How we deal with illness is fascinating to me. In working on the ambulance, I saw hundreds if not thousands of people going through the process of being ill or incapacitated. At the time, I thought about how some people seemed more cheerful, some more faithful, some optimistic, some crabby, some pessimistic. I didn’t think about how cultural each of those reactions is.
We went to visit a sick man in the village. It was the most awkward experience I’ve had here, so far. (That includes teaching sex ed to teenagers…)
As far as I can tell, the culture around illness goes something like this. “You are about to die. Deal.” It seems that serious illness, or anything more interesting than a flu, is cause for everyone around you to stop all activity and wait to see if you’ll die. It makes sense I suppose, where there is no medicine, no doctor and no real knowledge of germ theory any illness is potential fatal.
We went to visit our sick chief between classes at school. We stopped by and were promptly sent into the house. I had to go in, despite my best efforts to sneak away to the kitchen. We were sat close to the sickman, though not too close. Then silence reigned. There were five other people in the room, all sitting and staring at him. Silently. Not doing anything else, just staring.
People would come and go, quietly and with a minimum of conversation. That is very unusual here. Normally, greetings and partings are shouted back and forth and given to even the smallest of children. The only person to directly address the sickman did so slowly and repeated himself over and over. The sickman himself seemed perfectly alert. He was moving around on the bed, sitting up and lying down, drinking water and following the movements of people in the room, yet all any one did was stare at him.
In Bislama, they ask if you’ve “gone to look at the sick man.” They really do mean, go look. I guess it is partially a show of support to come and be with him for a bit, in the same way I might go bring a meal to a chronically or severally ill friend in the US. Except there, people chat and make small talk, here it was just staring.
It was interesting to see this side of dealing with illness. He is surrounded by his community and extended family. He is literally not left alone. He isn’t required to interact with people, he isn’t required to show gratitude or fortitude. His job is to be sick. And to be stared at. Everyone around him fills the roles of being stoic, being worried, being tired, being optimistic. His job is only to be ill.
It is a different way of dealing with the whole situation and one that interests me. I would prefer to be interested from a distance next time. It really was that awkward.