Margaret Nalubega is missing a finger. When you first see her, it’s not one of the first things you notice. The 57 year old has a crinkled smile with deep eyes and is fond of wearing bright colors, but she has a habit of hiding her right hand sheepishly when she talks. But the story of Margaret’s missing thumb is a story that encapsulates the pain in Margaret’s life.
21 years ago, Margaret’s husband fell ill. His ankles started to swell dramatically, to the point that he couldn’t put on his shoes and had trouble walking. With constant nausea and vomiting he was unable to farm. So this became Margaret’s responsibility.
With no money to afford a proper doctor, they did the best they could. Ronald spent every day lying on the one double-size mattress the family had to share, while Margaret would go into the fields tending to the sweet potatoes and avocado the family planted on their acre of land.
Margaret and Ronald had 6 children. With time, Ronald’s kidneys started to fail. He used to be able to tend to the children inside the home, but now the child rearing and planting and harvesting and selling their produce at the local market was in Margaret’s hands.
Margaret remembers feeling stressed. “All my friends had several children as well, but they received help from their husbands – or their husbands would do the farming. I barely had time to sleep. I felt like I was taking care of 7 children now.”
Margaret noticed what looked like a pimple on her hand one day, as she was sitting in the sun, clearing dirt off a potato she had just pulled from the ground. ‘So silly, that at my age I should get a pimple on my finger’ she thought to herself.
A week later the pimple was still there. A month later it became enflamed, nearly the size of a golf ball. It was dark red and blue and hot, full of puss.
She wrapped a wet rag around it and prayed it would go away. Her friends told her to go into Kampala to see a doctor but she couldn’t. Ronald was dying. Her 6 children needed her. She couldn’t find a friend to watch over her children for an overnight trip to the city.
Ronald died 8 months after the boil appeared on Margaret’s hand. His liver was damaged because of his affinity for alcohol, which only ended up accelerating his kidney failure.
Margaret herself dug the grave – with one hand.
6 children to raise, the youngest just 4 years old. All on her own.
Her neighbors came by as she was digging the grave to offer her sympathy and produce from their fields.
One woman offered to care for her children while she went to Kampala to tell Ronald’s relatives he had passed away. She took the remaining shillings they had saved together, before they were told how expensive treatment was, and sealed it away in her pocket, hoping it was enough to cover the medicine for her thumb.
After spending time with Ronald’s family, Margaret found her way to a small clinic in a Kampala slum. ‘Your finger is so infected’ the young doctor scolded her. “Why did you not get treatment earlier? Maybe we could’ve saved it!”
But it was no use explaining her daily life for the past year to this doctor. Margaret burst into tears. It was the first time she cried in over a year, since she realized her husband’s illness was fatal.
‘We either have to amputate the finger now or the infection will spread and you will come back to me in a few months and I’ll have to amputate your whole hand.” He said sternly.
Both options felt terrible to Margaret. She panicked. She lost her husband and now she would lose her finger!
The doctor amputated her finger that night. Without sterilization or anesthesia. She howled and screamed. She let out the pain and stress and frustration and anger she had felt in the last year. Most of all, the sadness. Yes, sadness was what she felt. She never imagined her life this way.
She walked the 10-hour journey back to her village. She cried, she screamed. She didn’t care if anyone would think she was crazy.
I spoke to Margaret last week. Margaret is Sundara’s oldest employee in Uganda. She cares for 2 of her children and 7 of her grandchildren, all in her own house that she has built out of cow dung, sticks and mud.
I tell her she should be retired by now. She has no idea what the term ‘retire’ means and I feel foolish for explaining the concept. ‘I’m always going to take care of someone!” she laughs. Sadly, this is the reality for most women in Uganda.
She points to her finger. “Besides, look at this thing!”
Yet, where others see pity and sympathy, Sundara sees opportunity and hope.
Soap recycling doesn’t require all 10 fingers: it just requires a willingness to work hard, promote health and empower the community.
Margaret does just that. In particular she loves distributing the recycled soap to her neighbors and teaching them about hygiene. “Maybe if I had learned these things earlier if maybe my finger would still be here,” she wonders…
With her regular salary that she gets from recycling soap and working on the weekends at Bukompe camp as a hygiene ambassador she has done something she always thought would’ve been impossible: she has been able to pay the school fees of all 7 of her grandchildren.
Margaret wasn’t able to send any of her own children to school. After Ronald died her children had to help her with the farming. Her daughters would sell the potatoes at the market and her sons collected the water and helped her plant new seeds. Now they are all farmers themselves, with families of their own. None of them know how to read or write their own names.
But at age 57, Margaret is breaking the cycle of poverty.
“It is my dream that my grandchildren won’t suffer the way I did. They will be more than a farmer one day: they will go to the city and get a job. Or they will go to technical school; they will have skills.”
And, perhaps most importantly ‘They will have the money to take care of their health and their family.”
Margaret is proud of the fact that she can help others. “All my life I was waiting for someone to come and save me. My husband, my neighbors, my doctor. But no one came.”
She suddenly grins and turns to face me, “Oh, look at me,” she clasps her hands together with mine. “Here I am. I saved myself!”
Photo credit: Jjumba Martin