Monday, February 23, 2009

What would you do?

I dropped him off at the end of our lane. He seemed fragile, standing there in his home-made sling, but it was the most likely place to get a taxi that time of night. The lane from our apartment to the main road is dark and bumpy and filled with opportunities for more injuries. I had just spent the better part of a while trying to put him back together, so I wanted him to have the best chance of getting home safely. There was no place to turn my car around, so I had to turn onto the main road and drive until I found a place to reverse my direction. By the time I got back to the lane entrance, he was gone, like a ghost in the night; whisked away by some invisible taxi for a fare of about $1.50, which I had handed him only 5 minutes earlier. Gone from my evening but not from my memory.

Living in a third world country, after a while you become desensitized. It cannot happen any other way because if you let all that emotion in day after day, you would lose it. I was driving home the other day and I realized it felt totally normal to me to see kids suffering, to see dirt and broken buildings, to see moms carrying babies on their backs, with huge sacks of grain on their heads and holding the hand of their toddler child all on the street inches from my car while I was driving. It didn't bother me that out of the 8 pregnant women I see on any given day, one of them will die giving birth. It didn't phase me anymore to see a sick, listless child lying on his mothers lap and knowing there was a good chance that child would not live to see his next birthday. It didn't bother me to watch kids carrying water jugs on their heads--half the size of their small bodies-- and knowing they did not have the opportunity to attend school because their parents could not afford the uniforms or the bribes needed to pay for the supposedly mandatory free public education. You get used to these things because they are facts. After a while, you feel helpless and give in to the circumstances around you. They call it acclimating. Most of the time, that is what you do to survive. Sometimes, though, something strikes a chord in you and you wake up and remember that in the civilized world, things are not this way. Sometimes you even try and make a dent in the poverty and hopelessness around you and bring a little civilized dignity to a shattered place. And sometimes you do it without even knowing, until the end, why you did it.

I was leaving my best friends house Sunday evening. It's a house, but we call it a compound because it's surrounded by a huge wall with razor wire on top and a gate at the entrance to let cars in and out. This situation is not for grandeur, but rather for security. Iron bars on the windows and triple-locked steel doors keep out the rebels during war time. War is recent memory for people here and everyone who can afford it, stays as safe as possible. As I was leaving, one of the workers approached my car. Everyone who has a compound, has half a dozen workers, or a small army of people, who help them around the house and around the compound. These people are poor; they live off the owner of the house. They get paid very little, but it's work and they have a fairly safe place to live. Their living conditions are nothing like the owner's. They do not typically have running water or electricity, and some of them live outside--sometimes sleeping on mattresses on the edge of the driveway. I have been at my friends house many times and the workers all know me by name now. So this worker who approached me in the dark was familiar to me, but I did not know his name. He was probably approaching middle age, but he looked much older. It's a hard life here and it shows. He tried to show me his arm and he was asking for something. They speak a version of English here--called Krio. I can understand most of it, but I was having a hard time figuring out what he wanted; mostly because it was pitch dark and because I was confused as to why he was approaching my car. Most times, they just open the gate and I exit quietly. I finally gathered that he had hurt his arm and was asking me for some sort of assistance. In the form of what...I had no idea. I got out of my car, turned on my tiny key chain flashlight and pointed it in the direction of his arm. Right away, by the way he was gingerly holding it, I could tell the injury was serious. Even in the dim light, I could see how swollen it was. I felt sad immediately. I could only imagine how much it must be paining him. I didn't know what else to do, so I gave him 20,000 Leones (about $6.00) and told him to see a doctor in the morning. Being a foreigner, I would have to pay about $50 to see a doctor here, but I know they do not charge the locals that much. He thanked me and promised to go to the clinic the next day. I also gave him two ibuprofen that I had in my purse. I mean, what else could I do? It seemed so little, but here in Africa, suffering is part of everyday life. People get sick and they endure it. You're lucky if you don't die. I tried to put the incident out of my mind; hoping I had done enough and hoping maybe the injury really wasn't that harsh.

