My wandering field life passed the ten-year mark earlier this year. That’s ten years of finding my way into a new work environment and getting to know new colleagues once a year or so. In a more mundane way, it’s ten years worth of photo files to keep up-to-date and to try to remember to share on my blog. A cousin (thanks, Juliette!) noticed that the entries from my earliest days had lost their photos: mine was a rather early blog, and the ways of uploading photos have changed since then. (Many of those earliest posts appear frankly so embarrassingly shallow to me now that I’m tempted to simply wave my editorial wand and have done with them…but thus far my sense for historical accuracy is controlling that temptation…) If my continued research succeeds, many of those photos will be directly restored onto the blog as I find their originals in backup hard drives and other obscure locations: ah, new year’s resolutions before the old year has even wrapped up!
In the meantime, I’m uncovering little treasures that never made it up here, while fondly remembering where I’ve been and what I’ve done. I was recently saddened to learn that Nancy Schrom Dye, former president of Oberlin College, had passed this year. During my years of active alumni-association work I greatly appreciated her contributions to my alma mater – so I was proud to join some other colleagues in taking her for an end-of-year meal which, the digital date stamp tells me, occurred in Beijing on December 31, in 2005. Up above are also a few rediscovered December 2005 Beijing-area shots which somehow didn’t get posted at the time. (Posting photos was more challenging in those early days…)
Just below are some previously-unposted 2015 shots: early-morning moonset at my home here in Haiti; me with my brother and a colleague when I gave a talk at Carnegie Mellon University earlier this year; and some shots from the lovely Frick House & museum in Pittsburgh, from the same visit. And since this put me in the mood, I’ve wandered through the many countries & continents, family meals & trips & assignments on four continents that have filled the years between these two sets of photos so very fully. Assembling them’s been fun for me so I hope viewing them is fun for you too :-).
This time last year? In December 2014, I returned from Sierra Leone & later went with great friends to enjoy the Ai WeiWei exhibit on Alcatraz Island (more photos from that one in the original post….though that particular set of great friends – you know who you are! – are remarkably camera-resistant):
Where’d I spend 2013? Living in PNG, participating in meetings in Amsterdam & dive trips in Australia, then celebrating the holidays with Steve & Mom in New Zealand:
I began 2012 in the US (where I visited Washington, DC in cherry-blossom season), turned 50 in the company of Howard & Gene at Kakadu National Park in Australia, and finished the year in PNG:
2011 was mostly Mweso, a little Lamu, a little London and a year-end back home seeing Frank Lloyd Wright homes of Pennsylvania with family:
2010…wow, what a year. Just seeing all the continents and countries where I spent time (actually meaningful time, with friends and family and work) makes my head spin even now. The photos evoked so much for me that I just couldn’t narrow it down to three or four…so I’m giving you a lot from 2010, a mix of Manipur (start of year) and Mweso (end of year), with a sprinkling of Sweden, Berlin, Paris & California in between:
I entered 2009 in Tahiti, yes it’s true: during the year I took off from work to help Mom with her house, I dedicated two months to exploring Australia (and watching the Australian Open!) and New Zealand, flying in via Tahiti with a few nights in Papeete, just because I could. The year ended, of course, in Manipur and included a great trip to see excellent sites of Rajasthan with Howard & Gene:
2008 started in Nigeria, and ended in Tahiti…with a lot of good work in Nigeria, a short assignment for the earthquake in China, visits in Germany with my exchange family friends there….and a good deal of time in and around NYC (Mom, aunt Judy & I enjoyed a harbor trip past Ellis Island where our own immigrant ancestors entered the country, and also a trip to our favorite sculpture park up th Husdon)…with a side trip for some hiking in Sequoia and other California adventures:
2007…I began the year based in Colombo but spend the new year’s period with Mom & Steve at Angkor Wat, returned to Colombo to finish out an assignment, headed on for training in Paris where I also got celebrate Mom’s 71st birthday…back to the US to reorganize my life after my first two years in the field, and then off for a new assignment in Nigeria. At the time it felt big. Now it’s all fond memories:
…which will bring us back to year two of this current phase of life’s great adventure, the lovely year 2006. From Beijing & Yunnan in China, to Polonnaruwa & Sigiriya in Sri Lanka (where I was based at year’s end), with family time on Cumberland Island (Mom’s 70th birthday dinner!) and in Germany in between. With a special souvenir from Seoul, where I had the opportunity to work a bit with the young ladies pictured with their daffodils. In a small-world twist, I had dinner with one of those two young ladies just a few nights ago in Port au Prince, which she visits sometimes in her current work with the CDC. So much small world, so little time for it all. Happy end of 2015, and many good hopes for a 2016 of more peace and health to everyone, everywhere.
