handshake, snap, side hug, one kiss, two kiss, three kisses, a-frame hug, shake, wave.
Being a global citizen is not easy-o. The mix of traditions about greetings can lead to some very awkward first encounters. As an American girl with a rather large pre-established personal space it can be a disaster. What I have learned is with the French its two kisses no matter what: sitting, standing, coming, going, male-female, male-male, female-female. With the Dutch and German it can be three kisses, but not always. With West Africans it’s either a handshake that ends with a snap of the fingers or a rather large hug with a lingering moment of hand holding while beginning a conversation. Other Africans also seem to appreciate the lingering handshake or a side hug. With a fellow American it’s typically a “What’s up?” with no body contact; on some occasions so you get the closed fist jailhouse bump or a clumsy a-frame hug.
I could go on but I think you get the point. For someone who gets a little anxious when people invade her personal space all of this is a bit disorganizing. Secondary to this experienced encounter confusion, I tend to make a lot of mistakes and end up head butting Swedes or jailhouse bumping proper Kenyans. At the end of the day everyone involved is about as confused as I am about the encounter.
A few posts ago I mentioned I had suffered my third battle with malaria. Well guess what folks, last weekend recognizant forces brought in some reinforcements and world war IV was declared against your pal, Gomah. Ironically I was sitting in the aforementioned men’s group I have been ever so enjoying in Massabolahun and all of a sudden, out of nowhere, I was struck by a series of bone shaking chills. Even though it was 99 degrees, my goose bumps were the size of nickels and I started to literally feel the parasite multiplying in my blood. The poor group members and local facilitators initially watched me attentively but did not comment on my rapidly changing state of being. This changed after I myself commented on it and jokingly mentioned that I might need to go get some sun to warm up. After that they quickly expressed genuine concern and started to convey a tremendous amount of empathy and a series of theories about what was happening to me. Excellent diagnosticians, their theory was confirmed once I returned to Voinjama and once again visited the local clinic.
Upon entry the staff quickly welcomed me with a “hello Gwan.” Apparently Gwen is an exceptionally bizarre and difficult to say name here. To them it sounds like you have something stuck in your nose. I love my name nonetheless and failed attempts at saying it doesn’t phase me because I also love all my new names and embrace each one of them like I have been given a chance to redefine myself.
But I digress…once at the clinic the physician assistant instantly grabbed an intake form and was able to fill out the first 7 lines without consulting me. I was briskly directed to the lab, given a paracheck for confirmation and then back to my car with my special malaria fighting formula in hand. Fortunately, I once again recovered like a rock star and was back at work on Monday.
Then came Tuesday. Typically a very lucky day for me (or maybe more appropriately a day I have turned into a self-fulfilling prophesy of lucky moments given I named my adorable canine at home Tuesday and started to adore the actual word and day as much as my mutt) this Tuesday was an exception.
After a day in the field with my staff I returned to the office a bit late; it was 5:33 to be exact. On any other day I typically start playing basketball between 5 and 5:15 so I was contemplating skipping it for the day. However, one of my buddies called from the court to inform me it was a good game. Given I felt the need to get a little exercise because I had relaxed in my hammock the ENTIRE weekend (recovering from the malaria) I quickly changed my clothes and headed to the court. Upon arrival my local boys promptly stopped the game and asked that I sub in. I was shocked by the sheer number of people around and all the new faces. Apparently a bunch of people were in town from Monrovia participating in the census and this game was serious because it was village versus big city. You see, just like every other country in the world, small towns can, at times, struggle with inferiority complexes when comparing their lives to that of those who live in the big city and those in the big city struggle with Napoleon complexes even if their lives really aren’t that great. They find it necessary to bluff with the best of them when they return to their home village and the locals find it necessary to prove that the cosmopolitans are not better men because they just happen to live in urban centers.
On my second run down the court something very unfortunate happened. I was heading back to play defense. We were playing a zone and I was a low post. I reached my spot and turned and I saw this giant 6 foot 4 monster of a guy heading straight for me for a lay-up. In my head I contemplated taking the charge but they don’t really understand the concept of an offensive foul here (and rarely call it) so I moved slightly to the left to get out of his way and just hoped that maybe I could knock the ball out of his hands. Before he took his first step he lifted the ball above his head and started his jump. This caused him to come down a little bit earlier than I had expected. His elbow ended up landing right between my eyes, knocking my forehead exceptionally hard. It hurt, no doubt, and I was a bit irritated by the experienced force of the knock but I knew it was not intentional and figured it was no big deal. That was until I looked at the faces of my teammates.
