Catching Malaria

You can’t truly be considered a full-fledged International Aid Worker until you’ve contracted one of the local illnesses. In most parts of Africa, malaria is so common that if you come down with the flu the locals almost always assume it’s malaria. The reason that malaria is so common is that it is caused by a parasite that is transmitted via mosquitos, and mosquitos are everywhere!

The Malaria Parasite Up Close and Personal

Up until a few days ago I’d been rather lucky when it comes to illnesses in the Congo. I only had some minor stomach problems once, and I think that was caused by eating a bad egg rather than some local cuisine, and the occasional physical injury due to my own clumsiness. Sadly, my tendency to not sleep under a mosquito net finally outmatched my anti-malaria pills, and a few nights ago after an evening run my body began to seriously ache.

What I thought was dehydration from running in this hot, humid air, turned out to be the beginning of the most horrible night I can remember. (Note: There were times in my childhood when I ended up in hospitals due to severe asthma attacks, but, thankfully, I have only a vague recollection of an oxygen chamber.) What I experienced that night turned out to be the textbook order of symptoms for malaria:

  1. Body Aches: The whole body starts to hurt! It was somewhere between the muscle pain from dehydration and doing a full week of P90X in one day having not exercised in a year. Basically, every muscle in my body hurt.
  2. Cold Sweats: This came on right after I got into bed. Your body starts to chill but sweats at the same time. This has been persistent through the whole thing and three days in this hasn’t really gone away. It’s quite annoying and I’m running out of clean shirts.
  3. Chills: Ok, so about an hour into trying to sleep I began getting incredibly cold. I turned off the AC and the fan, opened the door to let in the hot air, but none of that helped. I was instantly teleported back to the winter of 2005-6 in Ukraine when all the heating in the city was out and it was well below Zero. Nothing I did would help and even though it was incredibly hot in my room I ended up wrapping myself in multiple thick fur blankets to try and stay warm.
  4. Insomnia: As you can imagine, shivering, sweating, and body aches don’t make it easy to sleep.
  5. Fever: It was about 4-5 hours into my hellaciously freezing night when I realized I was burning up. I felt like I was going to have to get up and fill the tub with coldish water and sit in it (can’t really get ice in Congo at 4am). I couldn’t find the thermometer until the next morning but I’m pretty sure it was around 103 from past experiences, but I was also pretty delusional at this point.
  6. Lethargy: By the time I got up in the morning the fever seemed to have gone, but I was left in a state of malaise with a sever feeling of lethargy. I was tired, weak, and didn’t want to do anything.

So, even though I didn’t really want to do anything, I knew I needed to Google the symptoms. There’s a cholera outbreak in Kisangani right now so I needed to make sure it wasn’t that. Also, typhoid fever is common here, and even though I’ve been vaccinated I’d heard it’s nowhere near 100%, so that had to be checked. But I had a feeling it was malaria.

A Home Malaria Test Kit

The diagnosis wasn’t confirmed until 4:00pm that afternoon. It took visits to a military base doc, a self-diagnosis kit which failed because I take anti-malarial medication, a hospital and doctor there, a laboratory to test my blood, return to the lab to get the results, return to the hospital to have them interpreted but the doctor was gone, visit to another doctor in the city to have him interpret the results, and finally someone saying – Yeah, you have malaria.

Blood Test Results Verifying that I Indeed had Malaria

Apparently I had a really mild case. Some people feel like they’re dying until soon after they start taking the medication which kills off the parasites. The meds actually work rather quickly and even the first dose can lead to major improvements. I still have two of my six doses left to go, but I’m already feeling much better.

I’ve now hung a mosquito net in my bedroom.

Building a Home Gym in the DRC

There are a lot of things I can live without in this world, but there are a few things that if I don’t have them I start to get irritated and even a bit depressed. While Peanut Butter withdrawals only really cause the irritation (Thankfully Africa is on the ball when it comes to Peanut Butter, unlike Ukraine and Russia), not having access to weights, and in particular a bench press, really gets me down.

Now I did plan ahead and purchased a nice set of exercise bands, which I will say are very awesome and if you’re looking for a set I will go out and say that the BodyLastics bands are the best around, but as an everyday device they just don’t match the feeling of lifting a heavy barbell.

