Posts Tagged ‘health’

IN BETWEEN


In Between

The intrigues of being in the middle have always been with me, although I thought they had ended during my childhood and early teenage years. They came back to haunt me recently in a strange manner. I was born into a family of three children as the second child; I have an elder brother and a younger sister.  When we were children I felt the pain and frustration of being in the middle. My brother would return from school with tales of his new class and we would all listen with rapt attention. When it is my turn to recount my ordeal, I usually notice the attention waning gradually. Then the story usually ends-thankfully I guess for my parents- with “Oh, just do what Dele did when he was in that class”. I don’t blame my parents; I guess new stories just attract most humans more than repeated tales with a change in a few of the characters. They could recite the nuances of all the teachers now, their best clothes and even their favourite hairstyles. My mother especially tried to allow me air my stories happily by feigning audience but I always see the glint in her eyes when my brother starts to talk about the class that none of her children have attended before. While I feel neglected and ignored, my sister is right there with a mess for a lunch box, she only has stories of silly things she did with her friends during the break period. I guess they make for good entertainment too because my parents want to listen and the glint is back in my mum’s eye.

Classroom

I only sit and wonder at why she cannot grow up and stop talking about silly things. Then, I conjure ways to match my brother either in the act of storytelling or in doing something new for the first time. That is the life of the man in the middle; the one or those ahead seem too far away while the ones behind really need help. I want to bring my sister up to where I am whilst aiming for where my brother stands. It is like running forward with your face turned backward. However, I realised it is not always blissful for the guy ahead, he bears responsibilities. My brother was the only one who had the privilege of knowing why daddy would not come home the night he had an auto accident. I was too young to be told. My sister meanwhile was fast asleep. I was too old to sleep because I knew something was wrong but too young to be told what was wrong! Who said I did not want those responsibilities, but will I be able to handle them if given? I don’t know. It has always been that way. It is like a spectrum of drunken men, the guy ahead is clear-eyed, everybody depends on him and he is sure of himself. The man in the middle is tipsy while the last man is drunk. The tipsy man wants to behave like the clear-eyed fellow and he also seeks to help the drunken man. The first man will seek to help the last man because obviously he needs the help the most; he believes the second man can take care of himself. He should be able to anyway, if he concentrates on only one path but he is torn between two ways. When it is time to apportion blame the tipsy gets all the blame since he is liable to making mistakes and he is considered by all to be in his right mind. The drunken man is blameless; he is too influenced to be held accountable for his actions! The man in between always has the greatest dilemma.

Recently, on a mission for an international organisation to help curb the meningitis epidemic in northern Nigeria, I was paired with another doctor as part of a team. Richard is a European, we became friends quickly. We share certain interests and it also helped to work as friends. Habitually, our conversations revolved mostly around medicine, we compared the practice of the profession in our different countries of origin. He respects the knowledge of Nigerian doctors, their ability to manage patients without some investigations which he considered essential. However, he mentioned the disadvantages of this kind of practice which includes wrong diagnosis and increased resistance to drugs that are prescribed carelessly. He was quick to add anyway that Nigeria is better than many other countries. He mentioned some that don’t even have a healthcare system. “Nigeria does not need aid” he said, “She has enough doctors and abundant resources to provide proper healthcare for her citizens”. “Nigerian doctors do well in foreign countries thus they have no excuse for below par performance at home”. Richard obviously did not have enough facts to comment appropriately on Nigerian doctors but he was not condescending; it was professional conversation with candour. I imagined working in an environment with adequate facilities. I also wondered how people in the countries without healthcare have managed to stay alive. It was not difficult to identify the problem; Nigeria in the middle.

Farm

Today, we visited some settlements; they had earlier refused to be vaccinated. We were to find the reasons for their refusal and convince them about the importance of the vaccines. Our first stop was a little village of about two hundred inhabitants; they had a spokesman who could speak some English. They welcomed us without reservations. The spokesman explained immediately we asked that they were very grateful for the offer but they would not partake because they do not believe it will make any difference. His speech was garbled but we understood him perfectly. We tried to make a case for immunization but there was no common ground, they were adamant. The spokesman told us his story, he is a farmer, and not lazy he claims. He tills his land once the rains start; he plants enough crops for his family to eat. He has three wives and fifteen children, they help with the farm. The male children herd his cattle and sheep.  He has friends at the village square where they gather to play games and drink cuddled milk. The village is made up of families like his; they have a satisfied life, they do not want external influences like our vaccines to corrupt their children. The disease will only kill their children if God allows it.

I looked around him, children in tattered clothes struggling over our empty can of coke, lean women carrying gourds filled with water, definitely from far distances. Signs of poverty surrounded him but he did not know it! I told him the correct order would have been for him to get an education, start mechanised agriculture, build silos and barns then he would have food in and out of season. He could feed his family, sell more for good money and drink cuddled milk all day. He looked at me and laughed, his teeth were stained yellowish brown with kola nut. He asked my age, I observed him before answering; he should be about five years older than me. I told him my age, “Are you married?” he asked immediately, “No” I replied. He laughed again, longer this time. I cringed, who should be laughing at whom? He recovered “you can chase after the books forever” he said “but you will eventually have to do the necessary things”; he closed with a little more laughter. I felt stupid, why not? I was laughed at, but this man does not reason like me, we are different. The things I consider important are trivial to him and vice versa. I wanted to continue the dialogue when Richard nudged me “we should go” he said. We bid our hosts farewell, we shook hands and waved long enough to reduce the friction.

