Where Happiness Resides


My most dedicated reader, fellow blogger and all-round conscience Ondrej has told me that he’s ‘eagerly watching the blog for new posts,’ so I’ve decided to pen a rambling entry that tries to capture a few wee slices of life here. Warning: it gets philosophical, and it ain’t short. But it’s what I got: with movements restricted, work hours long, and PHC not even Colombo, let alone Angkor Wat, I’m trying to make the most of the limited visual and thematic material I have here, and still keep y’all a bit informed about ma vie à Port Harcourt.

I realize that my non-MSF friends will never see the Port Harcourt I know and work in. I acknowledge also, with some sadness, that some (most?) of my non-MSF friends probably agree with Peter’s assessment that I have come to live and work in ‘the heart of darkness.’ My desire to convey some of what I’m living here for my friends and family faces many challenges. We have a general policy against taking photos outside the house or hospital — generally too many police, military, possible militants or gangs/cults with weapons around who wouldn’t want their photos taken, a general desire not to draw attention to ourselves or offend anyone, etc. (There’s a story about some expats who tried to take a photo of the MSF vehicle on the street one time, and ended up down at the police station for a short while until one of my predecessors came to rescue them and say nice words to the officer in charge. It functions as an effective cautionary tale.) A far greater challenge than the no-photo detail is the fact that I’m busy and my life is fairly full: and, as is common with us human animals, I’m already taking the realities of my life here rather for granted, after less than nine weeks. This means I sometimes don’t notice all the newness in my life, until we get a new surgeon like Matt, who just arrived from NYC for eight weeks after never being off the continent of North America before, and whose fresh eyes remind that, indeed, I’m no longer in Kansas.

My first weeks were characterized by an almost-giddy happiness that reminded me of the joy I felt while wandering the streets of NYC on lunchbreaks from my first job out of college. I had such a vivid delight in the fact that people whose intellects and purposes I respected were expecting, yes, needing me to return to the office from my lunch break so that I could answer their phones and make their photocopies that my heart sang with the joy of feeling wanted and useful. ‘Whatever,’ you’re thinking. Had they not been my emotions, were it someone else’s heart who’d experienced it, I too might find it peculiar. But the experience was there nonetheless, and I must admit that I had similar feelings in my first weeks here: almost an existential ‘Wow, it seems I actually can do this job, there actually is good work for me to do here, and my presence is worthwhile. Cool!’ After all, however much the last two years introduced me to MSF, I was still fairly in the dark about what I’d really be doing and what life would really be like once I got here to Port Harcourt: new continent, completely new type of project, and new role as Field Coordinator.While it may appear false modesty, the fact is that — proud though I admit I am of my multilingualism and a few other skills such as my croissants and breakfast breads — I generally assume I’m a rather ordinary person with rather ordinary skills. That what I can do, pretty much anyone else can also do. At least if they apply themselves. It took living with someone for several years to ascertain that things I could do, he could not do. Of the corollary – that things others can do, I can’t do – I’ve always been painfully aware: it still hurts that I can’t play piano, take to the stage as a modern-dance heart-throb, or identify which elements are burning in a distant star by the color of its light through a telescope. Being a non-musical college student grunt at an Oberlin College which (even in the early 1980s, when admission rates were getting dangerously high) boasted more musical talent than an average evening at Carnegie Hall, along with an assortment of non-musical intellects and personalities that have gone on to shining careers in the arts, literature, science, politics and all the other fields of human endeavor simply reinforced my core sense of my own general averageness. Of which, let it be said, I was not at all ashamed — average is great; where would the world be without it?

As I hinted during one of the late-summer entries, one thing about many Americans’ reaction to my current career path that disturbs me is the tendency to heroicize what I’m doing. More broadly, Americans’ post-9/11 tendency to heroicize anyone who sets about accomplishing their chosen or assigned jobs with integrity, honor and generosity towards their fellow humans greatly disturbs me. If everyone who behaves with honor and integrity is to be a hero, then either the currency of heroism has been sadly devalued or — more to the point, I fear — the currency of averageness has been dragged into the gutter. Returning to my original point about Port Harcourt: I’m here to do a job, and my first weeks were illuminated by my pleasure at discovering that I was up to the task. I don’t usually take this for granted, certainly about any new situation into which I’m putting myself.

The giddy phase – we’ll call it ‘chapter one: the honeymoon’ – ended around the time I posted my last entries. Many readers might have noted a certain snippiness and whinyness about such trifles (existentially speaking) as bandwidth and performance of internet connections. There ensued a phase (‘chapter two: teenage tantrums’?) in which my moods swung widely, with the general trend being towards frustration and impatience. These are my usual faults so it was not unexpected, but I was disappointed in myself nonetheless. After all, where was the gratitude at a life which made it possible for me to have fried plantain with delicious lentil stew while pondering how best to inform our neighbors and target populations of the medical services we are here to provide?