The wood for the Bench Press

So, about a week ago I was inspired and decided to go out and buy some wood and make myself a bench press and barbell. Didier helped out with the project, particularly when I told him that he could have all of the excess wood for whatever project he’d like.

First I sketched out a basic design and guessed at a few lengths (I used the ledge on our front porch to estimate how wide I wanted the bench to be). Then I took a completely random guess at the amount of wood I’d need. I wasn’t able to go along because if they saw a white man the price would quadruple, so I just gave good instructions to Didier and talked to him a bunch on the phone. In the end, we got most of the things we needed, and they were cut to the relative size necessary.

DRC Transportation at its Finest!

Getting them to the house was pretty humorous as Didier paid a guy with a bicycle $3 to stack 60 pounds of lumber on the back of his bike and ride it down the street to the house.

We then had to cut out the handles to place the barbell, and have the bench sanded down, but that wasn’t too big of a problem with a carpenter right down the street who could do it for five bucks.

Still had a few support nails to go, but this is it.

Next came the assembly. This was a pain in the ass. Hammering nail after nail in the hot sun was not an easy job. I’m sure anyone at the house would have done it for me, but I was determined to do the work myself and ignore the confused stares of the security guards and the handyman, Raphael, as I did the work. After a while it all came together and I had a completed bench press. Then Raphael immediately understood what I was building and said, in his limited English, “For Sport! Arnold!”

This is a solid iron barbell!

The barbell was actually a bit more work. I had a plan in place to have one made by my friends at a construction company using a pipe and concrete, but I was skeptical it would be heavy enough, and it would take time. Instead, we found an old guy who had a pipe the right length and two metal gears (very heavy) which he could weld together. In the end, I had my 80-90 pound barbell for $25.

For the past two days, Raphael and I have been out in the back yard lifting weights. I’ve taught him how to use the bands and also a bunch of other exercises. While I can’t do everything with only the bench and barbell, I can do a lot more and I at least get the feeling of lifting something heavy rather than an elastic band.

Pumping Iron: DRC Edition

In the future, when I live overseas again, this will be the first thing I do upon arriving – unless I can just find a gym like in Ukraine. But it does give me a bit of joy having made it myself basically out of scrap. It feels like Rocky in part 4 when he has to train using whatever he has around off in Russia. It’s a great feeling.

It's a bit light. I can do 50 reps easily, but the locals are only doing 8-10.

St. Patrick’s Day Congo River Adventure

A small group of American journalists for Stars and Stripes came to tour the Borlaug Institute farm at Camp Base, and we thought it would be a fun experience for them to go on a nice river cruise down the Congo River. Much like the voyage of the S. S. Minnow, our forty minute voyage downriver to Bamboo Palace, a fantastic Belgium restaurant with the best beef in Kisangani and fantastic fried plantains, turned into a test of will.

The dark clouds should have discouraged us. The rumbling thunder coming from behind the house should have made us think twice. Hell, the quick burst of rain should have made us wonder if it would be followed by more.

Casting aside our doubts, the five of us, two reporters for AFRICOM, a Public Affairs Officer, our fixer-slash-translator Didier, and me, boarded the fifty-foot longboat parked out front of the house and set out on our voyage downriver. Dressed in not much more than t-shirts and pants, we brought along some plastic chairs to sit on and our cameras and nothing else.

The boat chugged down the river for a few miles while the warm wind gusted into our faces. As I was warning everyone to avoid taking photos of the main shipping docks (we’d be considered spies if we were caught) it began to rain again. But this time it was different.

The wind was picking up right before the downpour!

The rain poured down on us, and it brought with it the cold air from above. Amanda, one of the reporters behind me, asked if it was hailing; the rain seemed to cut into our skin. Because we were passing the docks we had no choice but to push on into what felt like a wall of razor blades. Didier had turned his seat around to put his back to the rain and we all followed suit. This helped cut down on the pain, but it also meant that there would be not a single inch of dry clothes on our bodies.

The pilot began angling for shore as the rain intensified. We edged around the docks to the dirty land beyond while the temperature

Didier was really looking forward to an adventure!

continued to fall. Most everyone was shivering and we’d only really been on the boat for twenty minutes, but once we reached land we ran up thorough a Congolese shack, two white girls, two white guys, all soaked to our skin bursting through a shack onto the main boulevard where hundreds of locals lined the streets under awnings and stared in awe.