Well, my friends, here you have it. So Much World, So Little Time has landed back in the US of A. If I can do some early-morning lounging in a comfy bed in my good friends’ George & Pierre’s beachside bungalow in Venice, enjoying streaming KRNN on the headphones and uploading photos to the blog via WiFi, then it seems to suggest I’m no longer in one of the developing-world towns I’ve lately been calling home. You’ll note, in the non-italic text below, that I wrote it about three weeks ago while sitting in Hong Kong en route to China; as you can guess, all this travelling I’ve done in the month (wow! yes – it was EXACTLY one month ago that I left PH, the 9th of May…) has left me quite exhausted and rather mentally whiplashed, coming as it did after a fulfilling and hard-working eight+ months in Port Harcourt. (I hit four continents in less than four weeks and averaged about two hours per day airborne – not counting terminal time and gate-but-not-yet-airborne time — over that period…) I know the sequence of these shots may seem off to some people – after all, I went to China after I left PH. But it simply does not seem right to let these wonderful shots that bring the PH & Nigeria era of this blog to an end, come after the photos of China, which though impressive and important represent only a couple weeks of my life, rather than the investment of time and mental energy I made, and was well rewarded for in experience and enjoyment, in Nigeria. So…herewith, SMW, SLT presents some final shots and thoughts from Nigeria…and Paris….and China. J Don’t expect to see much more on here for quite some time to come. I’ll be helping Mom with this house-reconstruction project, so am unlikely to have many experiences that merit the SMW, SLT treatment. (Though life often surprises me.) Take care…and though I’ve said it before I shall say it again: you all – and you KNOW who you are – are the most wonderful group of friends and family and supporters that anyone doing what I do could ever dream of having, in fact far more wonderful than I or anyone has any right to even dream of.
It feels well-nigh trite to say of Nigeria that it’s the people that make it great, and a wonderful place to spend some time working. Photos of African children looking happy are standard fare in tour books and tourists’ photo albums the world over, so it’s truly with some trepidation that I present these portraits for your enjoyment. But it’s all altogether too true. Relaxing (what the Nigerians would call vacating, cognate of ‘vacation’) at my desk in Los Angeles last summer, I read with some trepidation the stories of violence, crime and near-anarchy in Port Harcourt, Lagos and other parts of Nigeria. While excellent books like This House Has Fallen present very good portraits of Nigeria, they are by nature geared toward the dramatic. And if I’ve learned anything, it’s that most of the time life somehow manages to go on in most places, in usually rather undramatic and mundane ways.
In point of fact, Nigeria rocks and its people rock even more. Sure, it’s messed up and full of corruption, and no Nigerian will deny it. Heck, even the politicians admit it; they’ll just say it’s all the other politicians who’re corrupt and not them! 🙂 I find this in many ways more palatable than the US, where so far as I can see everything about our foreign and domestic policy since the ascension of Shrub George II has been all about how best to enrich the companies in whose shares his friends have invested…while the folks in Kansas and Texas still seem to think he’s trying to keep Americans safe. Yeah, whatever. And this has involved the deaths of hundreds of thousands in Iraq and around the world, while all Nigeria’s troubles have done so far is mess up Nigeria…oh yeah, and raise the price of oil even higher, which is the only time the developed world (and especially Americans) ever seems to notice Nigeria. But don’t misunderstand me to be suggesting that you head off on vacation to Nigeria any time soon – one colleague says, of Senegal (one of the more tourist-friendly countries in West Africa, one is given to understand), that ‘it’ll be a while before tourism here is really enjoyable for the tourists.’ This is even more true of Nigeria: if you get to work there, it’s great. I wouldn’t go there as a tourist any time soon.
Still and all, I’d certainly be delighted to work again in Nigeria, with Nigerians. A colleague – pardon me if I’ve mentioned this before in these pages, but I do love the quote – says he describes his experience in Nigeria as ‘a minimum security prison with a work release program.’ He adds that he loved it – one of the most enjoyable and engaging jobs he’s had, at least with MSF. I fully concur. Yet another said that Port Harcourt presented in many ways the most unattractive surroundings in which he’d worked – but that the work and hospital presented the most enjoyable and engaging work he’d done; another statement with which I quite concur. And that’s always it with MSF – it takes me to these crazy places, far from potential dates or even potential bean & cheese burritos, where I run a bit more daily risk than when I’m walking down the streets of San Francisco or London…but where the things I get to learn, the work I get to do and the people I get to meet just hands-down beat anything else I’m likely to have a chance to do at this point in my life.