The good news is that I appear now to have emerged into a new, more grounded (and not in the teenage “you’re grounded!” sense) phase. I’m more able to accept that which I can’t change (in keeping with my standard policy of not going into any great detail about my work life, let’s simply stipulate that there have been some staffing situations, actually lack-of-staffing situations, which have left a bit to be desired), and find much joy in focusing on those areas where I can have an impact, on that which I can change. And it’s fun!

As you’d expect from a job which, in its office part, takes up six full days a week, finding my groove at work is helping find my groove in that which passes for my ‘outside life’ here. And, let it be said, whenever I’m in Port Harcourt I’m essentially on duty: I’m someone who carries around two mobile phones permanently so as to be easily reachable – how sad is that?Specifically, this means I’m jogging some mornings, doing more yoga, pulling out 哈利泼特与魔法石 (for those of you whose computers lack the Chinese character set: that’s Harry Potter & The Philosopher’s Stone) and giving the Chinese-reading muscles in my brain a bit of a workout, etc. etc. Things that give me a bit more sense of wholeness and balance in body and mind, and leave me with some outlets outside work – which can get intense at times.

Feeling happy and balanced in life allows one to see more of the beauty in one’s surroundings. I’ve pointed out in prior posts that PHC has fallen a long way since the days when it was dubbed the Garden City, but it does have its charms. Chief among these are the people — the books I studied, the people I spoke with before coming here, all painted the same pictures: this is one vibrant, alive, energetic nation full of fascinating, engaged, lively, friendly and outgoing people. Most of my colleagues at work are a true pleasure to work with. Many of the people on the streets are friendly and outgoing. Yes, militants regularly kidnap oil-business exaptriates and feed them excellent food while waiting for the ransom money to be handed over so the hostages can be released. Yes, sometimes the food isn’t that good and the hostages are killed while being kidnapped or mistreated while being held. But as I’ve said before, the streets of New York can be mighty dangerous at any given moment of day or night, for the wrong person in the wrong place or time. So it’s all about balance.

And speaking of balance, I’m still in love with all the things folks carry on their heads. Just the other day while doing some reading on one of the balconies at the hospital, I noticed one of our kitchen staff (with an 80-bed hospital, we naturally have a kitchen staff) carrying a tray full of dirty dishes (all plastic) back to the kitchen from the wards on top of her head. I may camp out on said balcony some day, camera in hand, in hopes of capturing this image for posterity.

Then there are the street vendors. In New York a guy sets up a virtual-restaurant of a falafel stand, complete with wheels, deep-fryers, generator and refrigerator sections — and we call him a street vendor. HAH! At Garrison Junction, one of the main intersections in town through which we often pass on the commute to or from work, there are virtual mini-marts of human ingenuity both moving and stationary — and all pretty much free of hardware. We start some 30 to 50 meters back from the light: at least a dozen, often two or three dozen, vendors hawking bottles of soft drinks, packages of fried plantain chips, bags of lemons and oranges, and mobile phone cards. They run between the cars holding out their wares, and when someone reaches out a hand they’re prepared to run along beside the car as it starts moving again while finishing the exchange. More than once, I’ve seen a banknote simply thrown to the wind as the car speeds too fast for the vendor to keep up, and then seen a vendor have to track the bill as it swirls through car tires until there’s another holdup or red light so he can dive down in relative safety and recover his pay. With hundreds of vehicles all of which view lane-marking lines as road art rather than directives to be obeyed, and a few major streets all coming together at this point, you can imagine the number of times I’ve seen near-catastrophe. It’s my fervent hope that they’ll always remain near, and never become real catastrophes. We see enough victims of trauma at the hospital; I don’t need to see any more when away from the hospital.

After the literal on-street running vendors, we get the more established vendors. These folks set themselves up mainly in the median strip (‘central reservation,’ they call it in England and perhaps here, I think) — which is a quite narrow little island of concrete past which the diesel-smoke-belching used cars with their CH, F, D and NL stickers all roar. (At first it bewildered me, how many European cars seem to be taking a vacation in the tropics – until I figured out that these are all used cars sold – stolen? – in Europe and brought to Nigeria for the used-car market.) Here on the narrow strip of concrete you have guys with boxes of noodle soups, watches, handkerchiefs, underwear and other sundries for sale. It’s really all quite enterprising and impressive, though my heart goes out to their poor lungs: truly, the air in PHC is scary. My friends keep saying you’re worried about…fear not for me, dear friends: fear for my lungs! 🙂

