Search
  • JAS

The Poet-Doctor Returns to Africa

le 29 fevrier ->2 mars 2016

It’s been almost three years. And this is the first plane ticket I have personally paid for. Then again, it’s the first time going that I have a job. Then again, it’s the first time I’m going as a doctor. My (nascent) career trajectory has spanned this. Next time, I’ll be on my own, maybe with Peace Corps, maybe MSF. A friend in med school commented once, it was hard to imagine there was a time when I hadn’t been to Africa. It’s true. Now 1/3 of my life since that first moment. In first grade, so enamored of geography before I’d seen anything other than the country of my birth, my most native tongue, France, snd the country that has claimed most of my years and words. I named Africa my second-favorite continent (Europe was first), and Ouagadougou was my favorite capital (Burkina Faso). My favorite movie was Cheetah—a Disney movie in the 80s, two kids and their Maasai friend trekking across the Serengeti in search of a cheetah (duma) they had rescued from the poacher that killed its mother, taking this one for greyhound racing. And in 2008, before going to Kenya, I downloaded “Jambo Bwana,” from the movie’s soundtrack. I named the kitten who came with my house in Migori (as did hundreds of of bats under the eaves) Duma. I went on safari, overland, in Maasai Mara (the Kenyan side of the Serengeti). I saw a cheetah.

I wrote about this almost three years ago. What it feels like to return to Africa. The light. The Equatorial light, existing in the back of my eyes like uncapturable jungle greens, makes me ache. The Constant Gardener has it right. Paris has a light. So does Equatorial Africa.

I wonder if, in this direction, I´ll see the Sahara in the same way. I wonder if, descending, I’ll feel the rush of warm air into the plane. I wonder if, in landing, the plane will erupt into applause. Flying to Cameroon is that way.

*****

I wept the first time I flew away from Africa. I kissed my fingertips and touched the tarmac in Douala (…and our Kenya Airways plane turned around soon after take-off, we landed in Douala, and, 26 hours later, I left again). When I returned to Africa (Kenya) six months later, I kissed my fingertips and pressed them to the earth. A year after that, I was back in Cameroon. You can go home again. I have. But in the between times—Africa makes me ache. Everyone, everything I know there, wondering who will be alive, the next time. Or have died of what. It’s funny to think of it as a continent, in so many ways (though the country I consider home is called “Africa in miniature.”) Or anything unified, really, when even within countries borders are arbitrary, so being from one nationality means many divergent cultures, traditions.

It’s been almost three years. I’ve traveled to the developing/Southern/non-Western (not true, for Central America), Global South three times on vacation in the past three years. But the first time I went to Africa, first time I went anywhere but the US or Europe, I moved in. Comfortable, stubborn, familiar in a plaster and stone house in the equatorial rainforest, with mostly walls, five rooms, and in the annual migratory path of the biting ants that can kill a child (a swarm of hundreds of thousands acting as one organism, in through a living room window, out through the kitchen at the other end).

In Cameroon in April 2013, my last time anywhere in Africa, I was such an almost-doctor that all I had left of med school upon my return was graduation. This time, I’m such an almost (terrifyingly so) – attending that upon my return, I have 2.5 months left of residency. But now. Now I refuse to tell my patients I’m leaving. Not yet. There’s a minuscule “maybe” in there. But really I wonder if they’ll forgive me, if they’ll believe I didn’t say it, couldn’t say it yet, I nodded dumbly to “few months follow-up,” because, well, maybe. I wonder if they’ll believe I didn’t say it because it hurt too much. And now. Now I tell my patients I’m going to Uganda, they tell me to be careful, they tell me to come back.

In the years before personal TVs in seat-backs and interactive maps, I used to think that flying over the North Atlantic—icebergs visible, sometimes—was the most exciting thing. I’d look for the maps of the flight path, posted somewhere near the galley, back bathrooms. Now I’m breathless, flying over the Sahara. It defines and divides the continent—North, or Sub-Saharan. The anticipation of crossing it, majestic, immense, impossible so, is of what lies south. The scattered clouds. Most of the time, I fly to Africa during the day. It’s not my second-favorite continent anymore.