When I was sent to China more than three years ago on my first MSF assignment, I remembered with some worry all those things I hadn’t loved about China, Taiwan and the Chinese in the 1980s – noisy, nosy, brash, often olfactorily dense (that’s a politically-correct way of saying things and even people often have very strong odors in China, something to which we Americans tend to react very adversely), etc. But I’d forgotten all the things I love about China and the Chinese – fascinating, culturally rich, often open and very friendly, full of surprises. MSF seems to keep sending me to these superlative countries – most populous in the world, most populous in Africa, etc. And of course I grew up in another superlative — biggest economy, most populous outside Asia, most fucked-up of the major economies, etc. Whether from these roots or from some other aspect of my personality, this seems to work for me: I end up loving these big, loud countries. I dream of vacations and retirement in Iceland , Ireland and New Zealand (places I picture as quiet, peaceful, clean, unpolluted, green…), but I seem to thrive when my work takes me their diametric opposite.
…And, below, a bunch of shots of me and the team out and about around PH and the creeks spreading the word about our trauma clinic and services for victims of violence & sexual violence.
Above & below – this is more or less in the heart of PH, in a section that borders the creeks…obviously. Seen from this perspective, kinda hard to conceive that it’s a 3-million inhabitant city that’s by far the largest city in the Niger Delta, which houses the world’s eighth-largest identified reserves of petroleum, huh?
Better late than never may be a good motto in the case of these photos. It’s a gray and somewhat drizzly Wednesday afternoon in Hong Kong as I write this, and Nigeria and my dense and rich experiences there during more than eight months seem a world or maybe a lifetime away already. Two weeks ago I was still in the swing of handing over to my replacement in Port Harcourt; a week ago I innocently expected to be back in NYC the following night after a few days of helpful debriefing in Paris. Right now I was supposed to be in Oberlin, getting ready for the weekend’s 100th anniversary festivities for Shansi (www.oberlin.edu/shansi for the uninitiated) and enjoying a slight break before taking up the home-reconstruction project for my mother. But – well, the earthquake in China happened and it seemed a good idea for someone with my experience of China and knowledge of the language to be available to help the team that’s ascertaining how and whether MSF can do more than we already have (www.msf.org for those stories) to support populations affected by the earthquake in Sichuan. It strikes me that the contrast between China‘s official response to the earthquake – massive, swift, and generally quite thorough – and that of the junta in Myanmar to the destruction in the Iriwaddy Delta could hardly be more stark. Perhaps this means I’ll get to be home sooner rather than later, after all. But I’ve learned, again, that the future is unpredictable and often surprising. May we all experience surprises more pleasant than unpleasant in the coming months.
Empty market stalls on a non-market day in Oil Mill Market, where we frequently went on outreach to spread the word of our free-of-charge services for victims of violence & sexual violence. Below: a tree full of swallows’ nests in a creekside part of PH, and some of our outreach team posing with the local snack-stand manager in Abonnema, who it turns out happens to be the mother of two of our staff members. I remember my American friends all thinking I was crazy to go to Nigeria, and I remember my own worries; indeed, there is violence and there is danger there, as there is almost anywhere, but when we got into some of the smaller towns, again and again we found patients who’d been to us and welcomes our services, and/or friends and relatives of our own colleagues, if not our colleagues themselves on their days off. (On the day of this outreach, we were helped by one guy who happened to be in the market there in Abonnema, and just naturally grabbed some fliers and started helping out even though it was his day off.)
…by the pier, the end of the dirt track that links Krakrama with some of the surrounding villages, though none of them are linked by road to any outside, larger towns. (More about that below…)
Above and below, a small fishing camp in the vast riverine network of the Niger Delta.
Below and above are a number of shots from trips into some of the creek or riverine towns I visited. The shots are mostly of Krakrama, a small town just off the roads and accessible only by boat; Abonnema, the largest town in the Kalabari Kingdom area, including a few shots of me and colleagues with the Amayanabo or King of Akuku-Toru/Abonnema; and Buguma, the traditional seat of the Kalabari Kingdom and its Amayanabo (different from the Amayanabo of Abonnema, though both are Kalabari town; Nigeria is a country rich in traditional rulers, chiefs, and kings – rather un-English, one might say…). In one shot you’ll see a large bridge crossing the river; this bridge links Abonnema, on one side of the river, with the road that leads to Buguma and other towns like Port Harcourt, as seen from Krakrama, which will need one or two more bridges built before it’s reachable by road. Even Abonnema and Buguma were only linked by road to the rest of the state when a new bridge went in about a decade ago.
