Around 3 am this morning, I was awoken by the padding of small paws on my chest. It was only the second time I have had a mammal crawling on me as I slept (the first time being a rat in Laos, ask me if you want to hear a very long story of that adventure). This time I am proud that I did not leap up and scream to wake the neighbors. I knew exactly who it was this time: the maybe-rabid kitten.
Last night the girls had a special evening program –a film about rabies, complete with graphic video of actual patients frothing at the mouth, screaming against their restraints, and acting, well, rabid. The staff here at My Refuge House felt it was necessary to get real about the disease, because the stray kitten that has been wandering the compound lately entered one of the dorms and bit two girls.
I have been told by earnest nurses at the travel clinic that I must always be within 24 hours of a rabies vaccination… any more delay and a bite would mean certain death. So I was very concerned when I found out that the girls, bitten on Thursday night, wouldn’t get treatment until Monday. That’s when the local clinic dispenses shots. (The private hospital charges $200 per shot, prohibitive for most people here.) The neighboring town refused to treat our girls, since they weren’t city residents. So we waited until Monday for shots that are subsidized by the government, ie, free.
It turns out that there’s a lot I didn’t know about rabies. You can wait for longer than 24 hours, especially if the bite or scratch is lower in the body (takes longer to work its way up to your brain). But of course the sooner the better. Shockingly, the virus sometimes can lay dormant in your body for years, apparently one poor man had it surface 30 years after exposure as a child. There are two kinds of rabies, "furious" (which is the kind of rabies we usually imagine, with agitated behavior, hydrophobia, and death after a few days, and "paralytic," in which the person’s muscles slowly start to become paralyzed, the person falls into a coma, and then eventually dies.
So on Monday I went with the girls and MRH’s nurse to the clinic. At least 40 people were in the waiting room by 9 am… Remember, this is a clinic exclusively for animal bites. Apparently, children are the most likely to be infected by rabies, and 55,000 people die every year from it, mostly in Africa and Asia.
The MRH nurse had to wait to get a number, and then wait two hours to get the shots. One girl got a tetanus shot thrown in as well. They have to go back Thursday and next Monday for more injections, and we have to watch the kitten to see if it dies. If it’s still alive by April 27 we are in the clear.
So my 3 am visitor was most unwelcome. She had jumped up through the open window to land in my bunk – and I knew I had to get her out if I wanted to sleep again. But I didn’t dare go near her, and she was clearly craving company, mewling and then stretching out and making herself at home next to the bed.
And I don’t have to point it out: she’s a cute kitten. I could see why the girls were saying “no, this kitten is not dangerous!” and still wanting to play with it. She is diminutive, with orange stripes, and wants to rub up against you. I’m sure she just wanted to snuggle (ya, maybe with a few rabid nips thrown in.) So I had to rely on that most versatile of production gear, my monopod, and chase her out.
Rabies is a disease that has been an afterthought for me, and I imagine, for most Americans. We don’t have stray dogs roaming the streets. Our pets have Halloween costumes and spa treatments. Pet owners are moralistic about spaying and neutering, and most of us are more concerned about infection from a bat. So it’s been yet another wake up call for me to see how disruptive this affliction is for so many people, and to think that people actually still die from this totally preventable disease.
The sad postscript to this story is that now the girls also are forbidden from playing with the puppies. Of course they can’t risk any more girls being exposed – staff time and school time all wasted in line at the clinic –but the puppies are so adorable.
The good news is that most of the puppies are already spoken for (the light brown one, George, is fought over by the girls and staffers alike) and will go to welcoming homes. Hopefully the same will be true for the questionable kitten.
I’m about 12 hours in to my 13 hour flight to Taiwan, sitting in 53K on Eva Air flight 017. Dicaprio’s Gatsby plays silently on the screen in front of me, the breakfast dishes have been cleared, and I managed to fitfully semi-sleep through much of the duration, woken once when I thought I heard our dog, Mochi, barking. Haha! Wrong.
From Taipei I will head straight to Cebu for seven weeks (with a week’s break in Taipei to meet Doug and zero out my visa.) This will be shoot #3, and the longest time I’ve spent in Cebu. It will also be the second round of participatory video training, this time to include editing. Editing is where your piles of footage becomes a movie and the girls truly get to become digital storytellers, so I have been looking forward to this for a long time.
I have also started reading Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn’s book, Half the Sky, and it bolsters my commitment to telling the stories of these girls. They estimate that worldwide, 2 million girls “disappear” because of sexual discrimination –be it through neglect, gender-selective abortion, delayed medical care, dowry killings, spousal homicide –basically, the devaluation of girls and women. The unequal treatment of women has always angered me, but the more I learn of the outrageous exploitation, the violence, the shocking inhumanity of forced child “brides,” of sex and labor traffickers, and of men against who act with such brutality toward their own wives and children, the more flabbergasted I am. How can people knowingly inflict such pain on other human beings? (To be clear, traffickers and abusers are also, sadly, women, who participate in violence against other women and girls for survival, status, profit, or out of their own emotional dysfunction). While Kristof has his critics, his reporting is extensive and and his storytelling is compelling, and I recommend his book. (I even bought a copy for the college girls, who are avid, serious readers).
The stories of the girls at My Refuge House traverse not only this unbelievable dehumanization, but also the positive proposition of Half the Sky --that educating girls will transform not only their lives, but their children’s and communities as well. I have now seen five of these girls graduate from high school and start college, tutoring and encouraging younger girls in the home. I’ve seen them be a great influence in their own families, encouraging younger siblings, connecting them to resources, and becoming positive role models. It’s not easy, and it’s not inevitable – a reality underscored by a few girls who have dropped out of the program and face a far tougher road ahead.
But Hope, Mandy, and Maggie are all studying social work, and plan to work toward helping children thrown into unfortunate circumstances, like themselves. Sara is working toward her criminology degree to become a police officer, and has developed a passion for penal reform. (Names are pseudonyms but aspirations are real.) In cold economic terms, the investment made in these young women will pay out across hundreds or thousands of lives in the next decades. On a personal level, they have gone from being treated as commodities, without rights or agency, to bright leaders who aspire to be agents of change.
Since starting this blog post, I have landed landed in Cebu, stocked up on construction paper and glitter glue (part of the video training) and managed to chip my tooth while flossing. (Ya, flossing. Weird.) I’ll be going to the house in a couple days to be catch up on the last few months and plan out the 7 weeks I will be here. Wifi is a bit slow there, so apologies if I don’t keep in touch as much as I should. But rest assured that the tenacity and humor of these girls will continue to inspire me throughout my time here, and I hope to bring back that energy and share it with all of you.