On our way, we conversed about the encounter. I admitted I made a mistake trying to solve a century’s problem in a minute. Richard told me to calm down; “the man does not feel any pain about his situation”, he explained “because he does not know any better, he is so innocent”. How could he not know it? I think some things just feel better. Then I realised that he was better than me. I know my situation, I know it can be better but I cannot make it better! He does not know so he does not need to make it better. Moreover, unlike me he feels no pain. I feel the pain for my own circumstances and also for his too. I want to work in a perfect hospital and I also want to turn a subsistent farmer to a plantation owner, even against his wish. The farmer thinks I’m too ambitious. Richard thinks his innocence is beautiful. If I decide to revert and become like the farmer I will be seen as complacent. Can I even replenish my ignorance? I have to stand where I belong. It is my life, my burden and my identity; to be the man in between – for now.

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THE DIPLOMAT


Susan is always good company, we would talk and talk about everything in the world and always find common ground. It was not polite conversation; we had our differences a lot of times but they were fewer than our agreements. It was all the more interesting considering the fact that she was North American, had only been in Nigeria for two weeks and we met her ten days ago. We talked about everything. She was also beautiful with a great sense of humour; I guess that made it very easy to talk to her. A good ability to flirt also spiced our conversations appropriately. When I told her I liked her hair whenever it was wet and often requested that she wash it for me, she called me a kinky guy “Guess you just wanna see me in the shower”

“That’s a little more than I asked for but I wouldn’t mind, might as well wash it myself”

“Pick a date”

“Tomorrow”

“Naaaa, you got it wrong, if you want it, you have to want it today”

“But there’s no shower here” we were on our way to a distant village hospital and won’t be back at the hotel we were staying with the other members of the intervention group till much later in the evening. We are both doctors working for an international Non Governmental Organisation on an emergency mission for the measles epidemic in Northern Nigeria.

“Guess you just can’t have it then”

our lonely roads

“Cheat”. We would laugh and switch to some other topic; sports, business or world politics- we had endless fora.

But we never really talked about Nigeria. I would have asked but I guess I was just waiting for her to gather material; two weeks can be a short time. And because we both laughed a lot when we talked, I assumed she was enjoying Nigeria. However, I decided to discuss the country today.

We were sitting at the back of a SUV with the windows down and a lot of breeze was blowing around as the driver maintained a hundred kilometres per hour speed. We were at the height of the dry season and the Northern Nigeria sun was about 40 degrees overhead, the breeze was hot and dry but thankfully not dusty because of the well paved road. If the driver had to decelerate to about fifty kilometres per hour for any reason, we would start to sweat not minding our loose fitting clothes. She was wearing an all cotton grey pair of trousers, a similar tee shirt and sandals. I was dressed in cream cotton trousers, a striped short sleeved shirt with sandals too. Our raffia hats sat beside us; our ready shelter outside the vehicle.  It was then I decided to create a distraction from our sizzling flesh.

“What do you think about Nigeria”? I asked.

She paused and looked at me; her face read “I’ve been waiting for that”

Then she launched into a tirade “Your weather is hell, your food is nice, much less populated than the figures say……….”

“Wait, slowly. Let’s take it one by one. ” I stopped her before she could raise her voice. Instead of starting a long lecture about the densely populated South as against the North where we were presently or the comfortable Jos climate, I decided to allow her to talk.

“First, talk about the people” I told her.

“They are ok, but they seem very disrespectful especially towards themselves”. She raised a hand before I could interject “Like when we are at the restaurant and they keep shouting at the waiters and waitresses- bring me food, bring me food!” she demonstrates, raising her hand motioning for someone to come over in a condescending manner.

I was confused and lost for words, how could I possibly explain to this young woman that though she has visited about six states in Nigeria; she did not know Nigeria. Also, the restaurants are the not the place to judge a people as loquacious or rude.

“That is not right, that applies to only a few people. Just a handful in a bag of grain!”

friends of the hot sun

“No, I have other examples; I see some of the Nigerian staff talk to the drivers. They do the same when they want to buy things along the road – just order the hawkers around and shout at them without restraint.”

“Ok, now you are talking about haves and have nots.” I had to change the direction of my defence “That is a common phenomenon in the society of haves and have nots.” I decided to take my argument a step further- ingratiate a little. “That might not happen where you come from because over there unlike here, basic things like education, houses and food are not privileges.”

She seemed to pause and listen, then I continued “here, because only the privileged gets things done, he tends to lord himself over the others.”

“No” she disagreed instantly “I have been to nine African countries, eight of them much worse economically than Nigeria and not in any one of them did I see such a display of arrogance.”