…our wet pants tell you it was a rainy day on the creeks.
This is a fairly typical example of the type of evangelical protestant church that has sprung up, apparently, throughout West Africa. I found the Christianity of my Nigerian colleagues quite interesting — in the US, all the born-again evangelical types would never dance as fantastically as my Nigerian colleagues do; most certainly not to tunes with such lyrics as “I like that booty, I like that booty…” So our parties were sometimes a bit confounding to me: truly excellent dancing to songs whose lyrics were really quite forward; yet I had to remind myself that a very high percentage of those doing the dancing were very strongly Christian. I also noted that a lot of it is about power and success and winning — winners chapel is a typical name.
…me in the riverine equivalent of the corner bodega: in the plastic container is fried dough, yum!
Most of the boats on the river, in numbers, are still wooden dug-out canoes or pirogues (dunno if they really are pirogues or not, but that’s how I think of them…) that are obviously going about their fishing or taking- yams-to- the- market in the timeless way they’d have done long before British colonizers and missionaries starting showing up. But obviously, in this day and age, there are plenty of motorized transports on the creeks as well, hence the floating gas station right by Buguma Town, below.
These guns would have been used by slave-traders around the time that the guy represented in the statue below was Amayanabo (King) of the Kalabari Kingdom, a vast section of the Niger Delta in what is now southwestern Rivers State.
Above and below, two of PH from the water: a very different aspect of PH than the usual daily view en route house-hospital-house-hospital. An expat colleague, once, even asked how we came to have a patient with a motorboat-propeller injury – that’s how distant the reality of the Niger Delta was from our daily routines sometimes. 🙂
Often, departing expats spend virtually half a day taking photos with members of the staff and saying farewell. My friends who’ve noted my quiet disappearances from parties know that farewells are not my favorite thing, so it won’t surprise anyone that I slipped out of Teme rather quietly on my last day. My replacement was there and well settled in the job; my debriefing and weekend in Paris called; and I had new travels and new responsibilities to move on to. But I couldn’t resist a few final farewell shots with some of the staff I’d worked with most closely over the months, including the whole outreach and sexual-violence team, above.
Al, Michiko, Junko and I greatly enjoyed working with each other for the five months that all four of us were there — I overlapped with Michiko and Junko even longer, but Al just couldn’t hack it so he got out early. (Hehe, just joking: he was in far more demand back home than the rest of us, it seems.) On the last night before his departure, I treated us all at the nice Chinese restaurant in town, and we dressed up in our Nigerian finery: don’t laugh! Outfits like that look NORMAL on guys in Nigeria, and I know enough not to try wearing it as one outfit now that I’m back in the boring ol’ jeans and t-shirt US of A. 😦
…Above and below are a bunch of pictures of my colleagues and friends at farewell party that five of us (who were all leaving in the space of about four weeks) threw for ourselves and our Nigerian friends and colleagues. Dancing! Lots of fun! Beer and good times and good friends!
After my fabulous vacation in England, I returned via the overnight flight to Abuja, where I sat around the terminal for a couple hours while waiting for my connection down to Owerri. I could tell immediately that the drier winter weather had blown in, and it felt rather nice. In this sunrise shot from the Abuja airport, note the striped painting on the curbs – this is really a sweet thing I’ve noticed in several cities: green & white striped curbs (the national colors). It’s rather nice, don’t you think?
…and below are a few shots of me and various colleagues taken around the hospital compound during October & November. The final shot is an overview of the closest market to our hospital. In fact, a portion of the hospital is visible in the background but you have to know what you’re looking for…
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?!
Port Harcourt is the capital of Rivers State and the center of Nigeria’s petroleum industry. It is, I think, the third-largest city in Nigeria after Lagos and Kano. (But don’t quote me on that one.) It is certainly the major metropolis of the vast Niger delta, one of the largest remaining areas of mangrove swamp in the world, and home to enormous reserves of light and sweet crude oil which is greatly coveted for its relatively easy refining into the fuel that runs the millions of vehicles clogging America’s highways. It’s an area rich in history and conflict, and it’s where I’ll be living for a while to come, I hope.