******

In Brussels. Two hours until I leave for Africa. One hour before boarding the plane to Kigali. I’m not wearing pagne, not this time (on the way to Cameroon, I generally wear Eto'o Fils), but there is some pagne packed in a bag of mostly medical supplies. That bag, as I am, is en route to its 9th African country. Walking around the gates of this terminal closed off by customs, I chance upon one scheduled for Yaounde. It is Wednesday—I think the one from Brussels is the MWF flight. My heart, to be both blandly general and exquisitely specific—aches. Maybe it’s a mistake to not be going. Not this time. East Africa isn’t home, it isn’t as loud and chaotic and colorful and full of spice (literal and figurative). Even considering my friends in Kenya, where I too, promised I would be back to Migori, and hoped to mean it. But there is a sense of belonging in Africa. Both appearing so starkly Other...mzungu (ntangen…white…foreign) and feeling like I belong. One of the most difficult parts of reentry and readjustment after Peace Corps. But, as I’ve learned, you can go home.

From what I’ve heard and seen in pictures, this hospital, this town (Kisoro, Uganda, and also a district hospital like Mvangan was) is much more developed than Mvangan—thus also busier. And there is no French or Bulu to fall onto, but constant translation. I’ve been called “dokita” (Bulu) and “docteur” and “doctor” many times before in Africa. For this first time, it’s true. I wrote my applications to medical school from Cameroon, about Cameroon, I worked (though mostly in public health) in the hospital there. I returned to the US briefly, then on to Kenya to start tentative steps in medicine, the summer before I started school. Then again to Cameroon in 2009, summer between 1st and 2nd years of medical school, both doing research and doing consultations (precepted!) in the hospital in Yaounde. And then 4th year of med school, back to Cameroon, both in the ER and medicine wards in Yaounde and doing surgeries out en brousse. And now. At every step of my career, I've been back. This only guarantees that I will work in Africa...and in Cameroon...again.

******

I’m on the plane now, watching the countdown of minutes, miles on the screen. I can see the Sahara, though it’s unfortunately cloudy. You can just make out the color underneath.

The temperature is warmer than it was, maybe, but it’s really in landing that I’ll be able to tell. Or not. There isn’t the same portentous humidity on the East side, though, as I’m going very close to the Equator in Uganda, and I lived at 2 degrees north in Mvangan, there are certain similarities. But as I saw in Kenya, there were some trees that were the same, patches, looked like vestiges of what is still rainforest on the other side and in the middle of the continent. But the light will be right. It’s rainy season, and the rain on the tin roof at night will be right. The clouds are lifting. I can see more of the Sahara. And now it’s the Nile, I’m on the East side of the plane. Few oases along the banks; the map notes Khartoum, and I can just make out a larger cluster. It grows dark before we reach the southern edge of the desert, the Sahel, the transitions.

It’s a tradition I learned in African dance. The drums speak. Dance is about doing what the drums tell you, listening, and then not listening but becoming part of the music. Your body being inside the music. If the drummers keep going, you do. If they switch abruptly, you do. They direct everything. It’s one of the things I love best about it. The complete abandon that is necessary. And becoming rhythm, music, speech. At the end, the dancers go in front of each drummer, pressing both hands together as if in prayer, lowering your head to kiss your fingertips, and pressing them to the ground in front of each drum. Each drummer. They are above human, they are to be respected and revered. They create you. That’s where I learned. Malian dance class. 2002. It’s an amazingly, incredibly diverse continent, with >200 languages and ethnicities in Cameroon alone, with every landscape imaginable and history from prior to it. I recognize it, but still, there is something intangible and specific about returning to the diverse, heterogenous continent.

I hope we land on the tarmac, I hope there is an external stair, I hope we descend immediately into African air and African soil. Regardless, I know what to do. I know what I will do. It’s been almost three years. Reverence.

~j Disclaimer: This was written Feb 29-March 2, but I'm posting it on March 6th, from Uganda. I am currently in Kisoro, I've been in the hospital since Thursday, and there will be more regarding that, soon. There will be/are real time delays, as with internet.

