Wednesday, May 23, 2012

A long way from home

It's been too long. Too long since wrote, too long since I hugged my family, too long since I went to work and thought about the patients instead of broken medical equipment and voltage variability and DHCP leases, too long since I went on a vacation and actually vacationed. That was the story of last month.

After finally moving to Malawi more or less permanently almost one year ago, I have started moving around more often. In Malamulo, I have moved houses more times than I can remember. That was bearable since the faces (or muzzles) around me varied less often. Then came my time to leave the country. Immigration here in Malawi allows one to stay up to three months on a tourist visa, which strictly prohibits work. I have been trying to get an employment permit for several months, but paperwork moves so slowly it practically rots. That necessitated yet another departure from Malawi. The plan was a week trip to Victoria Falls. It would be my first vacation longer than an extended weekend since arriving in Africa and it would be a chance to see a natural wonder of the world.

The plan for a one week trip lasted until the second day of the trip, when I was asked to go to Yuka Adventist Hospital in western Zambia (about 65 km from Angola) and to return to work at Mwami Adventist Hospital in Chipata (about 5 km from Malawi).

Victoria Falls was all it was cracked up to be. Between soggy shoes, a rainforest in the middle of a savannah, and a backpackers lodge entirely to myself, it was precisely what I needed. Time to sit down when needed, sleep in as long as I could, meander about with no plan or direction or intention, and listen to the roar of millions of liters of angry hydrogen hydroxide. I even managed a trip to Chobe National Park in Botswana, where hippos cluttered the waters and elephants the beaches. Hordes of tusked behemoths stood in stark contrast to the solitary ones I had seen elsewhere. It would have been fascinating to spend some more time watching them, learning the personality of each one, and appreciating their potential.

The next stop was Yuka Hospital, in the west. Getting there wasn't trivial and required buses, taxis, and boats. This truly appeared to be the end of the world. I'm pretty sure Hades was on the next sand dune. Power and water exist, but you don't want to use either of them if possible. Some say that you haven't been an Adventist missionary until you have survived Yuka. I believe you might be immortal if you survive Yuka. It made me remember that no matter how bad things could be at home (wherever home is), they can always be worse.

The next stop was Lusaka, where I went shopping for contactors, pumps, motors, HDPE fittings, solar panels, power conditioners, and deep cycle batteries. If you had showed me pictures of Lusaka and Yuka beside each other, I would have commended you on your Photoshop skills. One is the end of the earth, the other is the worldliest place I have seen in Africa. Malls, rush hour, fast food, all the ills that prosperity has freely given so many Western nations. I think it was like the West anyway. It fit what I think the West is like, although I can't actually remember.

A few more days of traveling misery dropped me back at Malamulo, so glad for a bed. Although the thoughts began. Why am I not wanting to go some place like Yuka? What happened to my sense of adventure? Should "no" be in my vocabulary when given an opportunity to help? Why do I suddenly have an urge to go back to Zambia despite hating three of my four weeks? Is homelessness a poor economic status or a conscious decision to live everywhere and nowhere simultaneously? Is it dinner time? The answer, at least to the last one, is yes. I'm not sure about the others.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

A job to do

When in college, I fantasized about the day when I would be able to waltz about the town with a degree in one hand and a paycheck in the other. I could get up, go to work at a reasonable hour, go home at a reasonable hour, and go to bed when I wished. A compartmentalized life in a compartmentalized society where everything has rules, ownership, and responsibility. The problem is that this is not home, not America, not even western civilization. Rules, ownership, responsibility, expectations, quality, timeliness - everything has such a different meaning. However, the biggest thing to me is my job. It's not a 9 to 5 or even 8 to 5. It's officially a 7 to later, but all too often starts well before 7 am and frequently goes past 7 pm. What I am learning is that although I have a job (if you can call it that), it's not one that I can leave at work. Going home at night is really just pausing until tomorrow in a location that's convenient in the case that I will be needed before then. I guess I don't have a job, it's more like a duty. Until my quota has been filled, you will probably find me here, so far away.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011


When someone says stubborn, what comes to mind? Donkey? Moody children? Someone you truly believe is the epitome of imbecilic levels of recalcitrance? If you asked me what first pops into my head at such a mention, I would tell you that the answer is, quite simply, myself. It probably started after my childhood addiction to various genres of books that very few eight year olds have any desire to peruse. Should you be curious, you should know that my diet of reading material has shifted, partly by choice but primarily by circumstance.