I went to my friends house again the next evening. It was not a planned visit; I stopped by after running because he offered dinner. On my way out, again under the cover of darkness, I decided to check on the worker. He assured me he had been to the clinic and that the doctor told him that his wrist was not broken but only cracked. What?? That means the same thing in my book--serious! The doctor had given him an injection for the pain and sent him home. No cast, no support wrap, nothing. The arm was still swollen and I'm sure he was still in pain. He had found a ribbon--something you would use to wrap a Christmas present and he had tied this around his neck and was hanging his wrist from it in an attempt to reduce mobility and thus the pain. Pretty clever, I thought. In fact, the ribbon still had the "to/from" tag on it. My heart sank. I just could not stand by and do nothing when I knew this person was suffering and no one was probably going to do anything about it. Well, I was someone. I could do something. I knew a little first aid--my Dad was an EMT for over 30 years. Where to start? I put the worker in my car and drove him to my house.

At the house, I got Dad on the phone from Arizona and explained my situation. While I talked to him, I dragged out the red plastic first aid kit he had made for each of us about 20 years ago. I don't get hurt much so most of the supplies were still in stock. In fact, I had added a few things over the years like ace bandages and random wrist supports. Dad went immediately into medical advice mode--he has received many calls of this nature from us--so he has a lot of practice. He advised ice to reduce the swelling. That's great Dad, I have ice at my house but the worker has no electricity where he lives, hence he has no access to ice cubes. No matter, I could ice it for the 15 minutes I planned to keep him in my apartment to treat him. Ice went immediately into a zip lock bag and onto the wrist. I think the worker breathed a sigh of relief after only a couple of minutes. I think even the ice helped it feel better. Then Dad suggested an ace bandage to wrap around the wrist to help hold it stable. I found an ancient wrap with a big safety pin. After the 15 minutes of icing, I did a pretty remarkable job of wrapping the wrist. I think even Dad would have been impressed. But while I was wrapping the wrist, I could tell that every little movement caused the worker a lot of pain. I remembered the huge bottle of ibuprofen in my room and I put about 40 tablets into a zip lock bag. I told him to take two in the morning and two in the evening. It would help somewhat with the pain and the swelling. I was not a pharmacy, but it would be better than nothing. Finally, Dad said he thought there was a large triangle tourniquet-thing (sort of like a dish towel) in the bottom of the first aid kit. He was right! I had never noticed it before. I unfolded it and viola. It was a perfect sling! I had to practice tying it around myself a couple of times before I got it in the right position on my patient. But hey, I had never done it before. After I was finished, the worker looked like a patient right out of a civil war movie--he could have been in that scene at the train station where they show all the war wounded in Gone With the Wind.

I had done something to help alleviate the suffering of another person. I had not reduced the infant mortality rate or removed Sierra Leone from the #1 position of worst level of poverty on the Human Development Scale, but I helped one person feel better. Sometimes you get to save the world one person at a time.

Friday, February 13, 2009

This and That

It's Friday night. It's been a long work week; and it was only 3 and a half days for me! I worked late every night and it's becoming frustrating. I need to have my personal life here-- as the hardship part of the job is wearing on me.

Here are some random things that have happened this week--things that don't usually happen back in the civilized world.

1. Yesterday, at 6:30 am I got a txt message from my upstairs Embassy neighbor. She had just arrived back from London and she was asking permission to use my shower. Apparently, because her water had not been turned on for 10 days, it came out of the tap cold and brown! When was the last time that happened to any of you? I told her of course she could come down, but by the time she got my message, her water was better so she didn't have to walk down to my apartment in her bathrobe!

2. On the way home from work today, there was a car accident. The cars banged into each other and decided to just stay that way until the police arrived. Really, there is no point in waiting for the police because no one here (except the foreigners) has car insurance and the policy here is that it does not matter whole fault it was...who ever has the most money pays the other person! The bad part of this accident was that both cars blocked the entire road, so the rest of us had to wait for nothing; or in our case because I have an SUV, my driver drove into the ditch to get around the accident. Thank god for my new driver, Kojo!

3. There is a good side to not having unpacked all my boxes yet. I have 3 wardrobe boxes that have random clothes in them. And by random, I really mean that: my monogrammed bowling shirt circa 1976, Laura's prom dress from 2001, wool sweaters from Germany, my graduation cap and gown, some old clothes that are too big or too embarrassing to wear, and a couple of cocktail and bridesmaid dresses from various functions over the years. I hauled these boxes out because I remember I had packed a couple of formal dresses in case we had formal parties here. Next weekend we are having a Mardi Gras Ball. We are mainly having his event to boost morale and to have an excuse to get dressed up! (this was a girls idea, of course!) I asked a guy from the Embassy to be my date....and so we will sit at a table of 12 friends and act like we are at the Adult Sierra Leone! Anyway, I spent this evening trying all the dresses and deciding on which one to wear. I really didn't love any of them. You ladies know how that is; you buy a dress for a specific occasion and that dress becomes "branded" to the event. For instance; I really love the dress I wore for Allison's wedding, but I wore it with Robert (an ex-boyfriend) so now every time I see it, I remember how beautiful I looked but that I didn't have a very good time with my date. Then there is the slinky, fitted black lame dress with the sparkles, but it shows off every curve and even though I look good in it, it's not the sort of message I want to convey to the Embassy crowd. I think I'll go looking for fabric tomorrow; you can get dresses made pretty cheaply here....and I can pretend I'm in an episode of Project Runway!

