One of the University’s visiting writers reports from the most ancient human home.

In Africa, everything is an emergency. Your radiator blows out and as you solder a repair job, kids emerge from the bush, belonging to a village that you’ll never see, and reachable by a path you hadn’t noticed. Though one of them has a Kalashnikov, they aren’t threatening, only hungry. Eight or ten of them, aged eight or ten, they don’t expect to be fed by you or any other strange adult. Although you know some Swahili, you can’t converse, not knowing Lango, but because there is plenty of water in the streams roundabout, they are fascinated that you choose to drink instead from bottles you have brought. Gradually growing bold enough to peer into the open windows of your truck, they don’t attempt to fiddle with the door or reach inside, seeing no food or curious mechanical delectables. The boxes packed there white-man-style are cryptically uninformative. Meningitis and polio vaccines, malaria meds, deworming pills, folic acid, Vitamin A and similar famine-fighters. However, they will remain as long as you do, and you don’t dare leave because this fabric of politesse would tear if you did, as it would have already if they were five years older. You wish you could ask them if mines have been laid in the road recently by either the rebels or the government forces. Their fathers, the men of the village, haven’t emerged because they’re probably off with the guerrillas, and the women would not show themselves in time of war anyway. It’s a balance you must maintain here: friendliness and mystery.

*

The city splits at the seams with squatter camps, swollen by an enormous flux of displaced refugees from within hungry Kenya itself, not to mention all the illegals from the civil wars afire in the countries that surround it: Somalia, Sudan, Ethiopia, Congo, Rwanda. Look on a map — dire suffering — need I say more?

*

The joke, if you can call it that, among whites here is if you feel a hand grope for your wallet, the second thing to do is try to save the life of the pickpocket. This is a city veering into calamity, where transient whites like me still dribble in because it’s a hub for aid groups, and yet a traditional wash-up spot for Anglo ne’er-do-wells who try to define themselves by where they have been. With the AIDS pandemic, it will soon be too late for a number of things.

*

I help out in a place where we feed street kids and treat them with skin ointments, antibiotics, inoculations, minerals, vitamins, whatever we happen to have. Powdered milk, powdered eggs, surplus soups or porridges that another Non-Governmental Organization may have given us. We have a basketball hoop up, and soccer balls, board games, playing cards, a tent fly hooked to the back wall in the courtyard with cots arranged underneath it, as a shelter where the children can feel some safety in numbers at least. What makes you burn out are the ones dying visibly of AIDS. Yet you don’t want to banish them again to the furnace of the streets, or, on the other hand, specialize merely as a hospice, where salvageable kids aren’t going to want to come. Many of them wish to go to school but have no home to go to school from or money for the fees. So I scrounged a blackboard and taught addition, subtraction, geography, the English alphabet, when I had a break from refereeing a gritty soccer game or supervising the dishwashing or triaging kids with fevers or contusions who ought to go to the hospital (not that that Dickensian trip was often in their best interest). We had artful dodgers eating our fruits and sandwiches, between excursions into robbery, drugs, peddling — but also earnest tykes, plenty of them, who your heart absolutely went out to. Yet triage is frustrating.

*

You don’t have to be a doctor to help people who have no aspirin or disinfectant or malaria, tuberculosis, dysentery or epilepsy pills, no splints or bandaging, and no other near facility to walk to in the bush. Kaopectate, cough suppressants, malnutrition supplements, antibiotics for bilharzia or sleeping sickness or yaws. If you were a nurse, patients would be brought to you with these or hepatitis or broken limbs. The old stone and concrete ruins of a Catholic chapel that had been forgotten since the colonial powers left could be reoccupied, if you chased the leopards and the cobras out, because joy is what is partly needed, especially at first, and joy, I think, is, like photosynthesis for plants, an evidence of God. But joy, like beauty, is a continuum too, and in temperate climates it waxes with the sun somewhat as plants do.

*

I can do the basic mechanics if we break down on the road, and know when to speed up or — equally important — slow down, when figures with guns appear to block our passage. (If it’s soldiers, you never speed up, but the decision is not that easy because every male can look like a soldier in a war zone, and the soldiers like civilians.) The big groups such as Doctors Without Borders, CARE, Oxfam, Save the Children, have salaried international staff they can fly in from Honduras, Bangkok, or New Delhi to plug a momentary defection or a flip-out — dedicated career people, like the U.N.’s ladies and gentlemen, with New York, Geneva, London, Paris, Rome, behind them, who’ve been vetted: not much fooling around. But there are various smaller outfits, whose flyers you don’t receive in the mail back home, that will hire “the spiritual drifter,” as my friend Al put it to me, to haul pallets of plywood, bags of cement, first-aid kits in bulk, and bags of potatoes, bayou rice, cases of your basic tins, like corned beef, tuna, salmon, peas, what-have-you, and trunks of medicine to provision the solo picayune apostle out doing Christ’s appalling work in the hinterlands.

You draw up lists of refugees, so no one gets double their ration by coming through the corn queue twice. Use ink stamped on the wrists if you have to — if their names are always Mohammed or Josephine. And you census the children, as well, and weigh a sampling of them in a sling scale, plus measure their upper-arm fat, if they have any, with calipers to compile the ratio of malnutrition in the populace, severe versus moderate, and so on. I’ve helped inject against measles, tetanus, typhoid, when not enough licensed people were there, having been a vet’s assistant at one point in my teens. I’ve powwowed with the traditional clan chiefs and tribal healers, the leopard-skin priests and village shamans and elders, or young militia commanders, and delivered babies when nobody competent was around. I’ve squeezed the rehydration salts into babies’ mouths when they’re at death’s door, or mixed the fortified formula which you spoon into them, and chalked the rows of little white squares in the dirt where you have them all sit individually at their feeding hours so that every individual gets the same amount of protein, the same units of Vitamins A, C, E, B, calcium, iron, phosphorous, out of the fifty-five-gallon steel drum you’re stewing the emergency preparation in. Hundreds of passive, dying children sitting cross-legged in the little squares, waiting for you to reach each of them. You don’t think that breaks your heart? Chalk is never gonna look the same.

*

You meet many travelers — businessmen with attaché cases full of banknotes to persuade the bureaucrats in Government House to sign onto a certain project scheme; ecologists on a mission to save the chimpanzees; trust-fund hippies doing this route overland, now that you couldn’t go from Istanbul into Afghanistan; specialists from one of the U.N.’s many agencies studying a developmental proposal, or transiting to the more difficult terrain of Rwanda, Zimbabwe, Somalia, then resting for a spell on the way back. The taxi stand was busy from sunrise to pitch dark, and the pool on the roof was patronized by African middle-class parents, some of whom were teaching their kids how to swim, as well as the KLM airline pilots and Swissair stewardesses, the Danish or USAID water-project administrators waiting for permanent housing, or bustling missionaries passing through.

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