Leave on Sunday for Nigeria, and the NIPHEC gathering in Lagos. Really looking forward to returning to Africa, where I have worked many times, but have not been for quite a while. I anticipate many changes, and I look forward to working with amazing colleagues, such as Michael Grecco, Seun Akisanmi, Leke Adenuga, Folake Ojeikere & Shola Animashaun. It’ll be a terrific week, a great place to teach, and to learn. Many, many thanks to the organizer, Seun, who has put heart and soul into this conference. Below, some recollections from my first visit to the astonishing continent of Africa.
My first port of entry to Africa, years ago, was Dar es Salaam, which literally translated, means “the abode of peace.” At that time, however, that was hardly my impression, as the heat, hustle and hot breath of a tough Indian Ocean port city in equatorial Africa jumps on you like a big wet dog, knocking you over and standing on you, paws on your chest, as soon as you get off the plane. My thoughts at the time were that you don’t really just “go” to Africa. You plunge in.
From Dar we traversed and overnighted in Dodoma, in more central Tanzania, and thence to a tiny place called Kongwa, where I repaired to a ramshackle, walled hotel called, as I remember, the Esso. At the time, the rooms were about one US dollar a night. My room was maybe 10 by 8, a box of cracked concrete and flecked with aged paint, with a sagging cot and a mosquito net that looked like somebody had put a shotgun blast through it. I repaired it, as best I could, with gaffer tape.
There was no running water, but I wisely made friends with the Swahili speaking chef, James, a truly decent sort, who I intuited understood a lot more English than he was willing to own up to. Sadly, this was not understood by my colleague at the time, a writer whose prose, attitude and jokes all, well, let’s say they stemmed from another era. Thankfully, he didn’t care for the accommodations, feigned an injury, and left quickly, saving all concerned further embarrassment.
James and I got along well, and at night, he would heat a large pot of water for me, which I would then mix with water I drew from the old oil drums that served as the main supply for the hotel. I would take this warm mix with me into a coop in the back of the hotel, scurry out the chickens, strip down and bucket shower after a long day in the field. It felt astonishingly good, after a day of dust and bumps out in the field, tracking to tribal villages.
I was there to document the efforts to stem the rising tide of trachoma in East Africa, which is an awful, painful way to lose your sight. I was working with a team from Johns Hopkins, and a researcher named Matt Lynch, a committed doc, and a great field colleague. We would ramble about, often in the company of an opthalmic nurse, Sydney Kattala, who is as close to a saint as anyone I have ever met. He rumbled his four wheel about the hinterlands of Tanzania constantly, going into the villages, and doing impromptu eye exams, and rough surgery, with the intent of relieving the scourge of trachoma.
There was, at the time, one source of electricity in the village, a generator owned by a fellow named Remtoulah, who ran the general store. He would run it all day, powering his shop. Matt and I would go every morning and each buy a large bottle of Safari beer, which we would then stash in Remtoulah’s cooler for the remainder of the day. Upon return, after a meal and clean up, we would sit in chairs, cold Safari beers in hand, and watch the amazing African night close in. Remtoulah, as he shut his doors for the day, would power down the genny, and all man made noise ceased. The night was like a big, black blanket, softly drawn up over your head, and the crystalline magnificence of the sky loomed endlessly, a real version of Pandora.