Washing Feet

NOTE: this is a cross-post from our team blog www.wordanddeedafrica.com that was written by our intern Alexis. Since it’s about Susan and her work at the feeding program I thought I’d share it here …but you really should be reading that blog!

Every Monday and Friday women and children from all over Gitega province walk to the hospital, sometimes from homes that are many hours away, to receive a meal and a 1kg bag of busoma from the hospital feeding program. And each Monday and Friday from 10-12:30, Susan and Annick set up a station in the corner of the feeding program pavilion to meet with people. Mamas (and a few Papas) come with problems and questions of all kinds. Susan shakes each person’s hand and listens to their concerns. She measures tiny arms and checks for other signs of malnutrition such as blonding hair and eyelashes, puffy cheeks, swollen bellies. Many of the people have questions about topics besides just malnutrition. Their eyesight is failing – can she get them in to see the ophthalmologist? Their baby has a bump on his head – should they see a doctor? Their child has been having constant diarrhea – can she give them de-worming medication? Sometimes people tell her about how their roof leaks in rainy season, that they are unable to buy notebooks for school, have no blankets to keep their child warm or no ability to produce milk for their infant. As Annick translates, Susan responds to each person to the best of her ability, knowing when someone really needs to see a doctor and when there are other ways to help. She gives out a blanket here, a jar of milk there, buys a hand-woven basket from a widow who needs that money to get through the week. She listens and responds, and even when there is nothing she can do to help, still at least someone has listened to them with a compassionate ear.  

Annick and Susan meeting with people at the feeding program
Susan with a baby that she helped to relocate and support after the baby’s mother died

The other aspect of what she does is basic wound care. Sometimes others from our team come and help with this, like myself, Stephanie, who is a trained nurse, and some of the older kids on the team as well. Susan has visitors bring Band-Aids, gauze, disinfectant spray, and antibiotic cream over from North America. Equipped with these items in her first aid kit, we do our best to clean, disinfect, and cover the various wounds that people present us with. Some of the wounds are terrible to look at, dirty and infected, caked around with dust from the roads, still unhealed from the time of injury many days or even weeks prior. 

A few weeks ago I was feeling discouraged about how much our wound care was actually helping. That day I had peeled off a Band-Aid from a wound I had cleaned and dressed the week before, and seen that it had barely healed. This is not at all an uncommon occurrence. Later that day, I shared my discouragement about this lack of healing progress with Dr. Rachel. She informed me that malnutrition is a large contributor to why many of these injuries heal so slowly. She told me that some of these injuries are systemic and that our care will not cure them without the underlying cause being remedied. Yet, Rachel also encouraged me by reminding me that the wound care that we are providing has more purpose than just treating the wounds themselves. It also demonstrates to the people who come that there is someone out there who cares enough about them to touch their dirty feet, their sores, and their imperfections. To clean them. To tend to them. Having someone take the time to care for them in this way can provide a different kind of healing to many of these people who may not receive that kind of interaction regularly. Susan told me once that one of the main reasons that she provides wound care is to build relationship. I can see now how caring for someone’s wounds can build relationship and trust even without using words. This is huge for those, like me, who can’t yet speak much Kirundi. 

Much of what I end up doing when helping with wound care at the feeding program is cleaning people’s feet. For these people living in desperate poverty, shoes are uncommon and they work daily in rocky fields and walk long distances down hard, dusty roads. Thus, many of their injuries are on their feet and it is very hard to keep those injuries clean. Using saline and gauze we clean out each wound and proceed to wipe away the layers of dirt around it before applying a sterile Band-Aid. About a week ago, while cleaning around an ulcer on someone’s ankle, an image came clearly to my mind. Can you guess what it was? The image of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples. I heard a Tim Keller sermon recently in which he said that in Jesus’ time touching someone else’s feet was considered a task that not even servants were allowed to be told to perform. From poverty and the dirty, dusty roads of Israel, people’s feet became so mangled and filthy that it was beneath the duty even of a slave to have to wash them for someone else. Yet, Jesus does it. 

John 13: 2-5 and 12-17 (NIV) says:
The evening meal was in progress, and the devil had already prompted Judas, the son of Simon Iscariot, to betray Jesus. Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God; so he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist. After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him…When he had finished washing their feet, he put on his clothes and returned to his place. “Do you understand what I have done for you?” he asked them. “You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. Very truly I tell you, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.

In this passage, the king of the universe stoops down and washes the feet of those that he loves so much, even though they are about to betray him. And he commands us to follow his example and to do the same. The wound care that Susan and others are doing at the feeding program is a very literal way to follow that command. Though in most situations, “washing someone’s feet” may not look like physically taking their foot in your hand and scrubbing, in the case of the work that is being done by people providing wound care at the feeding program, it does literally mean just that. What a beautiful and concrete opportunity to physically do for others what Jesus has metaphysically done for us.