Sunday, February 17, 2008

lost but hopefully not forgotten

It has been over a month since I last posted. Much has happened and I am struggling with where to begin. Rather than wait any longer I will simply put some words on the page and see what happens.

A journey across this massive continent, another battle with malaria, meeting new friends, saying good-bye to old ones, touching group sessions, warm welcomes, tragic losses, exciting beginnings, pending transitions……they all seem important yet oh so disconnected from one another.

But I digress, let us begin….


Very early on in my ‘Tuesday’ posts I wrote about a tendency I have to personify the places I visit: seeing countries as people, if you will. Given I have had the opportunity to meet a few more interesting characters in this place we call planet Earth, I will take a moment to describe a few on my new cherished friends:

Madame Guinea is a serious lady who has an enchanting effect on those she meets. Stunningly beautiful, tall, perfectly put together and exceptionally aware of the impact she has on people, she doesn’t bother approaching others for what she needs and rather waits to be approached. On the streets you won’t hear her yelling after foreigners or asking for handouts: she is reserved, proud and a bit standoffish. Observing these aforementioned qualities, she is no fool and is well aware that life is not easy. Her childhood was filled with tough times, poverty and dangerous encounters and she has promised herself she will not be duped by anyone ever again. She has learned with time that beauty such as hers can be used to manipulate situations and does not hesitate to do it, given the opportunity. If you are lucky enough to find her at dusk with the sun dancing in her hair and the moon just beginning his desperate search for her, you will very likely see her surrounded by a number of admirers trying to impress her with their flashy cars and Rolex watches while trying to nestle up to her long neck soaked with a faint sent of lilacs. She is a charmer indeed and will very likely place a spell on anyone who crosses her path.

Brother Morocco is a complicated fella. Berber by decent he is tough, weathered and hard working. As a small child he loved to play a small hand drum that was given to him by his grandfather. Together with a troupe of friends he used to run tirelessly through the labyrinth of alleys that make up his familiar market and he would play until the sun rose sheepishly over the Atlas Mountains. Every morning he loads his cart full of goods to be sold at the market and rides slowly down his rocky mountain route with his faithful donkey. In the market he pursues shoppers relentlessly and tries to take visiting foreigners for all they got. He does this not out of cruelty or maliciousness but rather because he sees the act of bargaining as a game and views each new customer as a new opponent in a complicated game of strategic trickery. A sucker for the ladies, he can’t help but flirt with each and every one that crosses his path. His only wish is that these women were aware that he does this not because he views them as sexual objects; but, rather because this is what has been modeled to him by his uncles and cousins. Collectively they have decided it is their right to openly comment on the beauty that awes them. But do not be mistaken, brother Morocco is a romantic at heart and hates to see the annoyed look on the faces of the women with whom he is so enamored. What to do? He knows nothing else and is resistant to change. At night, under candlelight, he reads poetry and philosophy and periodically visits ‘la place’ to listen to local music and ruminate about the things he has read. Every night he dreams of meeting the love of his life and making mad passionate love to her in his cozy little mountain cabin.

King Cairo’s reputation precedes him and it is true no one should question the dynasty that is Egypt. Given many of his discoveries and creations still exist and remain inspirational yet unexplainable after 3500 years, no one dares to stand and challenge his prowess. His contemporary version of self is a slim well dressed bachelor that likes to smoke apple Shisha at night while hanging out with a close group of male friends. During the day he prays faithfully, visits his mosque and unabashedly believes in God and family. He drives a simple car but works hard and dreams of a stylish upgrade. He rarely uses his head lights at night and fully appreciates the chaos of his city’s traffic. Sarcastic and exquisitely witty with friends and loved ones, he is serious and statuesque in his professional life. Ready to treat his partner as the queen she deserves to be, his found wife will not be left wanting for anything but she will need to learn the rules of the household. If she integrates well, she will live a very comfortable and coddled life filled with precious gems, antique furniture and stylish gowns and scarves.

Grabbed by the Malaria, Part Three
If you can even believe it, I once again tested positive for malaria. The first time this happened (a few short months ago) I was med-evaced out of Voinjama by chopper and was hospitalized at the UN Hospital staffed by Jordanian docs in Monrovia. Not getting any better at the local clinic where I had a drip in my arm hanging off a broken plan branch while listening to mothers delivering babies in the room next door, some very concerned friends and colleagues decided it was time I went to the big city for treatment. My recovery took weeks and after puking on the shoes of a group of Pakistani peacekeepers on the chopper, I learned the hard way that malaria is, in fact, no joke. Having suffered exceptionally bad reactions to the malaria prophylactics I have been caught between a rock and a hard place ever since and returned to the field praying (ok not praying as I would be lying if I said I did this) but wishing very hard with my eyelids pressed tightly together that I would not get malaria again.

