Thursday, August 28, 2008

"We don't offer that service"

On Friday, I left the Internews office around noon to go home for lunch. As I walked from our office to the main road, there was a group of six people standing around a man lying on the ground.

When I got to the scene, I asked if the man, whose name I later found out was Adrien, was OK. No response. One of the bystanders went up to the man and poked him a few times to see if he was sleeping. He wasn’t, he was unconscious. The crowd stood there. Some people walked away.

I tried to call 112, the Rwandan equivalent of 911. Even though 112 only applies to the police, I thought that if we could get them here, they could take him to the emergency room at the hospital, only five minutes away by car. 112 wasn’t working. I tried to get through ten times, no answer. I ran back to the office to tell our security guard. He said, “this happens all the time.” No big deal for him.

I ran back to the scene and a security guard from the neighbouring Novotel, one of the top hotels in Kigali, had come over. I asked him repeatedly to call someone to come and help Adrien. He must know someone to call in case of an emergency, he’s a security guard! Adrien then started to regain consciousness, saliva dripping from both sides of his mouth. Eventually he called his supervisor and then moved Adrien to the other side of the street where he thought there was more shade.

I told the security guard I would be right back. I went to the Novotel to get a bottle of water. When I went past the front desk, I got the attention of one of the female staff members who was checking in a guest. I told her there was a very sick man on the street beside the hotel who needed help and I asked if she could call someone to take him to the hospital. With no sense of urgency, as though it happens everyday, she said, “Yes, I will. Thank you.” Then, she went back to checking in her new guest.

When I went back to the scene, Adrien was sitting hunched over, back against a wall. I opened the water, handed it to him, and he drank the whole bottle in 3 gulps. Then, I asked the Novotel security guard where his supervisor was. He pointed to across the street, where I saw the supervisor watching everything transpire. The Novotel is located on the other side of the street, but raised about four metres above the road. I went over and shouted up to him, “can you call an ambulance or someone to take this man to the hospital?” “We don’t offer that service,” he replied.

So I went back to the office and got Valentin, one of our cameramen/editors. I explained everything to him and he came back with me to see what we could do. When we got back to Adrien I got Valentin to translate for me. He asked Adrien what happened and Adrien said that he fell and that he has a brain disorder. He said he has family in the area and that he was going to visit them, but he was so disoriented he had trouble explaining to us exactly where.

Then, a guy (I’m pretty sure he said he was in town from Uganda) came over and stopped to see what was going on. He said, “I help people like this all the time,” and gave him a 2000 RWF bill and went on his way.

Finally, I put my foot down and said, “We have to get this person transport to a hospital right now.” Adrien then told us that his hospital was in Kinamba (?), near the airport. At this point, he was sitting up more than before, still hunched a bit, but was able to hold himself up somewhat. A couple of minutes later, a moto driver came by and agreed to take him to the hospital for 1000 RWF. Probably not the safest modes of transportation of a sick person at the moment, but given the heat (one of the hottest days in the last two months), and the fact that, by that point, he could stand up, we decided to send him on his way.

To this day, I’m still astonished, and angered, by everything that transpired in those 45 minutes (and if you saw me at home right after this incident, my housemates would say I was “livid”). I just couldn’t get my head around it. I know that sometimes there are people that lie on the side of the road here because they are doing manual labour nearby and are taking a nap. And there are even some who might be faking sick to get money. But this was not the case and it was obvious. In a country where I’ve seen nothing but people helping people and people looking out for one another during my time here (something that Rwandans are known for), what made this situation different? Why didn’t any of the 20-30 that passed by in those 45 minutes (as well as during the time before I arrived) try to help Adrien?

That question then led me to think of all those times we hear in the news – all over the world -- of people turning their heads in the other direction when their fellow citizens are in distress. The problem is universal. What propels people to make the conscious decision to cover their eyes to the plight of their fellow citizens?

I don’t know, but maybe you do, so feel free to share you comments below.

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