On the Downslope

22 April 2018

[Above photo: Land crabs at Chokas Beach]

The petty theft I mentioned last week was addressed by our day guard and gardener, Chimwemwe. He stayed an hour after his usual day to speak with Catherine and Cabbage, saying that we were very generous with them and it wasn’t right for them to be taking our things. All true. We give them extra money for unexpected circumstances, pay them considerably more than our Malawian counterparts do, and overlook absences.  Shortly thereafter, Catherine came to the door, crying out “Mommie, Mommie.” to Linda. Linda opened the door, Catherine fell to her knees, sobbing, tears streaking her face, saying she was sorry. Yes, she had taken the doormat (Previously she casually dismissed Linda’s enquiry about it with, “Probably the neighbors came over the fence.”) the flashlight, the shoes, etc. She was sorry. Mr. Cabbage, whose English is worse than hers, hovered in shadows at the edge of the light, making apologetic murmurings.

It doesn’t make me feel warmly toward her, even as I can feel sorry for her and understand that someone who has rarely been given anything except babies and has very limited resources (as well as little hope of more, ever) will naturally have a hunger for things she sees in the world and doesn’t have.  The shoes, boxer shorts, and doormat have not, and will not, I suspect, be returned. The flashlight was brought back but I think it has gone missing again. Linda asked her Malawian co-faculty what would they do. They all said that their guards and housecleaners stole from them, little things of small consequence. And they suggested that as the time of our leaving approached, the pace of petty theft would pick up. They especially cautioned us re. any in-house help we might have. We have none, happily. So, we’ll mind our things, I suppose. The papaya tree mentioned last week was a male, of which we have several in the yard, and Chimwemwe simply cut it down as more males weren’t needed. That is part of the corrosive factor of petty theft and corruption, especially in government. It causes me to be suspicious where I needn’t be, which I hate. None of this is personal: just envy, hunger, poverty.

I’ll speak at Grand Rounds at Alta Bates/Herrick Hospital in Berkeley on 1 October about my experience here. I’ve been trying to distill it without removing all the impurities and complexity. I think of the women sitting for days in the dirt in the courtyards of Queen Elizabeth Central Hospital, washing bed linen (colorful chitenjes) and preparing meals for their loved ones in the hospital who may be getting worse or dying or who are just deathly ill. They chat.  They don’t sing much but they often will listen to a hell-fire preacher in overlarge black mis-matched suit jacket and trousers and white shirt, exhorting them to give up their sinful ways and accept Jesus’ love right now before they, also, like their family member in hospital, sink into the soil from which we all arose. I’ll have to give the presentation some serious thought, probably on Beach Island in September.

Jordan, Linda’s youngest son, arrived from Warsaw for a 2 ½ week visit. His girlfriend, Paulina, will join us this Friday. It coincides with a very busy time for Linda, so we’ll have to wing it some. We’ll go to the game park at Majete for two nights, I’ll take them to Domwe Island for two nights, and we’ll do other fun trips in the area. He is a very thoughtful man, an engineer working on the design of jet engines for General Electric (Apparently GE is the 800 pound gorilla of aircraft engine design and manufacturing. Who knew? I thought they made toasters!) in Poland. He is fluent in Polish, has a Polish girlfriend, bought and is renovating an apartment in Warsaw, and is learning to cook the appealing items of Polish cuisine. He’s also travelled widely in Eastern Europe, Croatia, Azerbaijan, Czechoslovakia, and returning to Georgia and Armenia 3x.  Flights are very inexpensive. He’s a marathoner and ran the Warsaw marathon with Linda some years ago. And has an enquiring and wide-ranging mind. And is devilishly funny. It is very nice to have him aboard and we can’t wait to meet Paulina.

We give this group of medical students, 25 in all, exams this week. A mutual feedback session on Friday morning will complete the rotation, my final one.  The students are a the bright lights here; I hope they aren’t dimmed or extinguished by the end of 5th year—or their 18 month internships. Salaries are so poor and positions so few that in spite of their good education and intentions many may flee the country for greener pastures.

Speaking of bright lights, they have installed 17/23 new lightbulbs in the College of Medicine hallway where we have our offices, which is quite a pleasant surprise. I didn’t expect it. Of course, the 5 dead bulbs at the Department of Mental Health end of the hall haven’t (yet) been replaced. Am I being paranoid? Or did Microbiology just make more squeaky noises than we did?

I saw another fascinating film in Lucy’s series: The Last Animals. It’s about the slaughter of elephants (for ivory) and rhinos (for horn) in Africa. It was made by Kate Brooks, a celebrated war photographer who has spent years in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, and is miraculously still alive. She saw her task, correctly I think, as reporting on another war. 100,000 elephants and 5000 rhinos were killed during the making of the film. Two of the last 5 Northern White Rhinos on Earth died during the filming and the last three have no hope of reproducing as the male has a low sperm count and the females are apathetic and less than interested.  The elephants are often shot in the top of the head from helicopters.

I am struggling because demand for the ivory and the horn is largely from China. The Chinese are also cutting and exporting timber, oil, and minerals, both legally and illegally, all over Africa. Certainly in Malawi and Mozambique the destruction of forest is massive. There are over a million Chinese now in Africa, mostly coming in the last 20 years and economic ties between China and many African countries are extensive. It seems to me that they are colonizing and exploiting African countries, certainly with the acquiescence of the African leaders. Regarding the animals, rhino horn is like fingernail clippings but Chinese belief is that it is an aphrodesiac and will generally improve your health. Ivory is made into carvings, jewelry, and backscratchers.  Poor peasants here are given new AK-47’s, making them better-armed than the animals’ guardians. The peasants don’t get rich, of course. But the large smuggling syndicates, which also traffic in drugs and sex-slaves, make huge profits. Ugh.  How to stop the demand?

This is a very dark series, Lucy. Fascinating and I’m grateful you put it together but I’m glad it is only one film per week!

I am planning to write a list of tasks to complete before I leave. I know that if I don’t I’ll leave some important ones undone. I’m unsure why I don’t just do it. I feel as if I’m procrastinating before writing a final paper for a course. Part of me feels that I don’t want to give myself a huge worklist, that I’ve worked hard enough over two years. But it nags me so I’ll start it now.  Tasks deferred always take more out of me than if I just did them.

Here’s a nice closing quote I came across. From Voltaire. “Uncertainty is uncomfortable. Certainty is ridiculous.” It works well in my chosen field of work.

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