Spend a night in the maternity ward to a rural African clinic, and you gain perspective. There was no soap, no clean linens, no running water, no electricity. And yet, they were so kind. Ben asked if there was a way to boil water, so we could make our rice. The clinic had a stove. They clearly hadn’t used it much before; gas spilled onto the floor. A pregnant woman came to give birth. The flames shot up three feet high. Ben and I thought the stove was going to explode and everyone was going to die. The woman was led to a bed. They gave us a pineapple. Even insisted we sleep on blood stained beds. (Awkward!) They were so kind.
An adventure! It’s often sought, rarely found, but here in the heart of Africa (surprise surprise) we have found one!!
Last week, Ben’s mother (code name: Red Eagle) descended onto Lusaka with the intention of cycling some 1000 kilometers with Ben through Malawi. I was then going to cycle up the Great North Road by myself and meet Ben in Kigoma, Tanzania. Unfortunately, 200 clicks out of Lusaka, she took a tumble, fracturing her clavicle and scapula, plus incurring a concussion, resulting in three days at one of Lusaka’s finer hospitals.
In many ways, as is usually case, it’s a story with plenty of good news. In short time, a truck driver found them and gave a ride to a nearby mission hospital. A safari operator picked up the bicycles. An ambulance happened to be going from the hospital back to Lusaka. (Sad back-story there: they shared the ambulance with an injured pregnant woman and the man who was responsible for beating her to that condition.) Though not ideal, we share the experience of Zambia’s healthcare system and the interesting stories behind the people who make it work. Adventure!
Bicycling through Africa, excluding the big cities, I can easily imagine myself in a classic Western film. The land is dusty, sun omnipresent, buildings stout, industry absent, law more a suggestion and at every turn there’s the palpable sense of both opportunity and danger. The highway is littered with the hulking remains of automobiles stripped to the frame. Subsistence farmers with goat powered carts trot along as a 2011 BMW whizzes by. The highway is sparse, uninterrupted but for potholes and the few occasional cows.
I can’t remember why or how; it was all too quick. I’m not used to riding a bicycle loaded with bags weighing 70 pounds and I’m not used to riding my bicycle on the freeway. I guess the traffic and crossing those four lanes got to me and I made the turn too sharp too fast and ended up with my head in a puddle of glass.
I can distinctly remember the asphalt, its ubiquitous scratchy dark texture. I remember flying towards it, the impact of my head crashing into it and then opening my eyes but being able to only open one, to see blood dripping onto broken glass. I remember Ben. F*ck. F*ck!! Are You Okay? He handed me an antiseptic pad. It didn’t seem up to the task. But yes. I am okay. I could open the other eye, though it blurred out and then hazed red. I realized it was only blood slipping under the contact lens. I’m okay.
I remember sitting up, standing up, kind-of, in shock, crouching over the asphalt, looking downward. There was glass everywhere. A condom dirtied black. And my blood. How did I end up here?
There’s the simple answer – I was inexperienced, the bicycle was poorly weighted, freeway traffic is intense, we didn’t know we were getting on a freeway, those were the directions we were given, there wasn’t much of an alternative. And then there’s the attempt at the larger answer. I wrote that we were riding bicycles through Africa to remind ourselves what it means to be human. I can’t remember her name but I do remember her. She was in her mid thirties, wore a head scarf and of all the people that went by, she was the one person who stopped and helped.
She took me to the hospital and I got my stitches and antibiotics. She got Ben the address of the hospital and got the police to help him get the bikes to the hospital. I can’t remember her name but she helped me remember how you react when you see someone in pain. You help.
I am humbled and now intimidated. The journey has only but begun. I wonder if I’m being reckless, if I’m needlessly worrying and inconveniencing others. But there isn’t much of alternative. Tomorrow I get back on the bicycle.
In South Africa the average annual income is $5,786. In Rwanda it's but $509. It’s hard to overstate how wealthy America is and how awesomely cost inefficient our health care system is. (It also makes one most grateful for health insurance. Thank you health reform and Blue Anthem!) Fun fact: Rwanda has universal healthcare. (Though it's paid for by Western charity.)
In all fairness, my body has been inundated my medication. Here's a partial list:
- Polio booster
- Hepatitis B (got this as a kid but awkwardly my blood tests showed no immunity)
- Tetanus booster
- Yellow Fever
- Mefloquine / Larium (malaria prophylaxis)
- Doxycyline (generic antibiotic for the trip)
Rabies was the most expensive. $1600 for three shots and it only lasts a year. If you get rabies, even with the vaccine, you must get additional treatment within a couple days or you die. The emergency treatment is out of the TV show House – they induce a coma and then sit back and wait, hoping that your body produces enough antibodies before your brain goes berserk. Amusingly, given our Wisconsin roots, the treatment is called the "Milwaukee Protocol". Only a couple people have ever survived an extended exposure to rabies.