This may have been mentioned in posts of yore, but my project in Rwanda has been transferred to other people. I suspect a reason that the donors wanted to pass the project to some Rwandans was my unwillingness to budge. In a rather frank manner, I told the donors that I wouldn't return to finish the project until they had fully developed their plan and had released the funds. I was needed elsewhere and didn't have time to sit idle. That didn't go over well. It wasn't terribly tactful, but it did remove an oxcart load of stress.

Fast forward to last week.

Twas mere days before Christmas and through the compound,
Few azungus at desks or chairs could be found.
For most had epic plans at places quite far,
But most took the bus in lieu of a car.

That left just a handful to hold down the fort,
But plenty of problems did workers report.
'This printer is causing an absolute scare!
Please fix it before I pull out my hair!'
Accounting software took a brief holiday,
For hour upon hour my nerves did it fray.
"Emergency fixes," too many to count,
The pressure to finish them started to mount.
Without any time, my decisions were made.
Consequences of such with me have they stayed.
Although some were happy by the time I went home,
Others said "Fine!" with a "Hmmph" and a groan.

At the set of the sun there was I in great need
Of encouraging words from across the sea.
"This isn't your fault, you cannot feel bad
It was going to happen, no matter how sad
You did all you knew to the best that you could
It will all work out for the ultimate good."
Despite their kind words which I desired so much,
I felt it was I who had pulled out the crutch,
Wrecking the day by my inability
To admit it's not my responsibility.
As I am learning to deal with my own stubbornness,
Which is something I very much need to address,
It's clearer to me that in order to live,
It is me who I cannot forget to forgive.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

A Holly, Jolly Grinchmas

It's just a tradition, like cinnamon rolls on Sabbath mornings or picture time in the bleak midwinter afternoons. Yet it is more binding than the Kyoto Protocol. No, it's not a fabulously festive and fatty feast, and not always is there a "Hark! the Herald Angels Sing" in the air. Whenever my sisters and I reunite in the little town of Waverly, an increasingly rare occurrence as of late, we try to watch "The Grinch" movie. Most are familiar with the Dr. Suess story, but we three Roddys of Orient, Africa, and America fill the silent night with raucous laughter during such an occasion. I don't know why, perhaps the good recitations make us rejoice with soul and voice.

But this being my second Christmas away in a strange place, some new traditions are being forged. Yet again, I sit here watching lightning overwhelm a midnight clear. Furthermore, I have been saved once again by angels from the realms of gory Christmas present return adventures or endless traffic nightmares. Will I miss it? Oh come on! You will? I think not. This year will be much quieter than last. It will be the dogs (2-3), the cats (2-3), and perhaps some foreigners (1-3). This Christmas may not have the chilly feel or the dreary look of barren trees, and the grouch deep down inside wants to rise up and follow my festive side, marring it's jolly attitude. But the lights of December in the window and the green leaves keep the grinchy side in line. Most of all, I'm excited for the unsurprising present coming my way in just a couple days, and maybe the chance to go chill out on the mountain. More on that and the number of carol references later. Care to make a guess anyway?

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Hurrying for no reason

It's been a long day. It started off with a shower not working, but breakfast distracted me enough to prevent any dissatifaction. Next, we (myself, Dr. Lawson, Julia, and Chris) patiently (some moreso than others) waited for a car to take us to town. After leaving only an hour late, we finally got into town. I knew the car would be going to the airport (in the end, it didn't) but hoped it could at least get me to the other side of town. No luck. With a thousand things to do, I opted to use the slowest means of transport - feet. With 4 stops in Limbe alone, the calories started flying. Quotes, phone calls, "Do you have ____?", and all sorts of other things comprised of my stops. Then a big stroll to Blantyre with stops at the bank, the vet, 3 computer stores, and an office supply shop. By the time 12:30 rolled around, it was game over. Essentially all business completed. Lunch, grocery shopping, and hiking filled the next 3 hours, at which point I discovered something. Even though I had covered nearly 20 km on foot, it was one of the most productive days I've had in Blantyre.