Though it’s a bit unfair in an entry that mostly about how I’m loving Nigeria and my job here, I simply must throw in another little slice-of-life vignette from recent weeks here in the Niger Delta. Since the political and development situation of the Niger Delta is a source of ongoing conflict and tension for Nigeria, the nation’s senate decided to convene a five-day meeting here in Port Harcourt, which is the largest city in the Delta. They were here to understand first-hand what’s happening and why. To take the temperature of the citizens, to see the man on the streets and so forth. As one of the largest zones of mangrove swamp in the world, and the largest river delta in Africa (yes, I do believe it’s larger than the Nile delta), there are huge areas of swampy mangrovy territory where people traditionally lived and fished, and where they now live and don’t so much fish since oil spills have killed a lot of the fish and made farming a lot more difficult, or at least that’s how I understand it. It’s in these areas, called ‘the creeks’ or ‘the riverine communities’ that the deepest anger about the delta’s development and economic state lies, and also where the greatest poverty is, it seems. It’s also where the armed groups tend to hang out since it’s easiest to hide there. It’s also where most of the oil comes from. Read: the creeks are a fascinating, troubled and dangerous place. The Senate decided it was going to do a few trips into the creeks. Before they went, the Senate president put out an official warning to the militants: please don’t kidnap us while we’re in the creeks, he said. Why should they not kidnap him? Because the senate had no money allocated in its budget for ransom money.

…and speaking of unfair, I just couldn’t resist including this photo. 🙂
But perhaps my greatest joy here is the names. This is a deeply religious nation. Centuries ago, Islam crossed the Sahara and took root in what are now the northern regions of Nigeria. In the late 19th century, British mercantile adventurers took greater control of southern and coastal Nigeria than they had previously exercised from the mostly-offshore forts whence they controlled their portion of the slave trade (at least until Britain outlawed slaving, long before America’s civil war). Nigeria’s south, particularly the Niger Delta region, had remained a stubbornly independent and autonomous bastion of small tribal and clan leaders and kings who followed a traditional way of life based on farming, hunting and fishing that had been in existence for milennia, most likely, more or less unchanged. A few greedy Brits decided to put an end to all of that in order to corner the market on palm oil, which had many uses for industry and commerce, and which this region produced in abundance.
As always, with British capitalists and colonists came British missionaries. In recent decades, West Africa and Africa as a whole have become fertile territory for a wide range of pentecostalist and born-again Christian denominations and sects, but in the early years I think it was mostly Church of England. This is all a long way of saying that down here, Christianity is dominant, and they take it seriously. And they reflect it in their given names. I’ve never, ever lived anywhere with such fabulous names. I’ve never dreamed that names could even BE so fabulous! Blessing, Comfort, Patience and Lucky are fairly common. Godswill and Goodluck often appear in the newspapers or among job applicants. Recently I saw a fun name for the very first time: Godknows. As in other parts of West Africa, many folks are named after the day of the week on which they were born — so we have Sunday, Monday and Tuesday every so often.
But my favorite so far, truly my favorite, is Happiness. With Happiness comes a story. Our friend and colleague Devika was leaving PHC after six months as our expat ward doctor, and returning Oz. Several Nigerian staff colleagues wanted to throw her a party at our house (great dance space in the courtyard/parking area in front of the house – see pics attached) and planned to provide the beer, Maltina and sound system. I agreed to kick in with groundnuts (you may know them as peanuts) and digestive biscuits, etc. Groundnuts in Nigeria often come in bottles — not jars, but tall bottles like wine bottles. (Cf. figure at left.) My favorites come from a company called “Annointed Fingers G’Nuts.” Not sure about the image it calls up, but what poetry for a name, huh? For this occasion, another colleague had pointed out that the street vendors down the block from our house sell peanuts, either wrapped up tight in little dime-bags of plastic wrap or by the bottle, less expensively than our corner store.
So I trooped over and asked the ten-year-old sitting on the cinder block by the box of peanuts if she had any bottles. Sad eyes: no. How much for the dime-bags? 10 naira. I counted them out: about 24 of them, so about US$2 for the bunch. I said I’d take them all. HAPPY EYES! Enormous smile! It was late on a Saturday afternoon, and this meant, with all her merchandise sold, she’d get to go home and play, or at least not have to hang around and work. We asked if she’d be around tomorrow, maybe with more peanuts, so we could buy more for the party. Maybe. We asked her name: Happiness. Walking back to the house, I imagined the mindset in her proud parents’ heads when they first held her and chose to name her Happiness. The next day, Rachael and I went to the corner to see if the was there again. She was not. Result: we walked around a bit, asking the other vendors if they knew where we might find Happiness. 🙂

How could you NOT love a place like this?!

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