Diary of a Plague Week


[Above photo: The scene of the crime and the instrument in question.]

17 September 2017

It was not really pasturella pestis, rather my (often self-inflicted) version of it.  It started Tuesday.  As I entered Clinic to mentor the students, a young woman patient of mine, a student in the College of Medicine approached me. I’d written a letter supporting her desire to withdraw from school for reasons of her mental health. The letter went to the Dean of Students, with copies to the Registrar and Head of Department on official Queen Elizabeth Central Hospital stationary with officially signed seals. I said, “[X] is a patient of mine. She is unwell and unable to attend school until further notice”.  It was signed with all my titles following.  The young woman was told that the letter was wrong, it was more like a letter from a tutor, not her physician. After unsuccessfully trying to call the COM central switchboard, I told her to wait, got on my bike and rode to the College. I was fuming but recalled my mother saying you get more flies with honey than vinegar so I focused on my breathing and was calm and friendly when I approached the Registrar’s secretary. “There is something wrong with this letter. Can you help me?”  She looked at the letter, looked at me, went into another room (the Registrar’s inner sanctum?), came out and said, “Oh, it’s just fine. No problem.” I thanked her and puzzled about it for a few hours until I realized that the Hospital Director’s secretary had sent it to the Dean of Students, missing a nuance of hierarchy. Probably the Registrar felt slighted.   Forty-five minutes of purgatory for someone’s vanity!

Then I worked like a beaver in clinic, rushing out to grab a quick sandwich so I could get to class on time. I went to our classroom—-the necessary speaker system and powerpoint projector had gone home with the Scots the night before—to find it empty. I desperately tried to locate the equipment, calling and texting both Scot phones but there was no answer or reply. Starting to warm again, I went outside to find one of the Scots coming in; the classroom had been changed. The person assigning the classrooms is quite incompetent, it turns out, and after teaching our students for 3 of their 7 week rotation in Lecture Theatre 1, suddenly another group of students plus instructor were assigned it. They arrived, demanding the room.  The Scots graciously conceded and, luckily, found a different lecture theatre. You get the drift.

Scene switches to Road Traffic, where I am becoming familiar with all the personnel and procedures. I needed to get a Certificate of Fitness. Of me, I asked? Ha ha!  No, the car. But I don’t have the car here. It doesn’t matter, they don’t actually check the car. What?!!! Get in that line there.

Of course, there was no line, simply a crush of 50+ people, jammed like sardines in a small hot room, all pressing forward towards the two uniformed men at computers. Two men for a minute; then one man decamped for an hour lunch break at 3PM. Turns out, he was the one with my form. After an hour, the other man asks me, “Is anyone helping you?” As the only white person I stood out, I suppose. And since he was the only person helping anyone, he knew the answer to his question. So I squeezed up, pressed my left index finger on a sensor, and the Fixer I’d hired to hasten me through the process was given a paper and rushed off to pay the COF fee. The seller, Patrick, and I waited by the empty car inspection area, which had a very long sunken pit you can drive over so a mechanic can inspect the underside of your car, drain the oil, etc. Before hydraulic lifts, I think.  Of course, no one was inspecting anything. [Stefan has a hilarious photo of a car driven so the two left wheels have fallen into the pit! Not inspiring confidence here.] When the Fixer returned, I had to get into the crowd again, repeat the process of being crushed and getting identified by fingerprint, etc. After 55 minutes, the entire computer system crashed because it was overheated, so I couldn’t get my COF that day.

Well, maybe we can get my license plates, I ask. We walk up the street, etc. Meanwhile, I am mindful of the fact that in my rush to get to Maine last summer, I filled out the Peds Mental Health Clinic scheduling book wrong. If you look at the entire year on the screen of your iPhone, the numbers are tiny. I’d scheduled all of September for Friday, not Thursday. Since half the people don’t have phones, I was resigned to working in Peds clinic Friday, thus having 4 clinic days each week in September, not 3. This is a significant burden, given that I am preparing and giving lectures to the Medical Students, the new GHSP Volunteers, and at the first all-Malawi Pediatric and Allied Child Health Association Conference next week on top of all my other duties. Oh, and when I came home I noticed that Catherine had purloined a significant amount of olive oil and the remainder of the other cooking oil on the stove. She’d taken the last banana the day before. And I don’t know what else. The orange-handled scissors are missing, but I may have mislaid them. This is not good. I get that she is hungry but stealing, even food, by our housekeeper who is here alone in the house, is not OK with me.  I’ll move her to an outdoor position [until Linda returns, at least.]