We hurried into a Congolese bar next to the United Nations HQ. As I pushed through the bead curtains I was immediately greeted by two women, one holding an infant child wrapped in colorful cloth, huddled in chairs by the entrance. Beyond them were a few men, two drinking Primus, one drinking Turbo King (a stronger been which seems to carry the stigma of either a strong man or a drunkard), and a giant loudspeaker which was thankfully not blasting music at the time.

 

Amanda from AFRICOM and Me Having a Turbo King Beer

The women started handing us chairs and we all sat around the table with the mother and her child trying to decide what to do next. We ordered some beers, Primus and Turbo Kings, to split up just so that we wouldn’t impose, and attempted to get the reporters’ driver on the phone.

Didier and Jon from AFRICOM in the Bar

Outside, the rain continued. Bursts of cold, wet rain would gust into the bar through the beads, and the heavy downpour on the tin roof above caused my mind to imagine the gunboys firing off their AKs during the war. They’d once come through Kisangani, those child soldiers, high on booze and dope and magic potions to protect them from harm, indiscriminately shooting at any passing target.

The beers helped to warm ourselves even if our clothes did only the opposite. But the driver was nowhere to be found. I had a feeling that even though we’d said we’d be at Bamboo Palace in two hours, he had pressed on to wait there, and I knew it was well out of cell phone range.

After 30 minutes the rains began to subside. A group of three mamas came into the bar, one carrying a sack of beans on her hair, and they took a table in the back. When the woman with the beans sat down, she did so without removing the sack and even bent over to move a chair for her friend, all while effortlessly balancing this burden. With no driver, but with a reinvigorated sense of adventure thanks to the liquid courage – our own magic potion – we decided to press on down the river. The pilot agreed – he wanted his pay – so we thanked our patrons in the bar, Amanda bought the women a round of beers, and we headed down to shore.

No sooner did we board the boat when a man in a suit seemed to materialize out of nowhere with a militia officer at his side. He identified himself as an immigration officer and wanted to know if we all had documentation proving that we were allowed to be here. Of course we didn’t have anything of the sort with us and if we did it would be soaked and unacceptable to them.

Thankfully, Didier flashed his FARDC / Camp Base identification which he was given for just these sorts of problems. Had he not had that, I would have been on the phone and would soon be handing this man a connection with the Colonel in charge of Camp Base. In any case, after a few minutes of tension amongst my shipmates, we were let off without a bribe changing hands.

An hour after we initially set off, we were on our way again. The light was beginning to fade already as the equatorial sun had begun its regular 7:00pm descent below the horizon. Boats were hurriedly ferrying the last people home across the river and fishermen were paddling their dugouts to shore.

The Mighty Congo!

The motor chugged us on down into the darkness as the lights of the city become one small light off in the distance behind our backs. Every now and then a strike of lightening in the distance would illuminate the vast expanse of this magnificent river, sometimes drawing the dark silhouettes of a dugout and its crew out late for a nighttime catch.

Kisangani is where the river bends and we were changing direction from west to north. Had the sun still been up, we would have seen it set across the river. Had the sky not been overcast, we would have seen the heavens moving in a thin band from east to west above our heads. Instead, we only saw the dark outline of the shore, and occasional lights off in the distance slowly, after long periods of growth, being revealed.

The lights became a house where a woman was outside rehanging the clothes to dry. The lights became the riverside market where vendors were huddled around one remaining stall smoking cigarettes and gambling work. The lights became a river barge docked to the shore while its crew played loud music and welcomed the night with palm wine.

And finally, one light that came after the house and the market and the barge became our destination. Two and a half hours into a forty minute cruise down the river we arrived at the Bamboo Palace, still enervated from the wet and cold but also giddy with adventure and success.

In the dark we managed to navigated the landing, unable to see the stairs up the hill at first, causing a few false attempts. We thanked the pilot for his hard work and paid him handsomely for the effort.

Here's my Dinner: Beef Shish Kabab, Fried Plantains, and a Cabbage Salad. Delicious!