Everyone quickly gathered around me and started yelling, “Garmai you are bleeding bad-o!” I stepped off the court and realized I was in fact bleeding profusely. I went to my land cruiser and looked in the side mirror and revealed that the reason I was bleeding profusely was because the cut was incredibly deep. Everyone was freaking out so I became very calm and grabbed my phone to call my friend Enrica who is a nurse for ICRC. She didn’t answer so I called her teammate and even though he didn’t quite understand me he told me to come over (later I was informed he thought I still wasn’t feeling well from the malaria). I had one of the guys from the court drive which, due to his inexperience and high levels of adrenalin from playing and seeing what had happened to me, drove incredibly bad. We were stalling and shifting at all the wrong times and our entire trip to the ICRC residence was a disaster. Upon arrival Enrica took me inside and asked me to sit while she washed her hands. I realized I had forgotten to tell Enjamal, the volunteer driver, what to do so I went back outside. Enrica came back only to find me missing and came chasing after me to get me back in the chair. At that point I realized I was shaking; finally allowing myself to let the shock settle in, one giant tear dropped from the corner of my eye.
Enrica called the doctor who works at my malaria clinic. He told us to meet him at the clinic. She transferred me across town with a huge bandage on my head. When Dr, Berhanu arrived he gently patted me on my back and quietly said, “Why am I not surprised it is you.” At first look he didn’t think I needed stitches but then he went to disinfect it and made a clicking noise in this throat and said, “oh yea we will need to stitch this up a bit.” 25 minutes later I excited the clinic with a 3 inch long zigzag on my forehead. Having inspected it today Enrica thinks it’s very good work and I will likely have no scar. Dr. Berhanu is an exceptionally well respected surgeon from Ethiopia and Enrica later informed me that I was very likely living in the best village in Liberia to receive a surgical procedure in.
So now I have a week of trying to be creative with my head wear as the bandage is huge and wrapped around my head in such a manner I look like one of those guys in an old World War I war movie who had just stepped off the front lines with a battle wound. Good thing is all my African sisters are masters at the head scarf. Last night I sat in front of my mirror practicing what I had been taught so I can make it through the week without frightening our clients and small children on the street.
With all this being said a few of you might be thinking I am suffering from some bad karma right now. I might have agreed had the following not occurred to suggest otherwise:
This very kind doctor invited me to his home so he could change my bandage. While sitting there I was introduced to the regional health delegate who was here visiting his team of doctors in the field. Utilizing my usual defense mechanisms I was trying to crack jokes and ease the evident concern in the room. I mentioned I have suffered from four boughts of malaria in the last three months in addition to dealing with this wee gash on my forehead. This health delegate quickly became very interested and said, “This shouldn’t be happening tell me everything about your episodes and treatment.”
I proceeded to tell him my long story starting at my first battle where I was med-evaced out of the bush and vomited all over the chopper to the most recent experience of bone breaking chills. Somewhere in there I was able to make it explicitly clear that the doctors in Monrovia had informed me I had the Vivax strain of malaria. Right there he stopped me and said, “The Vivax strain, are you sure?” I was in fact pretty sure because my very concerned father had asked me to find out what strain it was while I was hallucinating in the bizarre container the Jordanian docs had put me in Monrovia and I had saved the text message on my cell phone for a number of weeks.
The doctor became very animated and said, “In West Africa this strain is exceptionally rare occurring in only 1% of the cases and this strain needs different medicines than the ones you are currently taking. What you are taking treats the majority of the symptoms and causes the strain to go dormant for some time but it does not kill it off,” hence the break through episodes. Although they do not have this medication in Liberia he would send it from Dakar as soon as he went back.
I was instantly reminded of a fable that my dear friend Andre brought to Liberia last October when he was completing his Human Rights Fellowship on the Utilization of Story in Therapy. It goes as follows:
One day a man woke up to find a beautiful horse in his yard. No one came to claim this horse so he kept it and used it to help farm his land. His neighbor stopped by and said, dear friend it’s amazing how this horse just showed up and stayed with you, you truly have been blessed.
The man said, maybe it’s good, maybe it’s bad.
A few weeks later this horse ran away. The neighbor stopped by and said, dear friend how tragic that your horse ran away it seems that you have been cursed.
The man said, maybe it’s good, maybe it’s bad.
A few more weeks passed and the horse returned with a herd of horses and the man kept these horses on his property. The neighbor stopped by and said, dear friend how amazing not only has your horse returned but has brought all these other healthy horses with him, you truly have been blessed
The man said, maybe it’s good maybe it’s bad
Another couple of weeks passed and this mans son decided to try and ride the horse. He was bucked off and broke his leg. The neighbor heard the news and came and said, dear friend how tragic this horse has hurt your eldest son. It seems that you have been cursed
The man said maybe it’s good maybe it’s bad.
A few days passed and the King declared war on the neighboring county and made an announcement to be spread throughout the land that all young men were to report to the border to defend the country. Due to the fact this boy had broken his leg he could not go fight. Then neighbor returned and said, dear friend how amazing you son will not have to fight because his leg is broken.
The man quietly walked away whispering...maybe it’s good maybe it’s bad
So you see I have indeed endured much in the last couple of months with regards to illness and misfortune. Dealing with these things in unison with my pending departure has been a bit overwhelming, to say the least. But for some reason this recent accident, a massive gash on myhead, seems to have been a blessing in disguise.