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Published: September 15th 2005
I am sooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo hot.
The last 24 hours have been the worst since I got here. It's like my body has just suddenly realized this heat thing is not an aberration. I have been pouring sweat. Last night I thought I would die -- and then the power went out for 45 minutes and I had no fan. Unbelievable. The rooms for some reason get very little air even though it's cooler outside and we have huge windows. I finally took some Gravol, knowing they would make me sleepy, and conked out around 3:00. Needless to say, when the alarm went at 6:30, I was not a happy camper. Nor have I been all day.
It's been a couple of days like that though. Yesterday the battery on my alarm clock died for the third time, I ran out of time on my phone in the middle of a call, and I found the last of my water had been invaded somehow by an army of little ants. I also spent some time tracking the movements of a little lizard in the hallway -- one small enough to slip under my door with no problem. I was hoping the bird that was flying freely through our hallways would eat him, but no such luck. Then today when I got to work I found a hole in the bag that Muhalley has lent me, a big one. It's like a very neat slit which made me think maybe I had sliced it on a piece of metal on the daladala. Then I realized my phone charger no longer works. It looks at its cord has been sliced as well. The day before yesterday I went to Kariakoo Market with one of the guys from work to get a new alarm clock battery (number 3, which died about 12 hours later). Ali thinks somebody cut my bag with a knife while I was in Kariakoo, trying to steal whatever was in the back of it. I can believe that because as I was walking along I realized something was dangling, and it was my phone charger. The streets in the Kariakoo area are crammed with people like nothing I have ever seen, which is why I didn't go alone. But I guess from now on I'd better figure out a new way of carrying my stuff.
I have been thinking about it and I think the hardest thing about being here is being dependent on someone else for every little thing. The heat is hard, the language barrier is hard, but the hardest is my essential loss of independence. Identifying this as the source of my distress made me feel better today, because I realized it's only temporary. I will get better oriented, I will learn where things are, and how to get to them. But for right now something like an alarm clock battery is a huge issue because I have to get someone to take me to where I can get one, or at the very least instruct me on how to go. It's hard to explain, but it's not like there's a big WalMart where I have an idea of what I'll find there. There are some stores but they are like stores of the old days, they deal with one or two products. Depending on what I need, I generally don't know where to find it. But mostly where you buy things is from a guy on the side of the road sitting at a little bench with a pile of what looks like junk in front of him. How am I to know that he also is the guy you go to for the clock battery? Everything is like shopping in a huge unfamiliar flea market.
The clock battery issue resolved itself when I decided to buy a whole new alarm clock. This new one takes regular AA batteries, which I brought a lot of from Canada. Ali told me to go to a certain area and I did. I started looking around and found a guy with a stand of cell phones, and I thought, hm, he might know where I can get a clock. Well, first problem, he has no idea what I mean by "alarm clock". He has four or five buddies hanging around with him, and they all watch with great interest while I dig my English-Swahili phrasebook out of my bag (the one with the hole -- I know, I know, get over it) and tell him what I need. I say the words, he has no idea. I show him the phrase, he has no idea. Then one guy gets a brainstorm and this lively discussion breaks out amongst the lot of them while my guy describes what an alarm clock is. I can tell by the hand gestures that this is what's happening.
Then one fellow breaks away from the pack and goes tearing down the road, weaving in and out of the people and the other little stands. Um...where's he going? To find you an alarm clock. I had to laugh, how can you argue with service like that? My group of very curious salesmen chat with me in broken English about where I'm from, and I have to break the news to yet another young man that no, I cannot sponsor him to come to Canada. My guy returns with two alarm clocks in hand, looking a little worse for wear (the clocks, not him) but like they might do the trick. We test them and one of them is a quiet and sad little squeak, but the other makes enough of a noise to wake me up. They charge me about $5, then proceed to escort me to the "grocery store" which was the next stop on my list. Experiences like that are the saving grace in an otherwise potential meltdown.
In the midst of all this, my Austrian friend knocked on my door yesterday morning saying she was sick. She had been up vomiting all night and wanted to borrow my phone to let them know she would not be coming in to work. We spent some time discussing the fact that she had no fever, and no body pain, two of the main indicators for malaria. She said she was sure she had just eaten something bad, and would sleep for a while and see how she felt. I gave her some Gravol and off she went. But I wasn't happy with it, so I went in search of Sister Rita, who runs the show where we're staying. She wasn't downstairs, but I found her on my way out. She said she would take her to the doctor because it could still be malaria. I think they pretty much assume anything here is malaria until proven otherwise. It is very very common here and most people have had it at least once, as far as I can tell.
When I got to work I ran into Thomas and mentioned it to him. He said for sure she needed to be checked out. He said it was especially important because for people who are not from this area, and who therefore have built up no immunity, malaria moves very fast and very hard. I said, if they have not taken her to the doctor, is it okay to wait until I get home tonight. He said, no, I should go in the afternoon. He said if they haven't taken her, call me and I will come. So then I knew it was pretty serious.
But happily Sister Rita was on the job and by the time I got back they had already been and returned. It is not malaria, thankfully, but some kind of an infection. I didn't really get the details, because I don't think they really gave them to her, but they sent her home with antibiotics, anti-inflammatories, and anti-diarrheals. Tough one. She was pretty sick and slept most of yesterday and today but tonight she is feeling better, and plans to go to work tomorrow.