Dinner was fantastic, everyone enjoying the fried plantains and their choice of entrée. Hot tea and cold beers helps to warm cast off the cloak of rain each of us wore, and, as seems to be the focus when reporters are around, talk turned towards Didier’s experiences in Congo and his knowledge about the war.

After the drive home, and some short goodbyes and best wishes, I was not surprised how quickly sleep came to me. Weather is a tough obstacle to overcome. I’d like to say I dreamed a child’s dream of pirates on the high seas or of an adventure down a crocodile infested river, but I simply was too tired to remember.

Some Racism a Product of Frustration

A common joke among Ex-Pats in Kisangani is:

Question: “What’s the difference between a tourist and a racist?”

Answer: “Two weeks.”

It doesn’t take long in Kisangani before you realize how unbelievably difficult it is to find a competent employee. In fact, I will go so far as to say that I’ve only met one single Congolese person who possesses the combination of traits needed for that title: intelligent, skilled, a strong work ethic, honest, a high quality of work, and follow through with any promise. This man was an electrician named Viki. I’m not his only source of praise either. As soon as my boss, Beau, met him he was so blown away that, like me, he’s been recommending him all around to others.

Sadly, Viki is not the norm. The norm is our previous group of electricians who used a hodgepodge of exposed wires with no apparent system to jerry rig the house, allowing it to function for a few hours at a time before something blew. They would show up one day and say they’ll come back with parts and then vanish for weeks at a time. They would ask for money after not completing anything. And they could never get to the source of any problems. The electricians before this group were the exact same.

Now, when it comes down to economics, an electrician like Viki will receive praise from us and end up being recommended to all other Ex-Pat workers in the city. Usually all I need to do is recount a simple story and I’ve sold him to whomever I’m talking to:

“One night when we were still in the middle of rewiring the house Viki realized that the neighbors were stealing our power from the main line. He went over there to look at it and decided that the State Power Company (SNEL) needed to come and replace the main line and bury it much deeper. He told me that he would have the SNEL guy come out the next day at lunch time. The next day, at lunchtime no less, Viki arrived along with a guy from SNEL. They examined the line and decided they would come to replace it on Saturday. On Saturday, Viki came with the men from SNEL and replaced the line.”

Now, if you lived in the DRC and heard that a simple electrician could get a SNEL worker out to your house in a short period of time, well, let’s just say that you’d want to see that for yourself because pigs must have started to fly somewhere.

But when your best and most competent employee continues to make the exact same mistake on relatively simple everyday tasks, the level of frustration grows higher and higher in the Ex-Pat. Even when an employee does something correct 10 times in a row, you will be shocked when he or she inexplicably goes back to the old incorrect method one day and casually explains that it’d slipped his or her mind. The Ex-Pats will regularly complain that the need for babysitting a task exists at all levels from management down to the lowest laborer.

In a world of bad service, Viki stands out and has finally been noticed and will be rewarded. But the fact that the majority continues to cause the frustration levels to grow in the Ex-Pat community means that they are going to be discounted as worthless by many of the Project Managers who have to power to offer them lucrative employment. And it’s going to continue a culture of racism which is more predicated on lack of service and good work than on the basis of color of skin (not to say that there aren’t the other kind as well).

I do my best to give everyone who we work with a fair chance. I also find myself working hard to keep my frustration level down when our Engineer continuously fails to follow through with what we planned the previous day.

It’s funny, but, I might have been less frustrated before meeting Viki simply because I didn’t know that there were Vikis out there in Kisangani to be discovered.

Getting a Haircut in Africa

When you live in a foreign country, simple everyday things can become unique experiences. I remember that in Ukraine, going to the post office was a unique experience on each and every visit! But in Africa, at least in the Congo, one thing that really stands out to me is the Barber Shop experience.

First of all, in case you weren’t aware, pretty much everyone here is Black, which means that the standard barbershop tool of choice is the clippers. In fact, I didn’t even see any scissors on the counter at all. Since I knew they would only use clippers I asked for a #2 on the sides and a #4 on the top, figuring I’d end up with something close to a military cut.

I was seated in a barber chair, they put the standard cover around me and tied it off in the back, and there was a rotating fan mounted above the mirror pointing down at me so I could stay cool during the experience. My barber, who happened to be named “Welcome” (I’m not kidding you. That’s his actual name!), then got to work.