Despite movement restrictions, we still have to get out every now and then to do our work. Not long ago I was out with some of my colleagues to do some outreach about our services in one of the local markets. Here are a few images from that outing. Enjoy.
…Against all this, it almost seems incredible that smiles come so readily to Nigerian faces. An international survey in 2003 announced that Nigerians were in fact the happiest people on earth. The important role that relgion plays in everyday life is a major factor, along with the natural entrenpreneurship of one of Africa’s best-educated populations. Ill-served by repeated governments, Nigerians have had to learn to survive. As Fela Kuti sang, “we suffer and we smile.” This resilience holds the best key to Nigeria’s future.
–Lonely Planet, West Africa guide book
Port Harcourt, Nigeria – a rainy Sunday afternoon, late in the rainy season. The tropical rain’s pitter-patter is interrupted on occasion by shouts from neighbors reacting to the team Nigeria football (Americans: that’s soccer) match that’s on now. There are two other quotes I’d have liked to include with the above note, one from the same guidebook’s Port Harcourt section, to the effect that political violence preventer the writers from visiting PH before publication, so the information may be out of date, and advising potential travelers to scrutinize the recent news from the region carefully before planning any travel here. The other I shall paraphrase here while referring all readers who can possibly make time to a stupendously lyrical, informative and beautiful ode to African entitled The Shadow of the Sun, by Ryszard Kapuscynski, who for 40 years criss-crossedAfrica as Poland’s first Africa correspondent, from the dawn of post-colonial Ghana & Uganda to the turn of the milennium. Commenting on one of the many dicey situations in which he found himself (coups, revolutions, famines, lost in the desert…you name it, the guy experienced it all), he noted that an unstable place almost always seems worse when viewed from outside. This is SO true: most of the time, in most places, most people go on with their lives, however circumscribed their options may be. And avoid accident and injury. So while I do urge my friends and family to read about Nigeria, to follow the news and learn about this enormous and important country, I also urge you to remember that millions of people live here and get along more or less fine somehow. 🙂
Anyway here I am. There won’t be very many posts from PH: I’ve made it, finally, to a classic MSF field post where we work six full days a week and spend the evenings and weekends enjoying our life together as a team, over scrabble (I brought travel scrabble: someone might wnat to let Seth know that all these years later, the game he gave me crossed the ocean so I and a few colleagues are thankful to him), dvd’s (Winnie and Charles: the team is SO thankful!) or simply a cup of tea and conversation. The internet connection is adequate at best and won’t support uploads of many photos. I think the team is great and I’m going to love working with them. Our life is rather circumscribed by realities — one doesn’t go out between dusk and dawn if one can avoid, given the condition of the roads and other safety considerations, and of course it being the tropics our days and nights are pretty much 12 hours year-round…which means that, aside from Sunday, we don’t have much free time during daylight to go anywhere. Which is fine. There’s a pool/club not far from here and it seems we head out there when we can for a swim and a beer, and we’ll shortly head off for the bar around the corner to celebrate a teammate’s birthday. Since I don’t like posting text without photos, this means there won’t be much to post for a while! So you all can catch up on old posts, haha.
But I’ll share a few initial impressions, just for the heck of it. It was a long haul to get here: JFK–>Heathrow–>Abuja–>Owerri, then a 2-hour+ drive to Pt Harcourt, whose airport is closed. Over potholes that could swallow NYC’s worst as a canape, past endless stands of palm and banana trees, through villages small and large adorned with more pentecostal-type “church of god” signs than one could imagine exist in such a small cluster of shacks (is church of god redundant? what else would a church be of?), past open stands whose baskets are piled high with bananas, cornmeal and rice, we made our way south to Port Harcourt, and I knew we were close when I saw my first tower burning off the natural gas collected in the oil refining process. Kids in school uniforms, mothers with babies tied around their waists with colorful sashes, men in colorful matching traditional-seeming tops and bottoms or wearing the white caps that I assume mean they’re Muslim; all motorbiking and walking along the roads. Hundreds of motorbikes, many jammed full with several friends and never a helmet to be seen. Vibrant and alive is how things seem to me so far. But these are the towns and cities on a major road, which I assume are a bit richer than more remote towns. Don’t know if I’ll ever see those. Anyway — here I am and here I’ll remain. If I get a chance to take any pictures, I’ll share them with you at some point. In the meantime, take care, be kind to your neighbors, spare some thought or time for reading about Africa when you can, and be in touch!