Working many years in Africa is like eating the hottest pepper on the planet. Throughout the horrific pain and the watery eyes there is something insidiously enjoyable and appealing about it. And one year after you've sworn it off forever, you find yourself craving it again for no tangible reason.
I worked in and out of Africa for about ten years in seven of the fifty-four sovereign African nations. Anyone who's worked in some of the more difficult regions of Africa, especially in the charity world, will tell you that work in Africa is not like being out on a rope. Its more like what happens after you let go. So much of your valuable time is spent putting out the fires on top of the fires until you lose sight of the initial blaze. Still, it is an exercise in persistence and persistence will get you forward more times than it will get you dead. If nothing else, character will be built and there will be permanent bragging rights.
|I'm betting this Charity Worker stays at|
|I'm here to work. Please direct me to|
your shittiest Guesthouse.
In 2005 I took a job in Central Tanzania with the daunting task of developing, from the ground up, a treatment center for HIV and AIDS . I lived in a town called Illula. Illula is a sprawling dusty, drought-ridden village seven hours from the crystal azure waters of Tanzania's coastline in Dar es Salaam. Illula is barely on the map. You can't even Google it. Up until then I'd taken a number of charity jobs in a lot of desperate African villages, but I'd only ever stayed a few weeks at a time. A little discomfort is easy to handle when the end of it in sight. This job in Tanzania was to be my Swan Song. After it was over I could get the "survival chip" off my shoulder and finally get a real taste of "Dr. Livingston, I presume." I planned to settle down and start a normal family life and get back to a normal doctoring job in a semi-normal place (I was considering a move back to Los Angeles). Today, seven years later, as I write this from the middle of an Indonesian jungle and watch a large monitor lizard cross the hospital lawn, I can only shake my head and smile.
|Main Street, Illula. Rush hour.|
My house was a small brick building with a cement floor, an outdoor kitchen and a bedroom. My bathroom that had a toilet and a tub, but no running water). There was a rusty blue refrigerator just inside the door to the kitchen. It had broken years ago and was being used as a cabinet. My driver/assistant/food slaughterer, Abdallah, turned a closet just off the living area into his bedroom. We had electricity for most of the day and screens on none of the windows. Each afternoon at sunset I would close the doors and windows and do a sweep of the room with an electrified tennis-raquet-type bug killing device I'd bought from a Bangkok street vendor for nearly three dollars. The Malaria infected mosquitoes prefer to come out at sundown. Everyone in Africa knows this. It seems to be the best time for seeking fresh blood. These mosquitoes reminded me of the aging broken down expatriates trolling the girly bars in Bangkok during Happy Hour. The tennis raquet made a sharp electric SNAP and frying sound every time every time it made contact. There would be two to three hundred zaps every afternoon. The nurses and administration workers from the hospital would come in to watch this event every now and again. I was the only white man around for miles. Watching me electrocute hundreds of mosquitoes was the most interesting occurrence in the village at six PM every day. After I was done with pest-clearing duties, Abdallah would routinely open the back door to the kitchen while slaughtering the meal for the evening (usually an anorexic chicken or a goat). This invariably let just as many mosquitoes back in the house. This was our routine.
|This woman has not tucked in her mosquito net. Poor technique.|
If you work in Africa there will be biologic hazards to deal with. It's not for everyone, but if you embrace it in a Bear-Grylls-way it can be exciting too. In Abdallah's bedroom of a closet (or closet of a bedroom) the corner of the wall had rotted through. If you stood at the right angle you could look straight into the African sky. We would soon find out that the things in the African sky were also looking at us. I asked Abdallah if he wanted to try to fix the hole, but he said no. He said that it made the nights a little cooler. He also said he didn't worry much about the mosquitoes coming in. He was from Uganda and had had Malaria so many times that Malaria had grown tired of him. One night, just after dinner, as we sat in the livingroom we heard a loud THUD and a mad flapping sound just outside his room. There on the ground was a dirty heap with grey fur and beady white eyes. A bat as large as a small child had caromed into Abdallah's closet on an unintended flight path and rolled unhappily into the house. He was confused and he was angry. Abdallah said:
"Daktari, it is a bat."
