Monday, July 9, 2012

All news out of Africa

One of my favorite books is Paul Theroux's Dark Star Safari. My mom gave it to me ten years ago this summer (I remember this because it was the summer before I left for Africa the first time). I sat in the front yard of the home where I had grown up. It was hot, like it is now, and I was in a lawn chair out under our big old maple tree, dreaming of the wilds of Africa and missionary medicine, and listening to the sounds of suburbia: lawn mowers and cicadas. I opened the book and this is the first paragraph I read:
"All news out of Africa is bad. It made me want to go there, though not for the horror, the  hot spots, the massacre-and- earthquake stories you read in the newspaper; I wanted the pleasure of being in Africa again. Feeling that the place was so large it contained many untold tales and some hope and comedy and sweetness too- "

A decade of years and about a thousand lifetimes (it feels like) later,  this paragraph still grabs me, but for different reasons. In '02 it was all supposition and mystery and promise--without faces, without memories. "All news out of Africa is bad." It sounded about right to me back then. I was sitting on the lawn and trying to think if I had ever heard anything good out of Africa.

This summer I am rereading the book, and my eyes dart over the first paragraph--but then return to it. It is a great place to start. It draws you in. It makes you want to read more.  But now the first sentence just serves as a place mark for me to remember--the people with whom I have worked, the patients I have cared for, the places I have lived and traveled. And it is largely the hope and comedy and sweetness of that life, of those people and places, that I recall. . .

Hope. Her name was Sidesso, and she was one of the first fistula patients I helped care for. Every day after her surgery I rounded on her, and waited with her for the day when her catheter would be removed. Truthfully, I was afraid with her, because I knew that wonderful and awful and beautiful thing called hope is a tenuous creature, and I did not think I could bear watching something so recently regained, lost again in that terrible pool of wetness which signals a failed surgery. The day arrived, and I remember the look on her face as I approached her bed: she was beaming and young and beautiful and full of--hope--made real by the dry sheets underneath her.
A VVF patient waits for her surgery. Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

Comedy. And then there is the story of my hike through the Impenetrable Forest in Uganda to see Silver Backed Gorillas . . . For those who know me well, my reputation for tripping is legendary. But here on steep mountains, I could not afford a twisted ankle. So, while my group looked on, I perfected what has become known as the Draper Butt Maneuver. I made it down. I was told that no one, before or since, has seen anything like it.
A legend is born . . .

Sweetness. Bill did not grow up drinking hot sweet tea with boiled milk. I did--and I love it to this day. In Kenya, it is called chai, and is just that--no spices ala Starbucks Chai--just good hot milky black tea and sugar. Problem: when Bill first encountered it, he tried it, and thoroughly disliked it--it actually made him sick to his stomach. Problem: drinking chai is a shared family and community act. It is part of the hospitality of Kenya. For a while, we tried to hide his full cup, and I had to do double duty, drinking mine, then his, and doing the cup shuffle. Until--one day we were visiting with a local family who ran an orphanage on a wing and a prayer out about an hours drive from our hospital. We were served chai. The lady of the house noticed that Bill did not drink his. We tried to explain. She got up and left--for a long time. Had we terminally offended her? About 45 minutes later she returned--with a big unopened jar of Maxwell House freeze dried coffee made in America. We just sat there and tried not to cry. It probably cost her a week's worth of food. Bill thanked her and drank a cup of black coffee. On our way home, he declared that he would never refuse to drink chai again.

Hope, comedy and sweetness. . . All news out of Africa.

1 comment:

  1. I am crying. Love the last picture of Bill and the chai. We are praying for y'all.