REED HOME Gryphon icon
Feature Story
reed magazine logoAutumn 2007
Building roof on structure Hotlin Onuggu, dentist

Hotlin Onuggu, Health in Harmony’s dentist.

“I believe we have a responsibility
to save the last scraps of nature.
And around the last scraps of nature there will always be conflict.”
—Campbell Webb

WEBB CAN’T GET VERY FAR IN TOWN without being begged for a quick consult. The local constable complains of his bad back; a woman wants her birth control implant removed; is it true, a man asks, that we can pay for care at the clinic with our strong bodies? 

But few get as much of her attention as the gaggle of kids who show up at Webb’s Spartan bungalow one night just as we are finishing dinner. Four of them, from the squatter settlement down the road, haven’t eaten yet. In a well-practiced exercise, they trundle through to the back yard to wash their hands in a bucket, then march dutifully back into the kitchen while Webb dishes out generous portions of rice from her electric cooker.

The kids sit in a circle on the rough-hewn floorboards and serve themselves leftover eggplant, cabbage, and cucumbers with onion. For the next ten minutes, there is little sound but forks and spoons dragging on plates. Webb keeps an eye on the kids from the kitchen table. “I probably do it two or three times a week,” she says casually. Sometimes she kicks them out without offering any food. “When I started doing it in January, I dished out this huge helping of rice for Dodot,” she says, gesturing to a small boy with spiky hair and bright eyes. “I thought, ‘There’s no way he can eat this.’ But he gobbled it up.” 

At 12, Dodot is woefully short for his age, and Webb is pretty certain he has active TB. She is waiting to start a nurse-observed treatment program, but she wants to make sure Dodot can follow the intensive drug regimen.

The malnourishment she treats here, on the kitchen floor. “Hopefully, we caught it in time,” she says. “Usually, by 12, you’ve done a lot of your growing and it’s too late to catch up, no matter how much eating you do.”

After the kids finish, they pile onto a chair in the corner and Webb brings out a beach ball painted with a map of the world. They find Indonesia—a painstaking endeavor—and then, with a little help, Portland, Oregon. After 30 minutes of chit-chat, she grows weary and sends them back out into the night.

For Webb, this is an all-consuming vocation, with few perks. She has only recently agreed to take a salary, after two years building the organization; her escape from the prying, parochial community where she’s set up her clinic is the sleepy mill town of Ketapang (pop. 30,000) two hours to the south, where at least there’s a hair salon. Still, there is a vision slowly lifting off the ground here and that seems to be what sustains her. “There’s an old Australian aboriginal saying: ‘If your liberation is tied up with ours, then come help us,’” she says. “I see my own liberation as part of this. Treating these people is highly rewarding for me.”

And so with the kids gone, she turns to hand-writing out two dozen thank-you notes to major donors. There’s also e-mail to send to an opthalmologist in the U.S.—Webb is trying to figure out how to treat a patient with a mysterious white cloud in one eye. The man has been earning health care credits by working, in anticipation of the eye treatment he’ll get. Webb’s message goes out over the cell phone network, achingly slowly, bit by bit, another small step toward a different future at the edge of the rain forest in Sukadana.

reed magazine logoAutumn 2007