Here's my theory. First of all, I walked alone. When others walk with me, it's a compromised pace, destinations that don't pertain to me, a less efficient route, and a significant dose of whining. Second of all, in this case, walking is better than driving. When driving, there are always lots of people, and I am typically in charge of transporting all of them where they need to go. Since selfishness isn't a virtue and because I don't rule the world, it decreases my personal productivity. Finally, walking ensured that I only went where I needed to go and had time to think about what I needed before arriving.

All worked out well. I finished my shopping, crushed some calories (a pizza in this case), and trudged back to catch hospital transport just 15 minutes before it left. So, today's lesson is that if you want to get something done quickly, do it in the slowest manner possible.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Mosquito nets

Do you remember going camping in the summer and spritzing enough mosquito repellent on your arms/face/neck/legs/eyes to exterminate all life forms from 10 feet away? I do and always remember liking the smell even if it was 100% DEET, 100% toxic, and 100% guaranteed to repulse attractive women. Surprisingly, I can't envelop myself in such cheap diluted non-fragrant chemicals of asphyxiation. I have no mosquito repellent, and, quite honestly, no interest in obtaining any. Here in Malawi (did I tell you I am back in Malawi? I came back about 10 days ago), there are critters. This morning, I found a cockroach in my back pack, a large spider on the ceiling, a grasshopper on the indoor stairs, and gnats in the shower. Finding only 4 species was a bit odd, usually there are more. Last night, I distinctly remember slapping myself in the face for some buzzing vermin that I could hear but not see. If there were 3 dozen cockroaches in my bed or 13 divisions of army ants in my food or the fleas of a thousand camels infesting my armpits, I might complain. However, unlike at home, it is bearable to live with a small collection of these.

One topic on everyone's (ok, "everyone" is a relative term) mind is mosquitos, which means the upcoming malaria season. Mosquitos don't care much for me, but trying to sleep with one buzzing is more impossible than perpetual motion. The most common defense is a net, which seems like the most flimsy defense system ever devised. Since arriving in Africa, I have used a mosquito net about 10% of the time and haven't contracted malaria, which makes me the most fortunate person I know. Yes, there are drugs like mefloquine and doxycycline, but my personal preference is to avoid insomnia, liver damage, sun sensitivity, or whatever other side effects might befall me. But this mosquito net is not a perfect defense. For instance, gnats can breach them, which is annoying. My German friend Julian got tangled in his, which provided a good laugh. Mosquito nets aren't practical for most daytime activities either, particularly anything else that requires movement or physical contact such as fixing medical suction pumps. Mosquito nets have a purpose. However, you must leave the safety and security of your net in order to do the work given to you.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Star Wars

"A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away..." just about sums things up, don't you think? Ok, perhaps galaxy is not the correct word but it certainly comes close to it. Some of us think that a long time ago refers to yesterday, and the gap between then and now qualifies as an eternity. I don't claim to disagree. Likewise, "far, far away" seriously depends upon your budget and available forms of transport. But what about the actual story? Perhaps it will read a little like this:

"The land of Nyassa, once under control of the Empire, has gained independence. But a new threat looms on the horizon. The Death Star, designed for protection, has grown in power, wreaking havoc on the federation that these fragile worlds desperately need to survive. On the verge of collapse, a few brave and faithful ones have returned to stem the tide. If they succeed, a new generation will carry on the work. If they fail, nobody will take their place. The fate of all hangs in the balance...."

Maybe our vehicles use overdrive instead of hyperdrive, and we avoid potholes rather than asteroids. Local names such as Mubuga and Nyirangongo are as alien as Naboo or Tatooine. But consider the essence of it all. What is actually happening? The just cause (not just here, but for the sake of argument) appears lovely but unattainable because of the desire by some to rule with an iron (or at least lead, heavy but malleable) fist. The masters get a sense of foreshadowing because history often repeats itself. Padawans, such as myself, still have much to learn from those who have seen how the Force can corrupt or enrich. It may not all culminate in an epic showdown next week, but to what end is this all headed? The return of the Jedi, whether or not they have yet left, is much needed if there is to be peace and order.

In lieu of my situation, does anyone want to guess what I actually said? If you didn't understand all of it, don't worry, very few, if any at all, will comprehend it.