I started to get a grip on myself, made a nice supper, and was settling in last night for a productive weekend when I got a call from the Scots. Want to join us for supper at Bombay? Maddy returns to Edinburgh tomorrow. We leave in 7 minutes. Sure, I have already eaten but I’ll join you for a beer. Rush to change back into nicer clothes, get my headlamp, lock the large padlock on the front door metal grate……oh, jesus, it happened. I was rushing so much I left my keys inside.

Long and short, I had two beers at the restaurant watching them eat tikka masala and saag paneer, then a lot of excellent single malt whiskey and dark chocolate at Stefan and Lucy’s where I would spend the night. We went to bed at 11:20 after a great evening discussing the joys and trials of our work here, through a peat-infused haze. After 4 hours sleep I awoke with a possible solution—-fashion something to snag the keys to the back door. They are on a hook about 8’ from the closest window. [No longer, as I give detailed instructions below on how to break into our house!]  I went back to sleep and awakened at 5:25AM (realizing that the guard would leave at 6 and I’d be locked out of the property. So I jumped up, figured out how to exit and lock their security gate, and jogged the 2+ km home, to find that Bernard had left before 5:45 when I arrived. He and I had a big set-to last week about his unreliability and I said, Yes, he could work 6PM to 6AM instead of 7 to 7, even though it inconvenienced me and left us unguarded for a bit (not really a worry). Ok, he’ll be fired on Sunday evening when he arrives. Maybe I’ll offer Catherine his job; she can be outside of the house, then, and make much more money than she currently does. Even though Chimwemwe tells me night guards are men and women can only be day guards. Ridiculous! I don’t think for a minute the night guards would protect us from determined invaders. She does have children to feed and put to bed, however, which may be an issue for her.

So, finding the gate locked, I went two gates up and entered, surprising the guard. The two houses next door are vacant and being rehabilitated.  They are owned by our landlady. I found a rickety ladder made of sticks and nails in the back, carried it to the wall of our yard, and hopped over. Feeling enthusiastic, I fashioned a snagger out of two old bamboo fence pieces tied together with string. I jammed a curved twig from our avocado tree into the end, stood on my cooking briquette press for a better angle and view, jimmied open the window, propped up the mosquito screen, and carefully, carefully—-if I dropped them on the floor, we’d have to break, and replace, two locks to get in—threaded the twig through the ring and brought the keys home. Then I unlocked it all and was in. What a saga! Feeling triumphant I made a cup of tea and ate the best grapefruit ever.

It’s not easy here, especially if you make trouble for yourself by acting impulsively, as I can do.

A baby sparrow had left its nest in our eaves and was sitting on our front porch yesterday morning, holding very still even as Catherine gently patted it. When I came home last night it was gone. I prefer to think that its mother taught it to fly away rather than that the mongoose ate it. No feathers about, so the former seems more likely. [I suddenly wonder if Catherine took it home to roast!]

It is hatching time for geckos, as well. There are a zillion tiny—I mean less than an inch long and as thin as a kebab skewer—ones, indoors and out. They are compact miracles, as all babies are, their adult potential contained in a miniscule package.  When we think of iPhones as miraculous, they are perhaps 1000 times larger and contain nothing like the complexity of these reptile infants.

I’ll return to Road Traffic Monday after clinic to try to complete my COF (Ha!) and then go to Britam to get insurance. Should I pay $1200/year for comprehensive, which I understand is difficult to collect on  in the event of an actual accident, or should I pay $80/year for 3rd party and assume the risk? It seems like a no-brainer to me.

PS I did fire Bernard, the guard, for unreliablity. “Ok, I know I’m sacked but can I work Sundays? And I want to be your driver—-here’s my license.” Excellent idea!


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