Monthly Archives: December 2006

On being on the other side.

You finish your meeting with the Deputy Director of the university. Not all of your questions have been answered, but you managed to pin him down on most of your concerns. You head up to the teacher’s lounge to gather your thoughts and review your notes before your first lecture. If only you’d known how much effort your university professors put into preparing each lecture; you might have been a little more appreciative.

The room is quiet. Other professors greet you as they flow in and out, but you’re clearly absorbed in your preparations, and they generally leave you alone. A few make a genuine effort to intrude and get to know you, and, surprisingly, you appreciate their efforts. You’d forgotten the legitimacy that expectations confer, that is, you’d forgotten that because they expect you to be qualified and professional, they’ll treat you like you are.

Feeling more like a professor and less like a truant, you head down to pick up the keys to your lab, then head over to your lecture. The room is less than half full. You wait 5 minutes until 1:00, and you start anyway. Within minutes, word has spread (oh, the joy of text messages), and the classroom is full to brimming. Yes, today is the first day of class. Congratulations, you figured it out.

You briefly introduce yourself and begin your lecture. You would have handed out the syllabus, but there’s no electricity, and thus, no photocopier. Slowly, your lecture gets rolling. After a few months of working with smaller, informal groups of students, there are definitely no problems with public speaking; however, after 15 minutes, you are clearly talking above your students’ heads. You backtrack and take the whole thing a lot slower.

In a way, it’s fortunate that the power is cut. It gives you time to clarify and expound on subjects you expected would be understood far more easily than they are. It’s clear that some of your students are enthusiastic about learning and understanding. It’s equally clear that some of your students couldn’t care less about learning from their young, foreign teacher whose accent is occasionally hard to understand. Instead of presenting a syllabus for 20 minutes, lecturing for an hour, then heading for the (powerless) computer lab, you lecture for two hours, then let the class out early.

Your throat is sore. Every muscle in your body aches. Drained, exhausted, and wanting nothing more than a cigarette, you stumble to a friend’s house, where you collapse into an exhausted puddle.

Too bad your day isn’t over yet.

On why I’m thankful I grew up in America.

Late last week, Bertrand, my boyfriend was in an accident. He was riding behind a friend on a moto (small motorcycle), approaching a traffic circle. A large truck was slowing down, and appeared to be ceding the right of way. Cyril (who was driving), decided to go ahead and enter the round-point. All of a sudden, the truck accelerated and swerved into the path of my friends’ bike. They t-boned the truck and went flying.

The authorities eventually discovered that the truck had faulty breaks, and had made the 90-degree slide in order to avoid hitting cars in the round-point. However, the drivers fled the scene of the accident moments after it occurred, so there’s no way of verifying their intentions.

An ambulance was called, and both men were rushed to the national teaching hospital’s emergency room. I eventually figured out what Bertrand was trying to tell me over the phone (oh, the joys of miscommunication in a language that’s not my own), and arrived about two hours later.

Both men were in a hot, unventilated hallway, Bertrand in a wheelchair, Cyril stretched out on a metal gurney. Both had stitches and open wounds covered in a solution designed to speed cauterization and prevent infection (it’s not anything I’ve ever seen in the States, but has proven remarkably effective). Both were in incredible amounts of pain, but were able to have short conversations as they sat in the heat.

The hospital system in Benin is tragic. It’s filled with incredible and dedicated people doing amazing things with absolutely nothing. There’s very little money in Benin, and it’s easy to imagine why advanced health care doesn’t get much of what there is. When a patient arrives at the hospital, he is responsible for buying everything he needs to be nursed back to health, including gauze, syringes, salt water IVs, and any necessary medication. Unlike the American system, patients don’t even receive basic care until they’ve coughed up the money to buy these products.

Bertrand is lucky. He has money and family, both of which were available to him during the emergency. Cyril is equally fortunate. When he was unable to communicate, thank God Bertrand was in good enough shape to do it for him. After more than a dozen stitches in his head, Cyril didn’t even get a cloth put over the metal on his stretcher until a family member showed up with a pillow and a pagne (2-meter length of cloth).

I was in the hallway with Bertrand for five hours. When he was hungry, his brothers went to buy food. When he was thirsty, I went to buy plastic sacks of water from a lady who’d set up just off the hospital grounds. If no family had arrived, the men would have had to pay staff to go get food.

Imagine arriving in the emergency room with no money. A Peace Corps staff member recently told a story where another staff member showed up at her house asking for help, blood still pouring down his face. After a horrific accident, he’d been refused at the hospital because he didn’t have his wallet with him. No money. No treatment.

Heartbreaking.

Despite the lack of space, equipment (IVs hanging on bent nails driven into door frames, surgery rooms without fans or ventilation, etc) the staff did an incredible job, both with Bertrand and Cyril and those who came in after. Like so much else in this country, there are very competent people doing very cool things with . . . well, with nothing, really.

Did you know that there are more Beninese doctors practicing in France than in Benin? Small wonder, of course. Would you turn down several tens of thousands of Euros, state-of-the-art facilities, and a chance to raise your children in comfort and health, to work in a steaming tropical hospital, where you have to charge patients for their bandages and, on a good day, have enough hall space to accommodate all those too well to go into ICUs, but too sick to go home?

Yeah, I wouldn’t either.

Bertrand’s okay, as is Cyril. Stitches all around, of course. Bertrand’s knee’s going to bother him for a while, but all things considered, the two are in great shape considering the magnitude of their accident.