Posted by: Claire Liew11 APR 2013
Claire Liew blogs about her two-year adventure with VSO at St Walburg’s Hospital in rural Tanzania.
As I exited Dar Es Salaam airport I realised how wrong my priorities were. I may have a years' supply of toothpaste and Haribo Sour Cherries, but I don't have money, water or any idea who is picking me up. I try to look nonchalant whilst waving away taxi drivers and circling with my 69kg of luggage.
The first three days are in Dar, staying at the ominously named "Econo Lodge". I can vouch for its "econo" status at breakfast the next morning. Day 1: witnessed my first pick-pocketing - the victim, poor Dan a volunteer who came to take me for lunch and show me around. There was a bit of 2 on 1 action, a brief game of footsie and before you knew it, Dan was minus his wallet, bank cards, and $50 cash. He later explained that if you shout "thief" at a pick-pocket or mugger, people will chase the suspect and try and get your stuff back. Sometimes they will beat them up too and it has been known for the mob to set fire to the criminal. Tough justice.
By my third day in Dar I had been issued with the VSO essentials: 18L water filter, Swahili textbooks, mosquito net and packets of condoms. Had registered with IST, the clinic where we get free medical care and meds, had a new phone number and internet dongle. Ready to set off for my new home, I found out I could only take 23kg on the internal flight despite being allowed 69kg on the flight from London. There go the water filter, Swahili textbooks and condoms.
My new home is Nyangao Village; population approximately 15,000 although this includes the surrounding areas. The nearest town to be seen on a map is Lindi, 50km (2hrs) away. I am living in a lovely house, a minutes' walk from the hospital, with Sandra a VSO volunteer paediatrician. She has been in Tanzania for 3 months already and has a greater aversion to bugs than me which results in a clean home, free of spiders, scorpions and cockroaches as far as is possible. Sadly, the exception is the fridge where all the ants live. They appreciate the mild temperature in there of 20 degrees compared to the 35 degrees it is for the rest of us.
There is a mango tree in the garden that drops fruit on to the tin roof throughout the day and night; fantastic for breakfast, not so good for a peaceful nights' sleep. James, VSO pathology lab technician lives next door. We went for a "welcome to Nyangao" drink at The Old Trafford, a small shack on the side of the highway, complete with plastic tables and chairs that are dutifully re-positioned outside when they see "Mr Jamesi" crossing the highway to the bar. I had my first chipsi mayai (chip omelette) - not bad for 2000 shillings (80p).
Day 1 on placement (we don't call it a job with VSO) coincided with a surprise visit from the Ministry of Health so the hospital was on high alert. I observed, sat with different folk around the hospital, smiled and gesticulated a lot, observed some more. I really must learn Kiswahili. Each day starts at 7.30am with prayers in the hospital chapel followed by a clinical meeting where the overnight cases are discussed. So far I have seen the x-ray of a man who swallowed a whole mango pip 3 weeks earlier; he needed to have his chest opened to remove it as the only gastroscope we have is broken. And a baby who presented with a skull fracture that the surgeons used a ventouse on to pop the skull back out. In the meeting, James reports on the number of units in the blood bank (total 14 on this occasion) and in future I will report what drugs are out of stock.
In the pharmacy, everyone was very nice to the muzungu (white person) with the pigeon Kiswahili. My first lesson was mfuko (one bag), mifuko (many bags) - clearly important in a busy dispensary. Only a couple of the staff speak any English - another reason to get on with the Swahili practice.
Lunch is rice with beans, rice with vegetables or rice with beans and vegetables, either eaten in the "restaurant" (think laterally) or taken away in a mfuko (see above). I have started to enjoy eating out of a carrier bag. The meal costs 1000 shillings (40p) which works out well with our daily allowance of 12,000 shillings. By 3.30pm the working day is over. Time for a nap, or a trip to the market, or round to James' for coffee, or a frustrating spell trying to connect to the internet.
Two days on placement, 6 days in Tanzania and I am shattered - bring on the weekend!