16. Fruit in a Bowel
“It’s not the mountain that wears you down, it’s the rock in your shoe.”
It has been brought to my attention, most unceremoniously, that I have kept the blog more descriptive than personal, more playful than ranting, more academic than grit. That I’m telling the stories of others more than telling my own, and am committing the error that every shrink hates to make, but invariably does: I ask everybody else what they feel about this or that, and am not asking myself this question (or at least not writing about it). Point well-enough taken. How am I doing? Right now I’m starting to feel better, but last week I felt mostly flat, tired, and shitty.
When I arrived here among the standard questions I received (age, length of stay, number of wives and children, etc.) was “have you ever been to Africa before?” And even though I left when I was three years old, my having been born in South Africa was met with a genuinely warm inclusiveness; I was told that I have, and will always have, “un coeur d’Afrique,” or an African heart. I don’t know why, but somehow it fits in a goodly way… I feel a corporeal kinship with the soil, steppes, and people. The words “South Africa” smell of Jakaranda trees in blossom, of my grandparents’ Johannesburg flat, and large platters of freshly cut fruit. My bowels, though, are assuredly Canadian, and have for the past several months been treating me like an angry, antibiotic-crazed prostitute. And you can imagine that my skin, incubated for the past 20-some years in the halogen havens of classrooms and hospital hallways, feels about the same.
The rest of my body is, at times, not so thrilled either. After being here a month or so I got some odd rash on my palms, which I was told was probably from the harsh soaps or maybe dyshydrotic eczema (from sweating too much). Either way, over the following couple of months the skin hardened and then peeled off, but I was just glad that it wasn’t itchy anymore. Some problems with bed-bugs, a painful tooth (for which I went to the capital to see a French dentist who never arrived, so I just came back to Farchana), and some back pain rounds out my list of gripes. No, add the large spiders (like the size of your fist), the fact that a few weeks ago my computer broke (hence no pics on the last few blogs), that the MSF-provided shared computer has a screen that flickers epileptogenically, and that my blog is being censored in ways I don’t understand, and you get some sense as to the frustration. If I were back home, I’d get the computer(s) repaired, take a long walk, catch a movie, rant in-person to the censor, read a dour blurb in The Economist and promptly forget about it, partake of a soul-soothing smoked-meat Schwartz’s combo, paint, and sit across from a good friend or two and, while a smile and beer endure, sing the blues.
For the first time since arriving, I felt tired in my bones last week. It’s been three months here, and I have since mostly marveled, but I recently found myself wanting to not have a 6pm curfew, not live in a 43ºC-in-the-shade dust-bowl, eat some standard fare, crap normally, and otherwise read for a week. I awoke one morning and felt *hesitant* about going into the camp and seeing patients. The crush of suffering was daunting, and I just wasn’t sure if this would be the day that I’d lose my grit and have to go back to the compound, or, dare the thought enter, just leave altogether. Worse still, that the empathy buffer was too thin and I’d show frustration with my patients or colleagues. Everybody has parts of their job that are uniquely hard, and for me it is working with children. It’s a cliché, I know, but the children save you out here (followed closely by your team and patients). I spend a lot of my day playing with tykes who initially yell out “ok!”, “ca va?” or “donne-moi un cadeau.” But when they’re mute and catatonically frightened after some horrific incident, it stays with me in a way that other patients don’t. Images of Fatna sitting on the mat with a perplexed and curious disposition still arrive in my sleep, when I walk from one health center to the other, or sit down to eat; her story, and so many like it, of the sticks and death, isolation and fear, are present.
I’ve always felt that it is a good thing to follow dreams, in part because they’re inspiring, but mostly because they never give you what you think they will, and you get a whole lot else in the bargain. Sometimes good things, sometimes less so, but it’s definitely good to figure that out sooner rather than later. This isn’t a nod to jadedness… it’s just what one finds when you pay attention to the appearance of things. And so it has been coming out here, to Chad, to Farchana. Last week, in the icy clarity of a protracted and jittery malaise, I started to recognize the pleasures that have been earned by the boys playing soccer with long-destroyed balls or the frustration in the eyes of an old man who knows his children will not be brought up in a political state that could in any way be confused with a meritocracy. Hope is an emotion that operates in accordance with the law of gases: it will expand to fit any container in which it is put. Last week I felt it to be thin, and I wondered, selfishly and somewhat ashamedly, how I would survive in this rarefied environment. If hope is some ether of self-preservation mixed with motivation, it is icy clarity and rage that focuses it like a lens. This helps… to know in that vital way that things here need to get better. It counters the adaptive instinct that can bring with it a well-intentioned but eventual complacency. Well, that and another course of antibiotics that hopefully will get the bug that ails me:)
About 5 years ago I was living on the plateau in a cavernous unfinished loft on St. Laurent, a couple floors above a bar/billiard hall called “Le Swimming.” The place comfortably slept five; at that time there were seven. The plumbing had been done by my buddy and loft-mate Adam who was a master of approximation and invention when it came to fixing things around the apartment. But with all the engineering capacity at his non-negligible disposal, the plumbing in the bathroom needed a better system than the rusty nozzles and showerhead. So we hopped into a beat-up MG that had recently had it’s entire bowels removed and put back in, and head off to where we could exchange money for said necessary product. The guy at the store showed us some pressure-balanced gizmo that adjusted hot and cold water in one nozzle—I’d imagine almost everyone reading this has one. But myself being a first-year psych resident, and Adam being in the throes of an interminable PhD in biomedical engineering (he recently finished, incidentally, and is off to MIT for a hopefully less-interminable post-doc), we decided to hit the hardware store and make do with a cheaper, non-rusty but still-crappy system. This is when the guy in the store, overhearing our conversation, said “don’t buy anything that’s not pressure-balanced, you won’t be happy with it.”
Fast forward to last Tuesday in the mobile clinic, about 25 miles southwest of nowhere, 7 pm, pitch dark on one side of the starry-night horizon, and opposite the last remnants of a faint under-lit glow just visible behind the mountains in the West. The shower was, as are most things here, built with an economy of resources and time as much as plastic sheeting and irregular-shaped bricks and crumbly mortar. So there’s the shower, a pillar of bricks in one corner of an open-roofed, plastic-sheeting-enclosed space slightly bigger than a phone booth. A black jerry can with a refilling hole cut out of it’s top sits on the head-high pillar, and a 2L plastic water bottle has been grafted onto the side of the can, with a rudimentary plastic spigot to adjust “water flow.” The water still hot from the day’s heat, I found myself wondering if the skin on my arms was dark because of the sun or the layers of dust and sweat and more dust. I think it was the best shower that I ever had.
When did I forget this? That it’s not some fancy nozzle that makes a good shower. It’s being dirty after an honest-days work. If but only to learn that again I would have come back to Africa. Tomorrow is Monday… a new week and I’m happy to be here, but I suspect that I’ll also be well ready for that vacation that’s coming at the end of the month.