*****

le 29 fevrier ->2 mars 2016

It’s been almost three years. And this is the first plane ticket I have personally paid for. Then again, it’s the first time going that I have a job. Then again, it’s the first time I’m going as a doctor. My (nascent) career trajectory has spanned this. Next time, I’ll be on my own, maybe with Peace Corps, maybe MSF. A friend in med school commented once, it was hard to imagine there was a time when I hadn’t been to Africa. It’s true. Now 1/3 of my life since that first moment. In first grade, so enamored of geography before I’d seen anything other than the country of my birth, my most native tongue, France, snd the country that has claimed most of my years and words. I named Africa my second-favorite continent (Europe was first), and Ouagadougou was my favorite capital (Burkina Faso). My favorite movie was Cheetah—a Disney movie in the 80s, two kids and their Maasai friend trekking across the Serengeti in search of a cheetah (duma) they had rescued from the poacher that killed its mother, taking this one for greyhound racing. And in 2008, before going to Kenya, I downloaded “Jambo Bwana,” from the movie’s soundtrack. I named the kitten who came with my house in Migori (as did hundreds of of bats under the eaves) Duma. I went on safari, overland, in Maasai Mara (the Kenyan side of the Serengeti). I saw a cheetah.

I wrote about this almost three years ago. What it feels like to return to Africa. The light. The Equatorial light, existing in the back of my eyes like uncapturable jungle greens, makes me ache. The Constant Gardener has it right. Paris has a light. So does Equatorial Africa.

I wonder if, in this direction, I´ll see the Sahara in the same way. I wonder if, descending, I’ll feel the rush of warm air into the plane. I wonder if, in landing, the plane will erupt into applause. Flying to Cameroon is that way.

*****

I wept the first time I flew away from Africa. I kissed my fingertips and touched the tarmac in Douala (…and our Kenya Airways plane turned around soon after take-off, we landed in Douala, and, 26 hours later, I left again). When I returned to Africa (Kenya) six months later, I kissed my fingertips and pressed them to the earth. A year after that, I was back in Cameroon. You can go home again. I have. But in the between times—Africa makes me ache. Everyone, everything I know there, wondering who will be alive, the next time. Or have died of what. It’s funny to think of it as a continent, in so many ways (though the country I consider home is called “Africa in miniature.”) Or anything unified, really, when even within countries borders are arbitrary, so being from one nationality means many divergent cultures, traditions.

It’s been almost three years. I’ve traveled to the developing/Southern/non-Western (not true, for Central America), Global South three times on vacation in the past three years. But the first time I went to Africa, first time I went anywhere but the US or Europe, I moved in. Comfortable, stubborn, familiar in a plaster and stone house in the equatorial rainforest, with mostly walls, five rooms, and in the annual migratory path of the biting ants that can kill a child (a swarm of hundreds of thousands acting as one organism, in through a living room window, out through the kitchen at the other end).

In Cameroon in April 2013, my last time anywhere in Africa, I was such an almost-doctor that all I had left of med school upon my return was graduation. This time, I’m such an almost (terrifyingly so) – attending that upon my return, I have 2.5 months left of residency. But now. Now I refuse to tell my patients I’m leaving. Not yet. There’s a minuscule “maybe” in there. But really I wonder if they’ll forgive me, if they’ll believe I didn’t say it, couldn’t say it yet, I nodded dumbly to “few months follow-up,” because, well, maybe. I wonder if they’ll believe I didn’t say it because it hurt too much. And now. Now I tell my patients I’m going to Uganda, they tell me to be careful, they tell me to come back.

In the years before personal TVs in seat-backs and interactive maps, I used to think that flying over the North Atlantic—icebergs visible, sometimes—was the most exciting thing. I’d look for the maps of the flight path, posted somewhere near the galley, back bathrooms. Now I’m breathless, flying over the Sahara. It defines and divides the continent—North, or Sub-Saharan. The anticipation of crossing it, majestic, immense, impossible so, is of what lies south. The scattered clouds. Most of the time, I fly to Africa during the day. It’s not my second-favorite continent anymore.

