Back in the days when I was a bright and idealistic young development studies student and overseas aid was my dream, I held some romanticized notions about catching babies and saving lives in the bush. Like a teenage girl who spends her daydreams imagining her wedding without once giving thought to her marriage, I spent my fantasies on village life and heroics without ever really thinking about the sacrifices. Ironically, I never once planned out a wedding.
The bubble burst on my first night in Africa years ago, in an incident involving a toilet and hundreds of cockroaches. I will say no more.
I’ve realized that if you plan on working in Africa – and I mean development work, not just 2-week missions trips – you’ve got to learn to have a sense of humor that stretches beyond the boundaries of polite conversation. You’ve got to be able to go to Canada, tell a funny story, and have everyone around you stop talking, jaws dropped, with looks of real disgust on their faces. The only laughter should be from those friends who’ve been to Africa themselves, and they should be rolling around on the ground. That’s how you know you’ve got what it takes to live in the African bush. Otherwise, you’ll never come back.
Unsure if you’ve got it? Well here’s a conversation from today. Could you picture yourself in it?
Setting: Breakfast on the compound. The team is eating together and chatting animatedly.
Person A: “So, how’s your stomach?”
Person B: “Still diarrhea-ing all over the place. It’s sick.”
Person C: I saw that one of the cooks had gone all over the other bathroom, the one that’s just the hole in the ground. I don’t think she understood the concept of a hole because it was all over the floor. Or else it was just too explosive. I took a cup of water and washed the floor back into the hole.”
Person A: “Yeah, I’m sick too, sometimes you just can’t control it.”
Person D: “Oh dear. Well maybe you guys should take some Cipro.”
Person B: “Well, I saw some worms on the toilet seat. I’m not sure who left them there. I crapped on some toilet paper so I could check to see if I have worms, but I couldn’t see any. Maybe it’s someone else.”
Person D: “Well what kind of worms were they? Were they small, or big? Were they thin or fat?
Person B: “Well, they were short, kind of thin, and white.”
Person D: “Let’s hope it’s just maggots.”
Person A: “You know it’s a good day when maggots are your best option.”
This is our idea of fun – an interested and explorative conversation into worm typology. At one point Person D brought out a guide to worms and we all had a look. Above is a photo of team members checking the toilet to determine exactly what kind of worms were on the toilet. The consensus was that the worms had not come out of anybody, but were indeed maggots left by hundreds of flies (the number of flies here make for really lucrative World Vision ads).
Flies and maggots are not the only awesome thing about life here. Imagine yourself settling down to lunch on the table under a tarp on the compound. Just as you are about to take a bite, the most awful odor permeates your mouth and nose. You stare horrified at your food, but the food isn’t the problem. Something is rotting outside the fence. The heat amplifies the stench. Soon, you cannot inhale properly. That night you sleep in your tent having spread deodorant on your bandanna covering your face. The next morning, it is discovered that the neighbours killed a goat and left the entrails/carcass outside your fence on the garbage pile that in Canada we call a road. Donkeys are rooting through the garbage, eating what they can.
Two of the kindest Africans living with you guys decide to go out to burn the carcass. You are incredibly grateful and embarrassed, feeling like you should go help them but selfish enough to hide in your tent instead. They pour on the diesel. Suddenly, the scent of the air changes. Now, it smells like burning garbage mixed with barbecue. That odor continues all day and overnight. The next morning, the smell of rotting goat has mixed with the smell of burning garbage, but both are significantly reduced. You and the rest of your team inhale deeply and smile. It’s all a matter of perspective.
There’s a proverb that one of our translators told me – you can bring a mzungo to the village, but he won’t know where to poop. One night in the bush, Janess and I went hunting for a place to go to the bathroom. It went something like this. Shrub 1 – surrounded by goats. Shrub 2 – not thick enough, they can see us from the camp. Shrub 3 – dead camel. Shrub 4 – goatherd. Shrub 5 – Nothing… no wait, women with donkeys. Eventually, we decided on shrub 3 because dead camels tell no stories and we really had to go. We checked the ground for snakes, and went as fast as we could to avoid the women with donkeys who were quickly approaching.
Furtive urination, deodorized bandannas, and worm watching are only a few of the storylines occuring on a daily basis. Others involve raking up goat poop so you can set up your thermarest on the ground, washing amniotic fluid off your legs with a cup of tea water, wringing the sweat out of your bra every day, washing thick layers of blood and mosquito guts off of your hands in the morning, killing the cockroaches before taking a bucket bath, letting the dirt settle out of your water and fishing out the flies before drinking it… I could go on.
If you read this and you think these are stories of terror, don’t live in Africa. If you read it and start laughing at all of us, you’re made for this place. Because while all these things are going to happen to you, they’ll happen to your friends too. And the beauty of the mess is that it’s so funny when it happens to other people, it’s worth it for the few times it’ll happen to you. Let’s face it, you can make a real difference and save lives if you know what you’re doing and you do it well. So come! (And bring your friends).
P.S. We told our fearless leader that we were writing this post, and he started telling a story about one time when he killed a chicken and it went running around with its head cut off, and a passing rooster decided to mount it. TIA.