The Clinic That Had Almost Everything

A story and photographs by Natalie Ingle

Donathile's Health Clinic had everything it needed -- except clean water. But with our help, her patients aren't taking their medicine with dirty water anymore.

Donathile’s health clinic has everything. Two beautiful gardens and an avocado tree tended by a full-time groundskeeper. Cows milked daily. Roughly thirty egg-laying hens. Even a small collection of domestic rabbits to soothe anxious patients.

It’s really only missing one thing -- clean water.

Clad in the white uniform of a catholic nurse, the Director smiles easily. She runs out of English and I run out of Kinyarawandan at our first greeting. But then she discovers I speak French, and we throw ourselves into conversation, finally free of clumsy translation. L’anglais, c’est prochain, she jokes, fully hoping to be fluent in my language someday. And just like that, we’re fast friends.

Donathile’s clinic treats at least fifty patients a day, so I ask her to list the sort of problems they see: malaria, pneumonia, traffic accidents, respiratory distress due to mining, colds during the rainy season, and - always - stomach problems from drinking dirty water.

I know the water they sometimes use to swallow medicine, and it isn’t exactly clean.

Once upon a time, the clinic had plumbing. But a lot of the hardware disappeared during 1994’s genocide, Donathile says, and now the sinks are useless. What happened in the years before she became Director in 2007 is unclear. But her biggest achievement to date is buying and installing rainwater catchment tanks for the clinic to use during the rainy season. That covers half the year, anyway.

In the dry season, even the rainwater tanks are empty.

Ambulances sometimes shuttle patients from this clinic into the capital city, Kigali. When they come back, they bring Jerry cans full of clean water. But other times, clinic workers have to drive to the city to buy water for emergencies.

* * *

Despite it all, Donathile is clearly proud of the facilities when she gives me a tour. She points out the poster listing each staff member’s cell phone number next to his or her picture. The consultation room with its paper logbook. The maternity room, featuring one of the unusable faucets. The closet of bookshelves lined with malaria meds. Sparse but tidy patient rooms. Ubiquitous mosquito nets.

She tells me about contracting malaria while on vacation in 1989, when she was 45. She had to stay at the village dispensary for three weeks. She says she thought she was going to die.

As we walk, we’re interrupted by a patient who is clearly speaking gibberish. Donathile bends her head to the woman and responds in soft, conspiratorial tones. The patient grins, and we move on.

She stops beside a green contraption in the breezeway. It looks like a chair, but there’s a matching green plastic tub on the seat. Above it, hangs a Jerry can attached to a string. With a tug, water flows out for patients and staff to wash their hands. It does the job...when there’s water in it.

Donathile tells me that her next goal is obvious - to get clean, running water at this clinic. It would be mission accomplie, she says. They would have everything.

Shyorongi, the sector in which we’re standing, will indeed get access to clean water through charity: water’s September Campaign. All the clinics will have life-saving water flowing to their wards. Their faucets will finally work.

As we turn to go, Donathile gives me a big hug. By then, she says, with a toothy smile, we can try speaking English together.

Many of Donathile’s patients take medicine with dirty water. But if the 2012 September Campaign is successful, her clinic will soon have clean, running water.

You can provide life-saving clean water to the people who need it most. 100% of your contribution will fund water project costs in the field.