Step 1: Trim everything to #4. I guess he wanted to get rid of my shaggy hair, so he just started working with the #4 trimmer and would go over every part many many many times until he was satisfied.

Step 2: Begin working on the sides with the #2 clippers. Again, he was meticulous, getting every little hair that was too long.

Step 3: Start mixing and matching between #’s 1-4 to create a nice blend from the lowest edges to the top, and he would constantly go over areas he’d already done checking to see if he’d missed a hair. (We’re about 30 mins in at this point.)

Step 4: As usual for most guys, he used the clippers to go around the edges and ears to get them nice and straight, but, thankfully, I knew what was coming next:

Step 5: The Razor Blade – Ok, I’d seen this already when I watched my boss get a haircut. At this point he takes out a brand new razor blade (The double sided sort). He unwraps it and begins to use it to shave the edges of my hair line and physically slice off the hairs to make every edge of my hair line perfectly straight. He also started using it to dry shave my face as well. My friend Dre had previously talked about his experience with this – He said “And then the guy pulls out a razor and start shaving my cheek! I just yelled stop, got up, and got the bloody hell out of there!”

Ok, so, normally when all the edges are done, the haircut is over for a guy. Well, not here.

Step 6: Get out the clippers and Repeat step 3!

Step 7: (We’re about an hour in at this point) Rub some water into my hair and then flatten my bangs. Now, my head has basically been buzzed by clippers, so the odds that I’ll ever flatted out my bangs are low, but he checks and then pulls out that razor and start cutting each little straggler individually to make sure they’re all perfectly straight.

Step 8: He takes out some stuff I think is gel and then starts rubbing it into my hair and it foams up. For a second I think it’s mousse, but then I realized that it’s shampoo. He massages my hair with the shampoo right there in the hair and I’m wondering how he’s going to get it off. Then he goes and rubs it all over my face as well! He walks away and I sit there looking at my bubble covered hair and face and wonder how I’m going to get home.

Step 9: Ok, this is the best step. He comes back with a hot, wet towel and begins to rub it over my hair and face to mop up all the shampoo. This how towel would have been really nice before the razor though. (One time in my life I’ve had a hot towel / straight razor shave and it was the greatest shave I’ve ever had)

Step 10: He then massages my head to get my hair to dry. This was also very relaxing.

Step 11: He grabs some pomade and rubs it through my hair, doing a bit of styling.

Step 12: He begins to brush me off with a powdered brush, covering my neck, face and everything to prevent discomfort from the loose hairs.

Step 13: He grabs a cotton ball, tears it in half and then cleans out my ears to get all the loose hairs out (Ok! This is something I’ve always hated dealing with after a haircut and a reason I usually go home and take a shower.)

Step 14: One hour and twenty minutes later I get up and I pay him $5. He gives me his cell phone number and says to call him anytime and he’ll head over to the barbershop if he’s not there and cut my hair.

So, there you have it, a 14-Step haircut, involving more than an hour of labor and completely meticulous work, and it only cost me $5. (And this is the expensive barbershop!)

I don't know if I can live without the razor cut lines

This edge is perfect without a single stray hair!

Injured in a Foreign Land

As per the request of one of the previous Interns here, Amanda over at A Crowing Hen, I’ve written a detailed story of my experience with my Kisangani ankle injury.

I’m the third person working on this project to seriously injure a foot and require x-rays, so I don’t feel all that clumsy even though I know I am.

I now know that work boots would have been the correct choice, and the completely uneven ground we tend to work on when evaluating jungle clearing can be quite unpredictable. When a portion of land gave way my left leg shot out to get footing. Sadly, it landed on its side and I instantly knew – the stabbing pain shooting through my entire body left me know – that I was not going to be walking much for a while.

Getting an X-Ray in Kisangani:

First of all, I had to see Doc, the medic at the American military training base, to have him check it out. He told me what I already knew: We’d need to get an x-ray. Then I spent the next four hours at the base reading a book while my boss checked on the status of our project. When we did make it to the hospital it was closed.

Mind you, it was 2:30 in the afternoon, and the x-ray facility was closed. They said that the x-ray technician’s sister got sick so he went home. Good thing I didn’t have a serious need for an x-ray. We were told to come back at 8 or 9 in the morning to get the x-ray done then.

