankfully he was strong enough to hold himself up. A wheelchair was brought outside for him and while I still held his arm he was wheeled through the waiting room. He left a trail of blood throughout the entire path and my bloody legs rubbed against one another. Once a trained person took over C and I were told to follow a woman into a room to wash up. C had blood on her feet and some on her arms as well and we both silently washed ourselves over a drain in the room with a bucket of warm water and gauze. R helped scrub the back of my legs and the places I couldn’t reach. At that moment as I watched the blood seep down the drain I felt sick. I felt sick for the way the police treated us, how they ignored the injured man, how the night had turned from fun to scary to heartbreaking. R called Peace Corps medical and our Doctor was sending a driver to pick us up and take us to the medical office. We waited out in the parking lot and shared our fears along with nervous laughter and jokes to hide the tears. R decided she needed for her own sanity to go back in the clinic and ask if the man would reveal his HIV status or be willing to take a rapid HIV test. She had also gotten some spattered blood on her feet and had a few bug bites and an open cut. K also had blood on her jeans and t-shirt and although M wasn’t aware if she had gotten any blood on her, we were all close enough that anything was possible. R came back with the news that we all feared but didn’t think possible. The man was HIV positive. I broke down in that very moment. I had been swimming in this mans blood, with bug bites and a couple small recently healed cuts around my ankle. The mans face flashed before my eyes. His kind and thankful eyes. Did we save his life and take our own?
If you’ve read this far then I hope you continue because like I said this story is a tragic story but also a happy one.
Currently myself and the 4 others girls are taking a drug called Combivir as a precaution in case any of us were infected with his blood. For two the drug makes their muscles ache and gives them headaches, for the other two it makes them incredibly exhausted and for me I have crippling nausea and fatigue. It has been a week and a day since the incident occurred and I have had many different feelings. I have wanted to go home, I have wanted to cry, I have wanted to scream. I have laid on the couch on my back in hopes that my nausea would go away only to lay there for hours with no relief. I have slept for 14 hours and when awoke still couldn’t get out of bed. After all this I am still here. I am still replaying that night in my head. This is what I think and if you don’t believe in God then you may think what I’m about to write is crazy but I’d love for you to read it anyways. I have been thinking, ‘What if I wasn’t robbed that night? Would anyone have helped that man? Would he have been left to die?’ So with those thoughts I have looked to God and I have thanked Him for putting me where I needed to be that night. I needed to be at that police station and I needed to look into that mans eyes and know that it was now or never for his life. If helping that man means I need to take medication that makes me tremendously sick for 28 days, then I will do it and I will do it proudly. I do not regret one second of that night. I am sorry that the night was filled with so much pain for me, for my friends, for that man and now for my family and friends back home that know what happened but I am not sorry for what we all did. Life is filled with suffering but sometimes I think “Without suffering there would be no compassion.”
To C, R, K ,and M: You are angels. If we weren’t already going to be in each others hearts before January 28th, 2011, we are now. You’re bound to me and I to you. Thank you for everything you are and represent and don’t ever forget that you’re heroes.