Julia Nyirakamana cuddles her ailing daughter in the paediatric ward at the Butare Teaching hospital. The visibly disturbed Nyirakamana says her daughter Jacqueline Uwamaliya has Pneumonia.
But there is something more. Uwamaliya who looks like a three months old child but is actually 8 years old and weighs only 8 kilograms.
“She was born like any other child,” says Nyirakamana, “it was only after eight months that she developed a strange disease that rendered all of her limbs immobile. She has been bed ridden ever since,” says the mother of three.
The 55 year old says that her child’s predicament could have been as a result of giving birth at home.
“I never went to the hospital for antenatal check ups. Maybe I hurt the child at birth, maybe it was because of old age, she sadly speculates on.
On the bed next to theirs is Uwisabye, the only name provided by his mother. He was diagnosed with malaria and admitted in the children’s ward.
His bout of malaria was treated but after that, he lost his sight, speech and the ability to hear. He lies restlessly on his mother’s laps.
These and many other chilling experiences in the children’s wing at the Butare University Teaching Hospital spurred a group of over 100 university students into action.
The group, ‘Open Heart Team’, has taken it upon itself to reach out to those in need in the community.
“We are driven by a heart of helping those in need,” says team leader Yves Uwihoreye.
“We do not have much to give but the little that we have we give with an open heart,” he adds.
The Open Heart Team that is made up of university students conducts hospital visits twice a week. They forfeit their own share of food from the University canteen to deliver it to the hungry in the hospital.
“There are patients who go for days without food. There are those who have failed to get treatment because they lack as little as Rfw100. We feet that there is a way we can reach out to these people in such trying times so that even if we cannot meet all their needs we can comfort them and let then know that they are not alone in those trying moments,” said Leonard Semayira, a member of the team.
Every Monday and Friday evening, team members who have the time, carry along with them their share of University canteen food as they embark on Hospital tour.
“First, we agree on the wards to visit depending on the number of team members present. While there, we split into small group and start talking to patients,” said Claudine Umurerwa, a member of the team.
While in the wards, members inquire about problems patients face while at the hospital, whether they have been attended to by doctors, whether they have food to eat or if their families are aware of their hospitalisation.
“The problems are enormous. Some need a lot of money to buy prescribed medicines while some need very little for transport to go home after being discharged. With money from members and from well-wishers we meet some of these needs,” said Moise Niyitegeka, a member.
Open Heart Team members not only provide physical assistance but also meet spiritual needs. After offering words of encouragement and food to some, members pray for the sick and those looking after them.
“We not only encourage them to pray but also to forge solidarity amongst themselves. We encourage those who have food to share with those who don’t even if they don’t know them. We always ask them to borrow a leaf from our Team’s gesture,” said team leader Yves Uwihoreye.
The Team also conducts special visits once a month to meet particular needs. Outreach activities have also been extended to cater for the orphans, street children, child headed families and vulnerable people around the University community.
“We are appreciative of the good gesture shown by these students,” said Julia Nyirakamana, adding that, “despite the seemingly hopeless situation here; the comforting message these students give us creates hope in us. We are humbled.”