The happy moral of the story is it's a nice thing that I'm staying at the Msimbazi Centre where there are lots of people around. I think my chances of falling ill and collapsing alone and being eaten by wild dogs (or lizards) before anybody finds me are fairly slim.
Speaking of malaria (this is my last reference, I promise) a few nights ago I was in the pharmacy next door (just checking out what they have -- honest!) and I met a doctor from the Congo, who was in there because his son has malaria and he was buying medication. When he came in he greeted us all with a "bonsoir" and so I asked him in French if he spoke French. He does and he was thrilled to run into somebody else who can speak it, albeit in a very halting and rusty manner. He told me he hadn't heard French spoken since he and his wife and children fled their home a few months ago. Many of their family members were killed in the violence there, and in fact he had just heard that the guy who replaced him in his job when he left was killed also. Wow, tough one. Oh yeah? Well, I found ants in my water this morning...He took my email address and wants to stay in touch, so I may meet up with him again.
The Msimbazi Centre does seem like a good place to be overall, but sometimes it makes me laugh. The breakfast is the same thing every day. Depending on how early I get there, I can have any of a boiled egg, some stale white bread, a fried banana, and some maandazi, which is sort of like dry doughnuts. Every day. Now here is my privileged western self showing, but some mornings, between the flies and the blandness, I can hardly face it. I'm not a morning person under the best of circumstances, and on any given day I am awoken around 6:00 by the church bells calling the faithful to mass. Ugggggghhhhhhhh. The food in general is very much the same and I guess that's what comes of living in a country where just having food is a major achievement for many many people. Lunch is the same offerings every day -- ugali or rice or chips with beef or chicken or fish. Come to East Africa for the scenery, the wildlife, or certainly the people, but don't come for the cuisine. Okay, that's the last bit of complaining I'll do about food, I promise. Well, I don't promise, because we all know I'm likely to complain again somewhere down the road, but that's it for now. Especially since I could lose about 30 pounds without even noticing it. I know it's horrifically spoiled of me, but oh what I wouldn't give for a Firenze's pizza!
The other funny thing at the Msimbazi Centre is that it's a Catholic hostel, run by nuns. I don't think I told this story but the first day I met Ali he brought me home here and he wanted to see the place because he'd never been. He was wondering if it was a good place for me and if it would be good for future potential students. So I showed him around the compound, to the internet cafe, the canteen, the little bar/lounge, and I showed him the hostel. I was going to show him the room but Sister Rita stopped us halfway down the hall -- no men upstairs. I laughed and said to him, explain to her what we're doing. Then there was a big long conversation in Swahili and he turned to me and said helplessly, she says no. Then I laughed and said, somewhat exasperated, well, can they show you the room and I'll stay here? Big long conversation again and he turned to me and shrugged and said, she says no. I couldn't believe it. I'm 35 years old and without being indiscreet let me just say I've been around the park a few times. I'm not a young girl. But too bad...no men upstairs. I had to laugh. I guess if I'm not going to protect my own virtue, Sister Rita thinks she'd better do it for me. She was a little strained around me after that until I put my arm around her and said, Sister, I will never disrespect you. You have rules here and that's fine by me. She sort of harumphed, but we've been fine ever since.
Speaking of weight (and I was in the food paragraph) an interesting thing has been happening to me here. Many people when they meet me comment on how beautiful I am. At first I put it down to...well, what did I put it down to? People's bad taste? The false ideal of white as superior to black? I'm not sure, but I managed to disregard it. I think I just thought they were being polite or something. But one day I was talking to Thomas about when I worked at the Holiday Inn. He asked where I worked and I said front desk. He said, ah yes, they always put the beautiful people on the front desk. Which totally flustered me and I said, well I don't know about that. He turned to me, obviously completely puzzled, and said, you are beautiful, why you don't know this? I sort of stammered and I felt kind of ashamed, but I said, well, in my culture, I'm not considered a beautiful woman. He asked why, and I said well for one thing you have to be thin to be beautiful in North America. So I'm just not used to or comfortable thinking about myself that way. He sort of made a face and said, bah, thin, what is this? If a woman is thin and she gets malaria, she will die! I had to laugh and I said, I admit I've never looked at it in those terms. He said African men "like the meat". A somewhat lefthanded compliment but one that was well intentioned. He said sometimes an African man will marry a thin woman in some kind of crazy pursuit of the western ideal, but he assured me, he always ends up marrying another wife, one who is heavier, because this is what he truly likes. It's giving me a lot to think about in terms of why I am letting what we all know to be a ridiculous standard of beauty determine how I think and feel about myself. And what would happen if I decided I was acceptable exactly as I am?
Okay, enough with the intensity. I did want to say that I looked up yesterday and realized I missed my friend Paula's birthday which was on September 11. So Miss Paul, if you are reading this, I am soooooooooooo sorry I missed you. Come on everybody, let's have a round of "Happy birthday to you" to make it up to Paula!
Now I will head back across the compound to the hostel. You can't believe how dark it is here at night. No streetlights, just the light from the stars and the moon which is not much when you're used to electricity everywhere. Thanks for all the support, as always. Take good care of yourselves, because I love you all!
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