Living My Life

25 September 2016

I had my Malawian intestinal baptism this week. Awakening at 1:30AM I visited the loo 10 times in the next 18 hours. Only one was a very, very close call. I cannot tell the source, as at least one other person ate whatever I ate and no one else suffered. After the 18 hours, and gulping Imodium (Which I’m now told is not a great idea. It is better to allow things to flush out normally. It didn’t work, in any case.) like peanuts, just as suddenly my gut lay limp, exhausted no doubt. I did not feel ill with this challenge to my intestinal flora, as I did with amoebiasis the last time I visited Africa (1972, Central African Republic).  Or the two times I had giardia, backpacking in Yosemite and in the old Soviet Union. Remember that dysfunctional behemoth? I think I am just getting settled, acquainted with the local bugs. There was a bit of drama to the urgency, though.

And speaking of drama, our daytime guard, Catherine, sees me as a mark. First, I have to say that I respect her immensely, raising 3 children on her own.  I was the one to whom she passed the note, supposedly from her 14yo son Joseph, requesting his school fees one morning after Linda had left for work.  I was still in bed, working on my laptop. Into my bedroom she came with the note, having requested a pen and a copy book before that. She will wait until Linda has left for work and then approach me. Once she came in looking wan, fell into a chair at the dining table where I was working, and said, “I sick”. I felt her forehead and she seemed hot. Malaria? Then she said, “Minibus fare.” “How much?” “Two hundred kwatcha.” I didn’t have MK200, only 500, so I gave her that and she left. On Friday. On Monday I asked her for the MK300 change. She looked puzzled and I said we’d take it out of her housekeeping salary at the end of the month. I have no idea if she understood me. She nodded and I went back to work. Yesterday she called me—“Georgie. Georgie.” When I got up from my desk where I was writing exam questions for my lectures, she was in the hall. She said, “I thought, sick, sick. But, no, I miss Georgie” and gave me a hug. She repeated this then shook my hand; hers was clammy and wet and distinctly not inviting. Still, I am a bit unsettled. Is this pretty 35-40yo Malawian villager coming on to me, a 76yo visiting professor at the College of Medicine? Am I flattering myself? Or should I be wary?  I know by my standards that she has terrible interpersonal boundaries, but then Malawians have a very different standard for that than we do. If our mantra is, “Cogito, ergo sum” (I think, therefore I am.), theirs is “I am because you are and you are because I am.” It’s called uMuntu or ubuntu and is a pan-African (sub-Saharan) philosophy.  It is clearly derived from agrarian village life in an unpredictable climate where they need to help each other survive in rough times (Like this year!). In any case, Linda and I discussed it and when Catherine calls “Georgie” I shall call back, “I am working.” I’ll see how that goes. She’s pretty determined, though. I have a fantasy that I’ll get a medical student to interpret for me and I’ll do a series of interviews with Catherine, getting her life story from start until now. If it turns into anything, maybe she’ll be an opening to others in her village. The proceeds of said best-seller would go toward tuition for all of their children.

Linda’s middle son, the chemist for Novartis who resigned and started a distillery (Short Path) in Boston that produces the best gin ever, has an Irish girlfriend, an engineer in NYC. Her younger sister, Emma, is a 5th year medical student in UK and is completing an 8 week African elective, 4 in Cape Town and 4 in Nkotakota (9 bus hours north of us on Lake Malawi). She’s visiting for the weekend and it is lovely to hear a thick Irish accent. It seems every medical school now has electives, if not a department, for Global Health. Columbia had a couple of elective spots in Africa when I was there. I so wanted to go but, because I was in psychoanalysis, the Dean of Students (He who shall not be named!) felt I was “unstable” and nixed my application. I still resent it. My roommate and friend Harold got to go to Bareilly, India and see digitalis administered to lovesick 20yo girls with palpitations. Still, I love what I am doing so much that I wonder if it might have changed the course of my life. I can’t really complain, however, as here I am.

Emma’s Irish grandmother met a Malawian priest, Father Ignatius, in hospital in Ireland 11 years ago. They have been friends since and grandmother (now 90yo) helps with fundraising for the church.  Father Ignatius drove here from Zomba today to see Emma. He is a lovely, engaging man who hails from Mulanje, at the base of the mountain. He took us for a ride, kind of like my dad would do in his “topper-downer” (convertible) on a Sunday Spring afternoon in Seattle. We went to Thyolo (think Cholo) to view the lovely tea plantations, stopping to buy bananas, avocados, and papayas. Also, we each had an ear of grilled corn—not exactly Silver Queen but very flavorful. He pointed out the Montfort Missionaries’ compound, the Limbe Cathedral, and a variety of other properties and schools run and owned by the church. They have very deep and charitable roots here. The tea fields are always special to see; there were a number of huge, umbrella-shaped trees with yellow flowers all over them scattered throughout. Father Ignatius said they were another variety of jacaranda. As a boy he used to pick tea during the Christmas school break to make money to buy his pencils and copybooks. How life has changed!

The Stone of Ages Evangelical Assembly is rocking and rolling down the hill from us. It sounds almost like Auntie Dot’s Bottle Shop in the market nearby on a Saturday night. My kind of church music, loud with passion and a good back beat and lots of swaying in time. Someone recently asked me if I was an atheist. I’m not sure how it came up. Being brutally honest, I said “Yes”. He looked shocked. After I told Linda, she suggested I say “I go to Catholic Church with my wife.” She is not my wife and I am not Catholic. I do go, however, and in this very prayer-full country, it may be the best course of action. Having just given a lecture to the medical students about Personality Disorders, I’m mindful of Antisocial Personality Disordered folks for whom lying is painless and guilt-free. This seems like a tiny lie, equivalent to claiming an $8 lunch with a friend/colleague as a “Business Meeting” for tax purposes. (I am prepared to be audited at any moment!) And while the (loose) associations are flowing, an example of my overweening Superego is from the second time my wife and I were robbed, living on the Sacramento River. The first time the insurance paid about 50 cents on the dollar. This time I vowed to myself, “Someone is going to pay.” I called a friend, who is an audiophile, to gather names and prices of high-end stereo gear to claim so I could at least break even. I awoke in a cold sweat at 4AM, having dreamed a headline in the Sacramento Bee: “Psychiatrist goes to Folsom Prison.” The chance to meet Johnny Cash aside, I realized my reimbursement plan wouldn’t fly with my conscience. So I called the police and revised the list. Yes, I forgot I lent the Sony Trinitron to a friend and, actually, I found the receipts which were for low-end Kenwood stereo components. There was silence and then the officer cleared his throat and said, “Is that all?” “Yessir!”  Thus was my life of crime abbreviated.

We are considering renting a Land Rover or such 4 wheel drive animal and traversing Southern Africa to go to and through Namibia and down to Cape Town to visit my sister and niece and the latter’s family. We’re in the early stages of planning and this is just a teaser to keep those of you who are considering abandoning reading my weekly offerings engaged. Writing this feels a bit narcissistic—“a bit” you say—but it is a way for me to keep a record of this year for myself as much as it is to inform others.   Feeling I have millions hanging on my every word keeps me from disappointing them. I have long realized what a procrastinator I am and how deadlines are so helpful for me.

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