******

In Brussels. Two hours until I leave for Africa. One hour before boarding the plane to Kigali. I’m not wearing pagne, not this time (on the way to Cameroon, I generally wear Eto'o Fils), but there is some pagne packed in a bag of mostly medical supplies. That bag, as I am, is en route to its 9th African country. Walking around the gates of this terminal closed off by customs, I chance upon one scheduled for Yaounde. It is Wednesday—I think the one from Brussels is the MWF flight. My heart, to be both blandly general and exquisitely specific—aches. Maybe it’s a mistake to not be going. Not this time. East Africa isn’t home, it isn’t as loud and chaotic and colorful and full of spice (literal and figurative). Even considering my friends in Kenya, where I too, promised I would be back to Migori, and hoped to mean it. But there is a sense of belonging in Africa. Both appearing so starkly Other...mzungu (ntangen…white…foreign) and feeling like I belong. One of the most difficult parts of reentry and readjustment after Peace Corps. But, as I’ve learned, you can go home.

From what I’ve heard and seen in pictures, this hospital, this town (Kisoro, Uganda, and also a district hospital like Mvangan was) is much more developed than Mvangan—thus also busier. And there is no French or Bulu to fall onto, but constant translation. I’ve been called “dokita” (Bulu) and “docteur” and “doctor” many times before in Africa. For this first time, it’s true. I wrote my applications to medical school from Cameroon, about Cameroon, I worked (though mostly in public health) in the hospital there. I returned to the US briefly, then on to Kenya to start tentative steps in medicine, the summer before I started school. Then again to Cameroon in 2009, summer between 1st and 2nd years of medical school, both doing research and doing consultations (precepted!) in the hospital in Yaounde. And then 4th year of med school, back to Cameroon, both in the ER and medicine wards in Yaounde and doing surgeries out en brousse. And now. At every step of my career, I've been back. This only guarantees that I will work in Africa...and in Cameroon...again.

******

I’m on the plane now, watching the countdown of minutes, miles on the screen. I can see the Sahara, though it’s unfortunately cloudy. You can just make out the color underneath.

The temperature is warmer than it was, maybe, but it’s really in landing that I’ll be able to tell. Or not. There isn’t the same portentous humidity on the East side, though, as I’m going very close to the Equator in Uganda, and I lived at 2 degrees north in Mvangan, there are certain similarities. But as I saw in Kenya, there were some trees that were the same, patches, looked like vestiges of what is still rainforest on the other side and in the middle of the continent. But the light will be right. It’s rainy season, and the rain on the tin roof at night will be right. The clouds are lifting. I can see more of the Sahara. And now it’s the Nile, I’m on the East side of the plane. Few oases along the banks; the map notes Khartoum, and I can just make out a larger cluster. It grows dark before we reach the southern edge of the desert, the Sahel, the transitions.

It’s a tradition I learned in African dance. The drums speak. Dance is about doing what the drums tell you, listening, and then not listening but becoming part of the music. Your body being inside the music. If the drummers keep going, you do. If they switch abruptly, you do. They direct everything. It’s one of the things I love best about it. The complete abandon that is necessary. And becoming rhythm, music, speech. At the end, the dancers go in front of each drummer, pressing both hands together as if in prayer, lowering your head to kiss your fingertips, and pressing them to the ground in front of each drum. Each drummer. They are above human, they are to be respected and revered. They create you. That’s where I learned. Malian dance class. 2002. It’s an amazingly, incredibly diverse continent, with >200 languages and ethnicities in Cameroon alone, with every landscape imaginable and history from prior to it. I recognize it, but still, there is something intangible and specific about returning to the diverse, heterogenous continent.

I hope we land on the tarmac, I hope there is an external stair, I hope we descend immediately into African air and African soil. Regardless, I know what to do. I know what I will do. It’s been almost three years. Reverence.

~j

0 views
Please reload

© 2023 by Going Places. Proudly created with Wix.com