From the Road: A Man Named Lucky; Adventures In Africa
It was an unusually warm Wednesday afternoon, and while I knew I was being picked up by a man named Lucky, I was unsure of his car, or where exactly we would meet. Awkwardly standing on the street corner close to the beach in Durbin, South Africa, I peered into the oncoming traffic hoping to see a familiar face, while knowing all along I wouldn’t know his face.
My knees jammed uncomfortably against the dashboard, I made the little conversation I knew how. “World Cup start tomorrow huh?” I said sheepishly. I knew the South African team was named ‘Bafana Bafana’ but it still sounded too funny in my head to say out loud to a local. As we made our way through the early morning traffic and slowly climbed out of the city and away from the coast, we talked more about the day and how we had ended up together.
One week earlier, while killing time in a small hotel room in Cape Town, I had half heartedly googled “leprosy in Africa” and was shocked at the loads of results. It turns out, to my surprise, that behind India and Brazil, South Africa had one of the highest rates of leprosy on Earth. I had always been fascinated by the disease and after spending a couple days shooting a story about the disease in India years earlier, I had always wanted to continue the story, and what better time to do it than during my adventures in Africa?
Three days after my impromptu googling, two cheap plane rides, an overpriced hotel and some finger foods later, here I was, in a car with Lucky for the day, to see the life of a field doctor – the only doctor in the province with leprosy medication, and over 30 people to care for. Pulling into Prince Mshiyeni Memorial Hospital I was unsure as to what we would find inside. Lucky had been sparse about the days itinerary, possibly to keep me guessing, but most likely to let the day unfold and let me take it in as it happened.
Inside the hospital we entered a dark room which was used as a full time storage unit and only part time as Lucky’s office. He would stop by a couple times a month to file reports and pick up more medication but his real office was his little beat up Toyota Carolla and his place of work the open, winding roads of Kwazula Natal.
Pulling into our first stop, a small township on the outskirts of Durbin, Lucky informed me we would be visiting an elderly woman whom had not only contracted leprosy but was also suffering from diabetes and tuberculoses. As her tuberculoses was more of a threat to her health, and the various medications off set each other, she had chosen to cut out the leprosy medications and only treat her tuberculoses, and to be honest, who could blame her.
Her house was surprisingly clean and while thickly decorated with delicate porcelain figurines, brightly colored paintings and dust covered family photos, it was very comfortable and while 10,000 miles from anything I knew, strangely felt a little like my own grandmothers home I had spent so many summers in growing up as a child.
“Does this hurt?” I could faintly make make out him saying over the blaring commercials on the small static covered TV in the corner. “Yes, every day, like always.” the woman responded. Trying my best to be sensitive, communicate to her with my eyes, and gain insight into her plight, I sat in quiet and felt as a fly on the wall in this sweet woman’s home, unable to stop feeling sorry for her and the pain she had to suffer daily.
And so the day went. One by one we stopped by the houses, apartments and huts of those affected by this disease. A small child crying in a clay plastered home unable to blink because his optic nerves were slowly loosing their ability to shut his own eyelids. A young woman living in a crowded apartment with her friends, unable to feel her fingers, constantly burning herself while preparing daily meals. And the old man living in a thatch hut, far from any paved road or cell phone tower, unable to walk from the deep ulcers in his foot – made worse by months of neglect at the advice of the village shaman, who shunned the advances of modern medicine.
Sweat slowly fell off the tip of my nose as we reached the paved road from the path we had been walking on since before the sun set. Lucky’s beat up car now felt like a chariot and I was thrilled to put my camera bag in the back seat and enjoy the ride back to town. “It’s a hard job” Lucky said, “but I wouldn’t want to do anything else, these people need my help and I am the only one to help them.” Only hours after meeting earlier in the morning, after the long day of visits across the region I now felt like we were best friends.
Our conversation, lively at first, slowly dissolved into silence as the hours passed, and by the time we entered the city limits, we had both been lost in reflection for the majority of the ride. Thoughts and feelings filled my head as we neared the street corner he had picked me up at. So much to say – yet no words escaped my mouth. Filled with gratitude that Lucky had taken me on this journey, I hugged him goodbye and, camera bag flung over my shoulder, quickly ran to the curb as Lucky continued on home to greet his wife and child for dinner.
I quickly ran to my room and immediately downloaded my memory cards from the days adventure. Pictures, videos, interview clips were organized and hastily thrown into order and his story, if only from today, was placed to music; his quotes and thoughts organized for others to read. This was how I knew to process the day, to organize what I had captured into a story, a visual poem to share with the world, it was the only way I was able to experience in full, what I had witnessed that day.
And for Lucky, it was just another Wednesday. Thursday would be no different, nor would next week or next month. He quietly criss crossed the region with his briefcase of medicines, his kindness and attentiveness, notebooks and knowledge, as he kept track of those affected from Leprosy each and every day. He was the only doctor who did this, the only one with the medicine, the only one who cared. He carried the weight, wellbeing and comfort of dozens upon his shoulders but to him it was a gift and meant to be “because my name is Lucky.” I remembered him saying – because to him, he was.
Safe travels, Jeff