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Fall 2023 newsletter

Anna Johnson, Tanzania


With Rachel at Huruma School in Mwanza

In my mid-teens, it was the words of Henry David Thoreau that first spoke to me about simplicity. “Our life is frittered away by detail,” he wrote. “Simplify, simplify, simplify!” To which Thoreau’s good friend and contemporary Ralph Waldo Emerson so fittingly replied, “One ‘simplify’ would have sufficed.”

Last week I spent two full days at Mwanza’s Bugando Medical Center (the largest hospital in eastern Tanzania) with one of my students, Rachel, from Huruma School. As a nurse used to working in U.S. hospitals, the scenes at Bugando sometimes feel to me like they are right out of a movie: overcrowded hallways and waiting rooms, babies suffering from hydrocephalus and malnutrition, a child with stitches covering her entire face from an accident I cannot even begin to imagine.

Rachel with the physical therapist and Auntie Rachel.

Oddly enough, there is a sort of chaotic order here that the locals seem to understand — but I do not. My Swahili is still very poor, and I only understand perhaps 40 percent of what is being said. The family I am accompanying has never been to a hospital of this size before, and they are completely overwhelmed. I feel like it’s the blind leading the blind.

Yet somehow over the course of those two days, we succeed in seeing the pediatrician, visiting the ear, nose and throat specialist, and going to the lab. We leave the hospital with a small package of anti-seizure medications that, quite honestly, I’m not sure the family is able to afford. I promise to follow up with them in two weeks to see how Rachel is doing.

There was nothing simple about those two days at Bugando. They were filled with complications, setbacks and frustrations. On mission, nothing seems simple. In fact, to be honest, being in Tanzania often feels like anything but simple on a daily basis — not just for me, but even more so for the many people who live here.

I look in awe at Rachel’s aunt, who took Rachel in at 4 years old when her mother died, despite knowing that Rachel would face a lifetime of challenges and need a lifetime of care (with no help from the government) with her diagnosis of cerebral palsy.

Auntie Rachel, with four children of her own, did not “simplify” her life by taking on a niece with a physical and mental disability. Or did she? How easy would it have been to focus on all the details of taking in Rachel: the financial burden, the community stigma, the day-to-day challenges of having a child with a disability under her care. When asked why she took in her niece with cerebral palsy, she tells you: Taking in Rachel was simply the right thing to do.

Auntie Rachel gives me inspiration as I navigate the medical system in Tanzania, often feeling like I have more failures than successes. Instead of getting caught up in the details of what is frustrating, what didn’t work or what I wish would happen, I remind myself that helping families obtain medical care for their children is simply the right thing to do.

Rachel playing with friends at Huruma School

How often do I let my life (and my ministry here in Tanzania) get “frittered away by details”? How often do I focus on the complications and frustrations, the urgent but the unimportant? Of course, some things do matter and some things really are important (making sure my students are getting the correct medical care matters and advocating on their behalf matters!).

Being able to sift through what appears important and what truly is, is not always an easy task. But whether we take the wordier advice of Thoreau or the more succinct council of Emerson, the message remains the same: Simplify. Simplify. Simplify.

From this place of simplicity we can respond to the world with more clarity, compassion and love. As we get caught up less in the details, we will find ourselves able to show up for others more often and more fully because (as Auntie Rachel so aptly put it) it is simply the right thing to do.

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Anna Johnson
Anna Johnson provides healthcare to children living with disabilities at Huruma School in Mwanza, Tanzania. Together with her husband, Kyle, and their three children, she joined Maryknoll Lay Missioners at the end of 2022. She is a registered nurse.