Verywhere you go

We finished our training and split up in three teams, one staying here (with me), one going north, close to the Malian border and one going south – all three regions bordering either Liberia, Guinea or both. Each team consists of staff from the central ministry of health, from MSH/Abidjan, from our staff in the region and local health officials.

This morning they practiced sessions they will be doing next week and everyone gave feedback and everyone learned a few tricks of the trade or something about themselves. There was even talk of leaving one’s ego home – not raised by me, though I often think this. Many of the participants are doctors in senior positions and being vulnerable is not something they are used to – but most people took this challenge in stride. I saw a few people transform in front of my eyes.

Tomorrow we will move to another hotel since UNDP reserved all the rooms many months ago. It will probably be one star less (which means 0 stars) and I have to pack my suitcase for the 6th time in 4 weeks.

For our last night together the two women I have been dining with at the hotel each night, took me out to eat “poisson braisé”. The fish we had at our hotel all week was OK, though not exceptional. The street fish we got tonight was exceptional.

The driver took us through the streets of Man to a main drag where all the women lined up with their fish. The hotel had cooked sweet potatoes for us and gave us a plate to take to wherever we were going. I can’t quite get over this: my colleagues buy food and then give it to the hotel to cook and they serve us and don’t charge a penny. My colleagues are not in the last shy about this. “Why not?” they ask, “it’s cheaper when you buy the food outside the hotel.” Well of course, I think, but that’s how hotels work. But the restaurant manager happily takes the pineapple, the papayas, the sweet potatoes and cooks or cuts them and serves them to us without giving us a bill. It appears completely OK.

Maybe this is the same surprise that Africans have when they come to the US and see us waiting for a red stoplight when there is no other car in sight. Or when we get a ticket mailed to our home and we obediently put a check in an envelope and pay our fine. Many Africans find this bizarre.

We ordered our fish and then waited for it to be served for an hour which gave me plenty of time to observe the scene around me.

A kiosk across the street read “verywhere you go,” which I thought would be a good title for a book. There were kids the size of Faro (probably older), shoeless and unsupervised, and kids the size of Saffi riding on their mother’s back; there were young girls waiting for something to happen, just standing there and older boys hanging out. There were “salariés” as employees are called here, eating with colleagues, probably because their wives or mothers live far away and so they fend for themselves and eat out for a few dollars. There were “vendeuses” and little boys selling stuff, going from table to table. The boy sold packs of paper napkins – a captive audience that eats with its hands the greasy fish and sauces. The vendeuse sold deodorant. She was young and beautiful and at every table with only men she was asked for a demonstration and everyone got to smell the pink or white or yellow sticks, made jokes, with an occasional buyer. Her charm got her to show her wares. I saw a great deal of poverty and the desperate jobs that come with it.

The salaried people (including us) all had at least one if not more cellphones. Many have them in their hands – few clothes have pockets. Everyone who was sitting at a table was focused on their device. Even couples, the one next to us ordering a large coco cola and a bottle wine sat silently side by side looking at their phones. My table mates, during the long waiting time, spent a good chunk of that time playing games or talking on their phones. This cellphone disease that has cut out conversation has spread around the world, wherever I go.

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November 2015
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