Brainpower

Some of my Medford and Arlington colleagues were wrapping up a coordination meeting at the same hotel. I saw little of them as I was in a planning and kick off meeting at the office and preparing for our work in the western part of the country.

I saw them off around dinner time returning home on the Air France overnight flight to Paris. The participants in their meeting were colleagues from Africa and Asia. They had flown in to discuss how to improve leadership of national malaria programs. I had already met some of them when they just started out and received their orientation in Medford. At the time I could tell they were wondering how to produce the results expected of them. In the meantime their programs have taken off, some with great results. They were here to learn from each other. I had dinner with a few that didn’t have flights on Friday and we were able to pick up the thread of where we left off. I got to know some of them a bit better. It was a nice bonus. We talked a lot about influence without authority as none have staff or budgets so they have to entice people to follow them in other ways.

I spread out my breakfast over two hours, not wanting to go back to my tiny room and work on a long list of things. But finally that time had come as eventually those colleagues I sat with had flights to catch.

We all watched in horror the events in Mali. I had noticed that the Ibis hotel no longer allowed cars to pull up to the front entrance. Heavy gates have been installed and guards are everywhere. Thought no one said so, everyone realized that what happened at the Radisson Blue could happen here. It has a chilling effect. The one American woman killed in Bamako was one of our people, on an assignment like each one of us, to improve public health.

It’s funny that I feel happy about going deep into the interior, far away from obvious targets. But really, how do we know what is an obvious target? Deep in Mali’s and Nigeria’s territory bombs have exploded and killed or maimed people. Most of the time we don’t even hear about this as the reporting bias is so blatant – European and American death count more – Facebook has exposed its own bias and made many people angry. When one is not exposed to the rest of the world through personal contacts, it is to forget that one is not the center of the universe.

Yet our chances of being blown up by an ISIS squad or being in a plane going down are very small, statistically speaking. Our biggest occupational hazard is on the road. Yet road trips feel a lot less scary. Ah, the brain is an amazing organ.

Talking about the brain, when I use the stairs rather than the elevator, a space in the hotel that doesn’t usually expect guests, the smell of mildew, wet carpets and cleaning chemicals instantly brings me back to my earliest memories of working in Africa: leaving the plane in Dakar of April 1979, my first trip to Nigeria, the hotel in Abeokuta, in 1987. Those smells are stored deep in my brain with vivid memories attached that are activated each time I take the stairs. It is hard to imagine that all this is possible because of a bunch of chemical and electrical processes.

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