It’s a funny thing, this concept of immunity. I’m teaching about it in my Form 2 Biology class. It’s quite fascinating how our bodies react to pathogens to build up antibodies in order to protect us from future harmful micro organism invasions. In essence, our bodies’ immune systems are so intelligent that they are able to provide us with protection against future disease. Or in some cases, with the help of a few vaccines, or in my case MANY, our bodies are even further strengthened. However, I fear, that is what is happening to mind; I feel immune to things lately. So many devastating things have happened in my community this week, and yet, I feel immune to it all. Just like an over vaccinated body, has my mind experienced too many traumatic events that now I cannot feel anything?
The teacher I wrote about earlier this week died today. He succumbed to the dreaded disease that is afflicting so many people in Africa. The region I live in, Nyanza province, has the highest AIDS rate in all of the country (16% compared to the national average of 7.4%). This is due to a variety of factors including cultural practices (wife inheritance, polygamy, no male circumcision) and social concepts (AIDS stigma, refusal to use condoms, the topic of sex being taboo). The teacher that referred to his housewife as a housefly, who spent his salary on the local brew, who refused to be tested for HIV, died of AIDS. And while no one here will say it out loud, they all know, he died of the most stigmatized disease of all. I was shocked that he died, but not surprised.
A few days ago, one of my favourite Form 2 students, who is my neighbour, confessed that she was raped on her walk back from school one night. We live about a 50 minute walk away from school and our houses follow a shaded, winding, rocky path away from the main road. The students and teachers must be at school at 6:40am and leave school at 5:20pm (or sometimes much later). With a stop at the market or a few mandatory Kenyan greetings to random passerby, this results in often walking to and fro school in the dark. To my great horror, my 15 year old student was raped on her walk home. I was saddened, but not surprised.
And to top off this week, I found out my top Form 3 student is pregnant. Despite people from every direction preaching abstinence, despite my urgings to use condoms, despite her better judgment, one of the brightest girls in the school must drop out. She’s just 16 years old and will soon be a mother. She is the third student in Form 3 to drop out of school in the past 3 months due to pregnancy. I was disappointed, but not surprised.
Because I haven’t been surprised that any of this has happened, because I’m not crying over a dead colleague, because rape and early pregnancy seem to be a common occurrence, am I now too immune to cry, to empathize, to feel? I’m terrified that I’ve lost my ability to show emotion. I remember when I first got here, how strange I thought it was that Kenyans do not show emotion. They give handshakes, they don’t hug. They sometimes get frustrated, but never furious. They may laugh in public, but they certainly do not cry. But now I’m starting to understand. They don’t show emotion because their bodies have built up a defense mechanism against the pain that comes along with the seemingly common events of death, rape, and so many more daily problems associated with poverty. It’s much easier to be indifferent towards something than be emotionally, physically, mentally drained from all the various challenges. However, I’m nervous that all these awful events, instead of making me feel motivated to make a change, are making me feel nothing. I fear that I’m turning into the tin man who has lost a heart. So, rather than scurrying off to Emerald City hand in hand with Dorothy, Toto, a scarecrow and a lion, how am I supposed to get my heart back? Or is my body, like my strengthened immune system, doing what is best and protecting me from future pain?