I was dealing with cultural differences until she pulled out the knife. Everyone knows that practicing tolerance when visiting another’s home is good manners. Before sending students abroad my university preaches ‘Not weird, just different’ for confronting culture shock. Many factors contribute to differences in how people live their lives and that deserves respect. We only have to compare the east and west coasts of the United States to know that. Nonetheless, when we take on the challenge of experiencing someone else’s world, we see how far we are willing to go before we reach something that stumps us.
On a cold day at the Huancarani health center, I thought little would really surprise me after spending a few weeks in Peru. That was until I heard a commotion down the hall and went to see what was going on. A worried mother came through the door with a one-year-old girl in her arms. The child had been burned by what was probably scalding water, and had a dreadfully raw area of exposed skin spanning across her chest and on top of her shoulders. Screaming her head off, every little move seemed like torture to her. Soon there were a few nurses and medical interns at her side inspecting the wound and discussing what to do. For one reason or another they decided not to wash it. They laid her down on the table and began cutting away the dead skin and applying antiseptic while the mother held her down.
Freja (a nearly graduated medical student from Denmark) shook her head a little as the two of us stood back by a speckled oxygen tank and a dilapidated chair. We were waiting to help should they need it, but just as they were about to lay on another gauze the door swung open. The father came in with a family doctor from their rural community. She had with her a green canvas bag from which she removed a knife and rather large guinea pig, fighting to escape from her grip. The guinea pig (or cuy) for all intents and purposes is a sacred animal in the ancient Andean tradition and everyone in the room knew what she wanted to do with it.
Immediately the nurses threw up their hands and there was an explosion of voices. The father scooped up his daughter and held her away from the bottle of antiseptic like it was full of poison. The family doctor shouted loudly in Quechua and took the cuy by the neck, giving it two twists, as one would pry a weed from the dirt, before the animal hung in her hands like a limp sack of flour. Finally one of the nurses took some semblance of control and told the father that they had years of medical experience and that their treatment was going to save his child while the cuy would only make her worse. The father, on the verge of tears, pleaded that this woman had just as much if not more experience in traditional medicine and had been with their family since the beginning.
Unnoticed by everyone the woman had used the knife to gut the poor rodent and pool a handful of blood in her palm. She dashed across the circle of people and dumped the red liquid onto the child, coating the burn. She stopped screaming. The healthcare staff was horrified and Freja turned her head in disgust. The family was ushered from the room and out of the building as they continued to, literally, wring out the dead animal onto the girl. It was over just as quickly as it had begun.
We tried to make sense of what had happened. On one hand this story could be told in retrospect as a satirical portrayal of a silly outdated culture that hasn’t yet come to grips with the modern times. At best the girl will sport an opaque scar for the rest of her life and be miserable until the skin heals over. On the other hand, however, a worst-case scenario is more serious. The child reacted positively when liquid was applied to the burn, and since the antiseptic would have only encourage pain without proper washing, the family probably thought the cuy blood was actually curing their daughter. After the clash in the health care center, they would most likely not return even as their child got worse. Dehydration, foreign liquids, and living conditions where the level of sanitation is next to nil could mean a massive infection spreading over ten percent of her body and without medical attention could be fatal to a one year old. That’s a dead kid.
Cultural sensitivity should be utilized regardless of profession, but this is the gordian-knot-esque conundrum faced by any and all who pursue a career in the field of international affairs. How do you react when the opposing cultural practice falls so far outside your own bounds of reality that it has no chance of being tolerable? When there seems to be no way of calling it anything other than ‘wrong’. At the sight of the woman striding towards the child, blood in hand, there was a little voice in the back of my head telling me to stop her. Yet I have been told that to act on that voice would be to cross a cultural boundary and step on a set of norms where I have no right to be. I ask myself, “If I were really living on two dollars a day, away from modern medicine and immersed in an ancient Incan culture, wouldn’t I believe that to work too?” With the potential fate of the child’s worst case scenario in mind, I’m not sure I can believe that line to be uncrossable.