At the end of six months it was time to go home. I had a pregnant wife waiting for me in Bangkok and the project was completed in record time. It is amazing how fast you can work when your unborn child and real Thai food wait at the tail end of a job. Going home was not a direct route, but I did it as quickly as possible. It was a seven hour drive to Dar es Salaam and a flight the next morning to Addis Abbaba, Ethiopia. I'd stay in Addis overnight and visit some friends. After that, it was a straight shot to Bangkok on the Ethiopia Air which, judging from the characters on the plane, seemed to be the most direct smuggling route to Asia. By the time I got to Dar, I'd started scratching.
I had two bug bites on my back that were annoying the piss out of me. I slathered on liberal heaps of cortisone cream every few hours and figured they'd go away. It worked for a while, but the itch kept coming back. On the final flight home I took cold drink cans from the flight attendants and sat against them to make the itch subside. This seemed to interest my fellow smuggler passengers as they thought I was working on a soda smuggling scheme. I didn't care. I was going home and that was all that mattered. If all I'd left Africa with was a couple of annoying bug bites I felt pretty lucky. I got into Bangkok at midnight and was home, in my own bed, for the first time in six months, by two AM.
I awoke the next day with the feeling of elated, giddy familiarity that comes with a good night's sleep at your own home. In celebration I figured I'd take me, my wife and her baby bump out for a proper Bangkok breakfast. I took a long and proper shower. It was one of the first showers for me in a long time that did not come from a cracked plastic cup dipped into a bucket of cold water. Sometimes it's the little things that mean so much. I walked into the bedroom and started scratching again. I tried to get a look at the bites in the mirror, but couldn't get the right angle. I called my wife over to take a look. She scratched at my back a couple of times and then said something that will stay with me until I turn senile:
"Worm! Worm! Worm!"
"Worm! I said worm! There's a worm in your back."
I felt sick.
"Well get it out, dammit!"
She looked at me with disgust, like it was not part of her job description. She ran to the bedside table to get her tweezers (every Thai woman has at least five sets of tweezers). She started grabbing at my skin with the tweezer, pulled something out and then presented the prize to me. She held it in front of my nose. Her face was one big grimace of disgust.
"Worm. Ewwwwwwww. It's moving!"
I had to sit down. There on the business end of the tweezer was one small perfectly formed, wriggling, half centimeter bug larvae. I wanted to vomit. What is the most horrible thing someone could say to you after an experience like this?
"There's one more, you know?"
She went to work on the second one and after a few seconds of scraping she pulled a second larvae from my back. I could swear I heard a little suction popping sound when it came loose, but that was probably just in my head.
"Fucking Hell. Are there any more?" I asked.
"No. Not for now."
"Ugh. I feel so violated." Like a good wife, she started laughing at me.
|"Son, one day all this skin will be yours."|
"Are you absolutely sure you don't see any more?"
"I think so."
"You think so YES, or you think so NO?
"No. No more. Unless they are inside you."
On the positive side, the itching immediately stopped. I was left with two small holes in my back, but they would heal properly in time. I made a couple of calls to a learned colleague. He reassured me that once the bugs are out, they are gone. As it turns out Myiasis can be prevented by ironing your clothes. The heat destroys the eggs. Back in Illula the woman who looked after our house would wash my clothes in a bucket and lay them out on the bushes in my front yard to dry. I never gave it a second thought. I don't imagine there was an iron around for at least fifty miles.
|Africa under more biologically sound times.|
I miss working in Africa, but I'm not rushing back to work the Dark Continent. One day I'm sure I will again though. When the routines were in place and environmental barriers were constructed it was a simple and enjoyable time of work and a test of tolerance at the same time. For those of you who plan on taking on an environment more harsh than you are used to, let this be a lesson for you. Bring what you need, ask a lot of questions and remain slightly, constructively paranoid. Definitely bring an iron. I came to Africa alone, but I left in a group: me, my worms and my bragging rights.
|Take me to your leader.|