While visiting King Cairo with my lovely and amazing parents (who seem to be embracing the freedom of retirement like an adolescent embraces the freedom of life with a driver’s permit), I once again realized these nasty little bugs were swimming around in my bloodstream and I was struck by the thought that they seem to be remarkably drawn to my Midwestern blood. Night after night I cycled through high fever and bone shaking chills. When we reached Cairo I was lucky enough to be put in a hotel that that had a doctor on call.

Dr. Rayban entered my room at 5 pm dressed like a classy European business man. Handsome, wearing a smart suit and flashy tie, he had a quick style of diagnostic assessment and I instantly trusted him. After finishing his examination, he reported that all he could give me was some antibiotics (in case there was a bacteria involved) and paracedomol for the fever. He needed confirmation via laboratory tests before he could treat me for malaria.

Observing I was truly out of it and had been sleeping for the last few hours he noted it was important for me to be up and drinking fluids until more could be done. Interestingly he prescribed TV; well more specifically he prescribed the Egypt vs. Cameroon African Cup game that was very likely playing in his room, but not mine. I compliantly turned on the TV and we watched the game in comfortable silence for a while, cheering and clapping as Egypt went up 4-1. The doctor left my room only to return every 3 hours to check on me. He nodded in approval when he noticed I still had the African Cup game on when he returned.

At 10pm we had a decision to make. My fever was still 102 and everyone was worried. The doctor was still being limited by the need to have a test to confirm the diagnosis we all assumed to be true. The tricky thing is malaria meds are like Chemo – they wreak havoc on the body and make the poor patient feel like crap. Doctors don’t want to unnecessarily put a patient (or their liver) through such treatment if they don’t need to, hence the need for diagnostic confirmation. The reality was I would either need to miss my flight and go with him to the clinic in the morning or get on the plane and deal with it when I got back to Liberia. I very quickly sat up and said let me go home. My poor worried parents looked at me like I was certifiably crazy, “What is wrong with our daughter? She just asked to be sent back to a third world, post-conflict country for medical treatment. And, by the way did she just say home?” But, as every ex-pat in Africa knows, it is much easier to get treated for malaria in Africa than to go home and stump their local general practitioner with this bizarre tropical symptom presentation. Western doctors have no idea what to do for malaria and in Africa malaria is the equivalent to the common cold, it just happens to be all that more dangerous and tragically successful in taking away the lives of vulnerable babies and precious loved ones.

I returned to Monrovia sans luggage (after a 10 hour lay over in Casablanca) and went directly to the local clinic. I was quickly administered a very simple paracheck. All it takes is a drop of blood on a small plastic test strip: the equivalent in the west would be a home pregnancy test – 5 minutes and the big looming question is answered. Positive as expected I was handed a plastic baggie of meds went home and slept for the next 18 hours.

I returned to Voinjama to the delight of dama who, even after 3 weeks, hadn’t forgotten her doting mother and I did indeed feel like I was home once again. The simplicity of life had returned and work was once again touching my soul. Several days after my return I ran into a dear friend from Nigeria who, after we greeted one another with a kiss on the cheek said, “Gomah you feel warm.” Oh dear lord I thought, not again. I went home and took my temp and he was correct – 101.

I had to admit I felt a bit off. I had played basketball earlier that day and had felt unprecedently tired, needing to rest frequently. ‘Frequently’ in this case was approximately every ten minutes which is pretty disruptive to a basketball game. I was hassled by my local crew of ballers who all commented on my evident loss of stamina. I just figured I needed a few more days of cardio to get me back in shape. I had to admit I had welcomed the vices of vacation like a smoker welcomes a found pack of cigarettes in a packed away winter jacket and had indulged in every new found delight while getting to know the aforementioned Brother Morocco and King Cairo.

Needless to say I needed to get a confirmation and once again returned to the local clinic for a paracheck. The staff recognized me immediately and looked a bit anxious given my poor recovery performance a few months back. I think they were afraid their typically successful efforts with local patients would once again fail with this fair skinned outsider. But, fortunately for us all, after a small adjustment to the medications (which if anyone is interested simply meant cutting the yellow pills out of the package of white and yellow pills), I rallied and smiled two days later when I heard one of my staff members say – “see now, she is turning into a true African, malaria can’t even keep her down.”

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