I was at a loss for a reply, my exposition on the development of an egalitarian society had plunged me into deep waters. I had never been out of Nigeria, a fact that I had revealed to her in one of our friendlier discussions. How would I tell if people in the Kalahari stand on anthills and blow horns at waiters before getting served.

“I still don’t think it’s a Nigerian thing” I had to stand my ground.

Before she could reply, the driver saved me. He announced from his seat that he wanted to buy fuel. She didn’t hear him so she asks me “what did he say?”

“We need to buy fuel”

“Why do you guys call it phooel?” “It is pronounced phiil” she retorted with a funny look.

I laughed and replied “Why do you guys call it gas? After all it’s liquid.” She laughed and I was happy I had doused the tension. It will not augur well for work if we had differences and lingering arguments. However, I would have loved to tell that if a people were more than a tenth of a billion, then, they deserved to have their own diction; suitable and well adapted to their natural tongues.

We bought the “phooel” and continued our journey, the ten minute stop had taken its toll on us despite our loose clothing. We both fanned ourselves with loose sheets of paper and I complained about the heat. She looked at me and asked “Why are you complaining? Is your skin not made for this weather?!”

I turned, a wry smile “Do you go about with these kinds of clothes in winter?”

She laughed; a short one, from realisation rather than amusement. Guess it struck her that the eagle and the ostrich are both birds regardless of differing habitats. Somehow, they must share similar problems.

A strange quiet settled on the vehicle, our discussion had become a competition. Although, nobody was keeping scores but obviously the last exchange favoured me. I had to break the silence, we still had about two months to spend together on this project, and artificial reticence will definitely be a handicap. I waved the driver down, I had to buy something.

“I need to recharge my phone”

“No problem, I hope I can get some mangoes meanwhile” She had developed a strong liking for the fleshy fruit; she said it was really expensive back home. It is like apples for us.

“Sure”

We got her mangoes first, well picked greenish yellow beauties. She was all smiles, till I bought my recharge card. I paid and collected the card but on second thoughts I returned the card to the vendor “scratch it for me” I said.

She looked at me and said “I have heard all about these things, is that what you do when you don’t want to buy duds?”

“No, I have never bought a fake card before, just don’t want to get my nails dirty” I am sure my expression said “Where did that come from?”

She smiled, somewhat apologetically, I felt like knocking myself. I didn’t want her to apologise, I did not want to build a wall of formalities between us. I finished my transaction hoping we would not drift further apart. We proceeded to the vehicle; she clutched her mangoes while I fiddled with my phone. Not exchanging a word, we continued our journey in the quiet we thought we left behind.

Thankfully, we reached our destination in about five minutes, work began. We spent the next five hours diagnosing infirmities, providing solutions, administering vaccines and recording figures. It was a very busy albeit fulfilling day. Our health station was packed with people and we were happy our reports would show better response to the aid our organisation provided.

work station

The wonderful work day provided great conversation during the journey back. We found solace in science, discussing the different patients we managed and their various presentations. All our previous squabbles were buried and forgotten, or so I thought.

We were about fifteen minutes drive from our hotel when she turned, looked at me and called my name “Tope”, sounds like “Toppy”  she was poised to give a speech “I was in Congo sixteen months ago for a similar project, it was a very wonderful place, the forest of green trees was dense and the earth was red.”

I kept wondering about the geography lesson but I decided not to interrupt, she continued “there were no paved roads and flashy vehicles, there was only one doctor in the whole province, and it was one of my best experiences in Africa. Here, it is much different, this is not the Africa I envisaged” she was shaking her head and providing some emphasis “no, not at all”, a befitting end to a great speech.

She looked at me expecting a reply – a rebuttal or an agreement; I didn’t know which of them she expected most.

I threw my head back and laughed a deep throaty laugh, I allowed the ripples to rock my body and the sound to rock the vehicle. She joined me for a little time, nodding as she giggled “it’s true, it’s true.” I stopped before she felt derided. Then she asked me why I was laughing, “nothing” I said “I just think it is very amusing”.

I realised it was better to just laugh. I would not ask her which part of Congo she went to or why her African experience would only be fulfilled if there were primitive living conditions. Moreover, I could not tell the answer to her question; it was the first time I was happy, indeed overjoyed that Nigeria disappointed somebody. I laughed again, shorter this time, then, thought of our SUV as the restaurant and the young woman opposite me – the customer, screaming at me; the waiter. She did not realise she was screaming at me, above the din of the powerful engine of our transport and the hot air blowing past, I could hear her screaming at me exactly the way Nigerians scream at waiters!

I could not correct her; I did not want to destroy the bilateral agreements. Is that not why we all keep quiet and employ diplomacy? I would not like to jeopardise the possibility of receiving this kind of aid in the future by being tactless. It was a well paying job and the interview was gruelling. I switched the discussion back to the more agreeable vaccines.

Susan and I enjoyed a great work relationship for the next two months. Evidently, I never asked her to describe a people again, science and her hair made interesting enough topics for conversation. I never got to see her hair in the shower too, guess I was too diplomatic.

It has been years since that day but anytime I enter a restaurant, I remember to shout at the waiters “BRING ME FOOD!”

Proudly Nigerian!!!