When sleeping becomes unbearable

A review by humedica volunteer Susanne Hausmann

by Susanne Hausmann,  2015/11/25

In the prisons of many developing countries fair jurisdiction and optimistic future prospects are rare. Desperately overcrowded penal institutions force people to live under disastrous hygienic conditions with no privacy at all. Medical treatment is generally non-existing.

To restore at least some of the inmates´ dignity and to treat concrete diseases, several times a year humedica sends voluntary medical teams into project countries all over the world. Most recently an intervention team went to Togo to help detainees in several prisons. Medic student Susanne Hausmann from Tübingen in Germany was one of them:

„Together with my eight humedica team-mates I set out to Western Africa in mid-October to provide medical support for inmates in the small state of Togo. Our group consisted of five medics and three caretakers. I completed the team as medical student and „youngster“.

Out project partners already awaited eagerly our arrival in the capital. humedica has a longstanding, close partnership with the organisation Prison Fellowship Togo (PF) led by pastor Anani Martin and Omi Eric Agbokou. Numerous volunteers form the backbone of PF Togo, some of which accompanied our intervention. We came to provide medical care for two weeks – they engage for better conditions of detention in Togo the whole year round.

The capital Lomé was our point of departure. From there a very long route lead us up to the North and back again. Our drives to the prisons were in parts very bumpy and adventurous. We were sitting pent-up in two vans in the middle of loud gospel music and singing Togoleses. Sometimes we had to drive on for hours to reach the next destination city. But that also offered the possibility to become more familiar with Togo and its people.

On our way we saw many houses and buildings dating from the colonial period, which called to mind the German past of the former „protectorate“. Colonization at the end of the 19th century also brought the Christian faith into the country. Today about 29 per cent of the inhabitants profess to Christianity, 20 per cent to Islam. Apart from that traditional natural religions such as the Vodoo cult play a crucial role spreading fear and terror among the people down to the present day.

In the penal institutions, we were confronted with infectious diseases typical for this region such as pneumonia, malaria and urinary infections, but also an especially high percentage of skin diseases. As the inmates have to sleep and live together in an excruciatingly confined space, many prisons are downright contaminated with cutaneous fungus and scabies. In front of our medical tables and the provisional pharmacy people quickly formed a long queue, which seemed to be never ending. But also the influence of the Voodoo religion was omnipresent. Many prisoners had numerous scars of cuts inflicted on them as children to protect them against the evil influence of the ancestors. For us it was unconceivable what fears harrow these people day by day.

When I come back after a humedica intervention people often ask: “How´d it go?” or “Do you think it was worth the effort?”. Sometimes I have difficulty answering these questions. There were so many gratifying moments revealing the thankfulness of the patients. As for example a convict could not believe his eyes, when he looked through his new glasses and could see clearly for the first time in years. Or when we as a group entered a prison and hundreds of people gathered in the courtyard clapping cheerfully to strike up a welcome song for us.

But there were also very frustrating situations. In two penal institutions visited by us the scabies infestation was so serious that our remedies were insufficient. We had to send away people who were suffering from dreadful itching and had come to us full of hope.

It is important to be clear of the fact that no one is able to solve all medical challenges in the prisons within two weeks. But you can´t measure the success of our invention by the number of treatments or distributed medicaments. It is not that simple. We already know by now that many people in Togo have been imprisoned for years without having ever passed a fair court hearing.

They told us that in the night they had to crouch down and lean on the wall to sleep, because there were so many people penned up in these crowded spaces. So for me there is no need for any further question. Yes, it was worth the effort. For everyone of them, for everyone of us.”

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