Friday, December 5, 2008

Indiana Jones, Granfalloons, and Finding Ways to be Good

As a young child, I dreamed of being an archaeologist à la Indiana Jones. When I was a little bit older, I found out that archaeologists spent most of their time writing grants and begging for money, and my dream of spending my life in secret caves floored with the crunchy, fortune cookie consistency of millions of crawling insects, my path lit by a torch made out of a human femur and my goal some forgotten idol that belongs in a museum, crumbled a little bit. Unfortunately (?), my life has again led me to a job that is entirely dependent upon the kindness of strangers. I don't like begging for money, but donations are essential to the survival of non-profits and non-governmental organizations like WAFF.

I know how hard it has been this year with our tanking economy. I had hoped that out of this experience, the American people as a whole (if not the global population) could begin to rethink the way they spend their money and to look beyond themselves to see the broader scope of shared humanity and experience, if that makes sense. That we are not alone or simple individuals in little predefined groups (Bokononists call these granfalloons), but that there is a whole world full of people that are a distinct part of who we are and how we live. That buying a brand new car or a pair of shoes or the next generation video game is not as important as being with and caring for others. I think, to some extent, that this has happened. The story I recently read about the stampede at Walmart that killed a temporary worker, however, illustrates that we're not there yet. That it will take longer to heal our need for new things, for possession. Consumerism is certainly something that I struggle with everyday, as I covet this or that, as I see how attached I am to my things. All the same, I have to say that one of the best and most thoughtful gifts I was ever given for Christmas was from my good friend Nickole, who donated money in my name to the Save Darfur Coalition.

All that I ask is that this holiday season, or as birthdays roll around, is that you remember that we are all in this together, that we are all a part of the same living, breathing thing. I've long maintained that if everyone made a sacrifice, even a small one, in their own lives, then the world would be a better place--take shorter showers, give $5 a month to the cause of your choice, buy a bus or subway pass for the person behind you, smile at someone, anything. You don't have to be a liberal or a conservative, a Democrat or a Republican or an Independent, a communist or a capitalist, to do this. Anyone can, and almost every philosophy, or political belief, or religion, or whatever system you adhere to, advocates some form of philanthropy or sacrifice or aid to others, whatever you wish to call it.

I'm not asking you to donate to my cause, the West Africa Fistula Foundation. I won't be disappointed if those few of you reading this blog decide that you'd rather spend your money elsewhere. I'm just suggesting that, as the holidays approach, you think about donating money to a non-profit or an NGO as gifts for family and friends. If you want to donate to WAFF, you can follow the instructions on the site here (no pressure, I promise). If you have another organization you'd rather give to, please do so. If this doesn't sound like your bag, then keep doing your holidays as you've always done them. We're all here, thrown together, in this incredibly messy and complicated place, and it's not always pretty or happy or encouraging. But it only takes a little bit, the simplest acts of kindess or selflessness--things that are so small that they seem insignificant--that change everything, that affect everyone. So, take a chance on one of these small acts, and no matter how or where or when you choose to do it, you'll have done something good for all of us.

Monday, December 1, 2008

From Slow Slow to Fever Pitch

This might seem a little silly, but as we were narrowly avoiding the tenth pedestrian who stepped out a little bit too close to the car, bouncing through bad stretches on the road, and trying to keep all of the boxes stacked in the car inside the car and not falling out the windows, I thought of a Disneyland ride based on a typical jaunt through Bo. It starts off innocently enough--you have to clamber into a very tall van while managing about 5 bags, then somehow get your seatbelt on. The car is chock full of people--the nurses, a laundry assistant or two, several neighbors who need a ride to the lorry park--and boxes of medical supplies, which seem to move in a neverending stream from one place to another. The boxes, in fact, look as if they've all been kicked to death, catheters poking out the cracks, disposable gowns about to float out of the ripped top, a bottom or two collapsing its contents all over the floor. Then, we're suddenly climbing up an alarmingly steep hill, wheels spinning madly for traction, stones sending us all flailing. Sharp turns, sudden drops, quick whiplashing stops. Children dart out on the road on the way to school, women carrying baskets wobble a bit towards us, men with no apparent regard for their own safety walk in twos and threes on the narrowest stretches of road, holding hands. It is a ride of constant stress--aren't we coming up a bit fast on that parked truck? Is that baby going to fall off the motorcycle? Why isn't that dog moving?--and quick intakes of breath at the close shaves. Then, all of sudden, we're facing a World AIDS Day parade, coming straight down on us--Get us OUT of here!--and a truck whips around us at the last minute, just before we're about to make our move. We're careening down the street, and it feels like we're going to go up on two wheels at the next curve, and then four motorcycles almost all run into each other in front of us and we brake hard, that feeling of helplessness as I continue to press down on the floor with my right foot, where the brake would be if I were driving. Christmas-themed music blasts out of shops, open trenches leer at the car as if daring us to slip up and get caught in them, police traffic controllers arbitrarily tell us to stop and go (I have seen one stop light my entire time in Sierra Leone, and it was in Freetown). It's a daily adventure getting to work, a series of near-misses and close calls. Everyone seems to have been trained from an early age that pedestrians are supposed to jump backwards when they hear a car horn (I tend to look up, which only further roots me to the spot), and that there is no minimum clearance requirement--as long as no cars are touching, it's all good. Everyone drives and everyone walks like this: courteous behavior is only shown to old women leaving the market and children going to school, and it's beyond dog-eat-dog. Fortunately, the system seems to work for us, for the present, anyway, and maybe our close calls aren't as bad as they seem to me.

Things here have two settings: slow-slow and fever pitch. Slow-slow is what happens when things are inefficient, or a meeting gets postponed again, or when someone is explaining why we don't have something we were supposed to have two weeks ago. Fever pitch is when we're driving, moving heavy things, or just before our Texas surgeon, Dr. Maggi, comes. His visits tend to get everyone into a tizzy of activity, which is of course part of his visit. The rest is for him to complete as many surgeries as he can, and to do them all safely and skillfully (watching Dr. Maggi operate is amazing. I can't explain how nuts it is to watch him essentially make a bladder out of a hole with jagged edges of scar tissue). So, we're about to reach critical fever pitch, since Dr. Maggi arrives tomorrow and beyond his visit, there's the impending return of Helen, our volunteer coordinator and director of program development, with a whole team of volunteers in early January.

Not that we haven't been working hard before, but in anticipation of the transition to volunteer programming, things are starting to speed up. I can't believe it's December, even, though I guess without fire season, mudslides, and Santa Ana winds, it never really feels like winter. Even in New York, when I kicked myself for 4 months for having decided to go to school on the east coast, it wasn't the same. But here, it's just been getting progressively drier and hazier, before the Harmattans set in and bring the real dust from the Sahara and before what I hear are cooler December and January months, cool enough to grow healthy carrots and large tomatoes in the North, or maybe even here. We'll be experimenting when the volunteers come with tomatoes and carrots in our volunteer/patient cooperative garden, so I'll be able to see how much truth there is in that. All I know is that for now, the thunder rattles farther and farther off, the lightning continues to flash, but the rain never comes. Or it comes in little spurts that sound like someone has thrown a bucket of water on one part of the roof. And that I'll be in Freetown tomorrow, and then the December sprint begins in earnest.