4. When you live in a place with very few things to do, you really begin to miss civilization. I know I have said that before, but I learned this week that I'm not the only one who feels that way. I talked to a fellow Embassy employee--a woman--and she told me she had a vivid dream....about shopping at Ann Taylor!! I could almost see the glitzy displays, see the pretty new styles, see the gay sales clerks waiting to help me. Oh, what I wouldn't give for a weekend at the mall...and I don't even like to shop! As for me, I miss other things. I miss going to a movie---sitting in a dark theatre, eating popcorn with tons of butter and feeling all cozy. I really miss having a real hamburger; at this point even McDonald's sounds pretty good! I miss having a manicure and a real beauty shop. Oh well, I get to go to the beach on Sunday, so I'm sure after I'm all tan and a little silly from drinking tequila, then I will feel better!

Gotta run. Birthday dinner party tonight...and of course I have nothing to wear!

Take care,

Sunday, February 1, 2009

You can run but you can't hide....

Today's post will be a little different. You will know me better after this....

Today I decided to unpack a few more boxes in the den. The den has become the catch-all room, where random things get thrown for temporary storage. Only in this case, temporary has become about 6 months. Even my bike ended up there after being pummeled by the thick dust that settles everywhere during Harmattan season. Anyway, I was unpacking a small box of stuff from the Austin house; mostly random birthday cards and candles and keychains, when I came across a poem I had written over 10 years ago. Ever have one of those moments where you stop dead in your tracks from memories flooding over you? Like that. I have not had one of those moments lately....not since I found one of my kids' first notes to the Tooth Fairy and I went back to that place in time when I remembered the smell of their hair, fresh from a bath, as I tucked a couple of quarters under their pillow. Today was more poignant than that.

Today's title will explain itself shortly. You see, you can change your life; you can move half way across the world, but you can never totally leave your past behind. In some unplanned way, when you least expect it, it will hit you like it happened yesterday. If your past contains some pain, and frankly whose doesn't, thankfully these moments will diminish as you get further away from the events. But today, no such luck for me. I found my poem, and it's typed on a piece of white paper. It has a title (underscored even) but the whole bottom of the page is torn off so there is literally only half a sheet of paper left. Torn paper seems to have significance here; like I saved the poem in a fit of madness, lacking the formality to even save the entire page. Since the poem is short; I'll add it here:

Wedding Rings
Shiny, glittering bands of silver. Some people never wear these reminders on their finger of the day they said "I do." They never felt the love and hope that a glance at these rings brought me. I always valued their sentiment and their purpose. I used to cherish these symbols of faithfulness, charity and respect.

Then pain and misery rained down on these cold, steel bands. About the 100th time after my husband said he didn't love me anymore, I finally understood the only wisdom the rings held for me. Without love and commitment, they were just pounded bits of metal. Given with promise, they held value beyond dreams. Tarnished with hate and regret, they lie idle and unforgiving.

As I read the words, I started crying. I felt all the hurt and pain from years of suffering through a really bad marriage. It was as thought the words on the page released the clarity of how painful it really was, when at the time I could not let that level of feeling in. I think we must have to mimimize some things in order to survive. But we can never really hide from our true feelings. Even all these years later, I can still feel the sting of how devestating it feels when your husband tells you he doesn't love you.

That being said, today I appreciate how far I've come. I didn't let the pain totally take control of my life. Somehow, I managed to raise our last child, get a Bachelors degree, survive (definately not thrive) financially, and finally get myself together enough to take a long shot at getting a job with the Foreign Service and actually accomlish that. I moved across the world by myself and I am really thriving here in Africa. I have become the person I was meant to be....even though I would not have chosen this bumpy path.

So it just goes to show....when you chose a career with a foreign post, watch out for hidden surprises like memories tucked away in innocent boxes....and plan to unpack with an eye to the past and your arms wide open to the future.

Make it good,