We made it there at ten til 10 and the x-ray technician hadn’t materialized. When we asked when he would arrive they said that maybe 10 or 11, African time.

Just when we were about to leave to run some errands, he pulled up, and he was immediately followed by a group of locals carrying a pregnant woman on the stretcher. They laid her down outside the building in the shade and all sat around waiting. I immediately thought that her injuries should take precedence, but the doctor took me in first and led me to a back room. When I sat down with the doctor I inquired about the girl. He told me that her leg was broken and they were waiting for a different doctor two come and perform the scan of her leg.

On to the x-ray room:

First of all, they had recently upgraded their x-ray machine from a 1968 relic to a 2003 Italian-made device that looked as if it hadn’t been cleaned since it was first built. It’s sad to think that a new device, which they obviously must have saved a ton of money for, could be so mistreated.

The room itself was a back room in a cement building. The floors were slightly damp and the acrid smell of urine hung in the air. The ceiling looked to have been recently replace, which is to say that there was no ceiling before, and they decided to breakdown the wooden box the x-ray machine came in to build a proper ceiling. You could still see the product description above my head.

The doctor himself knew what he was doing, though, and lined up my foot in order to take a top and a side x-ray. He used a slab of lead in order to protect the second half of the film from the radiation (nothing for me) and took both shots. He even went behind a wooden barrier to press the button.

Developing the X-Ray:

Now, most of the time this sort of thing happens in those dark rooms we never look into, and then a nurse or assistant comes out and hands you your x-rays. This is what happened when I had my back scanned last summer.

Not so in Kisangani! In fact, we went out to the car to wait, and not five minutes later did a man emerge with a piece of film to dunk into a bucket that was being filled with water by a faucet outside.

Once he was satisfied that the sheet had been properly washed, he laid it out on the grass to dry. It turned out that this was someone else’s x-ray though, so we left and I sent a driver back later to retrieve mine.

The results:

A perfectly fine ankle, other than the muscle and tendon damage which most likely occurred.

Super Bowls in Foreign Lands

On February 3, 2002 I watched the New England Patriots, a team which should not have been there in the first place, win Super Bowl XXXVI. Other than the long list of expletives I spewed out, the thing that made this game special is that I was watching it in Bath, England, and it became the first of many Super Bowls I’ve watched from foreign soil. Thankfully we were able to change the commentary from some Brits to John Madden and Pat Summerall.

The next should have been Super Bowl XXXVIII, but that season was lost to me due to Peace Corps training from October til the end of December, and then the next two months living in Sevastopol with travel restrictions preventing me from going to Kiev to see the big game. I still forget that Carolina was actually in a Super Bowl.

But the following year I took that 19 hour-long train ride from Sevastopol to Kiev and went to the Irish Pub where they were showing the Patriots vs. the Eagles on six screens. Damn Tom Brady pulled one off again.

The following year I went crazy. I decided that I would personally watch every playoff game. This meant that each Friday during the Playoffs I would board a train and travel 19 hours to Kiev, then I would go to the Peace Corps office to sleep during the day on the couch and go out at night to drink and watch football games. After the final game, I would get on another train and head back to Sevastopol, another 19 hours, and get there just in time to teach my first class. It was quite a letdown watching the Steelers and the Seahawks in the final game, but a good time was had with my friend Tripp, and walking home in the snow after the game was a log of fun.

I’ll mention Super Bowl XLIII as well, though I was in the United States. I was actually on a flight back from New York to California and Jet Blue had the game on live. Watching a Super Bowl in that closed environment was a riot. When some play for the Cardinals would happen,  a bunch of us would cheer, and then when something for the Steelers would happy the rest would cheer. As it happens, it was the best Super Bowl I’ve ever seen, other than that Kurt Warner went home without another ring.

That brings us to tonight. Tonight, The Green Bay Packers face off against the Pittsburg Steelers in Super Bowl XLV. It’s on at 1:30am here and I’ll be watching it live in The Democratic Republic of the Congo. Now, I hope that the Steelers don’t continue their streak of winning games while I’m away from home, because the Packers deserve this one damnit!

I can say that I’m looking forward to Formula One season, as I’ll finally be in the right time zone to watch the races!