Thursday, July 31, 2008

Getting to work

I'm not sure if I've finally gotten used to the pace of work around here or if I've finally figured out how to make myself useful (probably a bit of both) but for this last week Zev and I have had all the adventures, projects, and learning experiences that any eager volunteer could ask for. It seems that a good deal of the initial work any volunteer faces when beginning a project in a foreign country falls into the category of Swearingen's Three R's of Development Work: Relationships, Research, and Relaxation (feel free to quote me on this - the book deal's in the works). This theme has been running throughout my previous posts, but it's worth repeating here.

  • Relationships: who are you trying to help? If you find that the work you're doing is unwelcome or unappreciated, either A) you're unwelcome and unappreciated, B) the people you're trying to help don't yet realize how they can benefit from the services you're offering, or C) you're not offering the services that are wanted and needed. Knowing the people you're living and working with is key to overcoming this first obstacle. Kiana can attest to the fact that I've been a bit petulant lately, wondering when I was actually going to get to do some real work, actually use my skills. But compared to some, I've actually been lucky. There are some Scottish medical students at Kilimanjaro Christian Medical Center (outside Moshi, where some of our EWH folks are working) that tell us they've been in country for 7 weeks and haven't done anything. There are plenty of stories from Peace Corps volunteers who have spent the whole first year of their assignment tilting against windmills. Some of the stories have happy endings. Some don't. I'm not at all sure yet what separates a successful project from an unsuccessful one (my boss says that the key to success is to be able to define the parameters by which your success will be measured), but I do know that all the good work we've had this last week has been the direct result of meeting people on the bus, having drinks with the doctors, or just showing up over and over again until people realized we hadn't left yet and they should give us something to do.
  • Research: I already hit on this above - what are the actual needs? When I arrived here, I expected to find a warehouse full of broken equipment that needed my technical expertise. This has been the experience for several EWH volunteers at other hospitals. We arrived to find a competent electrician and several mechanics on staff. For the first week, we thought there was nothing for us to do here. Eventually we discovered that there was broken equipment stashed all over the place, we just had to go looking for it. We also discovered that there were other needs we could meet. We just had to ask around and be available.
  • Relaxation: I'm actually kind of serious about this. Zev and I often joke that we are walking the line between patience and indolence. What we mean is that we have yet to do a solid 8 hour's work (all at once, anyway), but that's no fault of our own - that's just not the way things work here. I imagine that if I were to stay here for a year, I would find enough long term projects and develop enough relationships to keep me busy all the time - this was the experience of one EWH student who worked here in Kibosho last year and then spent the next 12 months working at hospitals in the area. But being a 4-week volunteer is essentially a working vacation, or a vocational safari, for all the reasons I've described above. Until I realized this, I was stressed and depressed. Now I'm having a blast, just in time to leave (only 6 work days left!). And I'm actually more productive than before.

Okay, enough motivational material (I'll leave that to my friend Chris Guillebeau - see the link for A Brief Guide to Wold Domination on my link list at the right of the screen). My adventures and activities this week:

  • First white people to enter an ancient cave. This has yet to be externally verified, but it might be true. On the dala dala the other day we met a young woman doing a master's degree in archaeology through University of Tanzania Dar es Salaam. She and two other students are studying the defense systems of the Chagga, the tribe that populates the slopes of Mt. Kilimanjaro. We visited one of the sites they'll begin excavating soon, a tunnel ("bolt hole" is apparently the archaeological term for it) that the Chagga could escape into when under attack. Although tunnels like this are known to exist, this one was only re-discovered this year by a farmer digging a pit on his land. We used this pit as an entrance. The tunnel is about 8 feet underground, and is speculated to be several kilometers in length (running from one river bank to the next nears one) although we could only access 200 meters or so due to cave-ins. At its largest the tunnel was no more than 5 feet high, and we had to crawl on our hands and knees to get through other places. There were a dozen "rooms" carved out at certain places, with small indentations in the floor and ceiling that suggest sticks had at one time been placed vertically to create a gate or wall. The archeology students say the tunnel could be as old as 500 years, although we're not sure how they know that. According to the oral histories they are currently taking from local Chaga tribespeople, whole tribes would hole up (no pun intended) for long periods of time, keeping goats and even cattle with them and surreptitiously collecting water from the rivers at the tunnel entrances. There were airholes every 10 feet or so, as well as the occasional narrow vertical tunnel up to the surface so that a spy could check on things above. These openings are so well concealed by rocks at the surface that the students haven't even found them yet. This was only the second time the students had entered the tunnel. When their work is done and they have published a book about the Chagga (which will be the first ever), the site will become the property of the Tanzania government. Until that time, it is only known to the locals, three grad students, and us.
  • Zev gets electrocuted. There are two examination chairs in the dentist's office, and two weeks ago we repaired the lamp on one of them. This week the lamp on the other chair quit working, and Wilbard told us to check it out. The problem was simple: a burned out fuse. But why had the fuse burned out? It could have been just a power surge (normal around here) or a bigger problem. Wilbard advised us to check it out. In order to measure the current, I devised a tool I've taken to calling the Swearingen Device. Basically, I used a screw driver, some wires with alligator clips, and a bunch of electric tape to make a tool that I can stick into the fuse socket. When the gator clips are attached together, the circuit closes and the lamp works. I can use the gator clips to put a digital multimeter in series with the circuit and measure the current passing through the fuse socket. We had the Swearingen Device in place on one of the chairs, turned on the power, and saw that the lamp worked. Zev then grabbed the gator clips in order to disconnect them from each other and put the multimeter in the circuit. He hadn't turned off the power yet, so each of his arms became multimeter leads and he became the multimeter, measuring 220 V AC right across his chest. He jumped pretty high. He seems to be alright, but now he has a new respect for electricity and an irrational fear of dentist's chairs.
  • I become an electrician. There are several construction projects going on at Kibosho Hospital these days, including a new wing for the nursing school. As with construction projects anywhere in the world, this one's running behind schedule. The problem is, the grand opening's on Sunday (the Bishop is coming to bless the place) and 4 days out they still didn't have the lights up. So, rather than fixing scales and dentist's chairs, Zev and I have spent the last two days playing apprentice to the electricians, which mostly involves pulling wire and handing tools up to guys on ladders. It's not exactly biomedical engineering, but it's been fun and (I think) we've actually been helpful.

We've also tinkered around with ancient medical equipment, watched a few surgeries, attempted to translate a sonogram manual from German to English, and started a poker game with some British Medical students. Good times.

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