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.

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