Preface: What with Covid lock downs and travel bans our wee adventures, modest that they are, are on hold for the foreseeable future. Claire suggested we change tack and blog about past postings in far flung corners of the globe and the many challenges, near disasters and unforgettable experiences we shared. The following is more of a (long) short story than a blog. It is also an ‘aide memoire’ that reminds us of our past life overseas, one so different from our current. We hope you’ll find it interesting. (Apologies for the poor photo quality.)
It was a modest affair, our marriage. It was the spring of 1985 and we had both just been offered six month contracts to work with the Red Cross in war torn Mozambique. We were under much pressure to get our lives in order, including trying to organize our own, self-catered, wedding prior to our departure. Claire was finishing her Bachelor of Science in Nursing at UBC while also attending a course on Advanced First Aid. I was wrapping up a major building contract for a wealthy, client-from-hell and getting my final cheque was proving difficult. We were studying Portuguese (the lingua franca of Mozambique) and, on top of all the above, we received Claire’s parents, visiting from Quebec, in our tiny 600 sq ft. rental home. Somehow, we pulled it off. The food was potluck and delicious. Two UBC nursing students were hired to work the event. A good friend, high as a kite, organized the music and we all had a great time, dancing up a storm. The highlight, or some might call it the lowlight, of the evening was in the middle of our vows. Just as the unassuming, diminutive deacon officiating, a stand-in for the charismatic, bilingual, but now ill, priest we had hoped for, was saying “….and do you Jim, take Claire to be your lawfully wedded wife?”, I fainted! (It’s a long, embarrassing story best told at some other time.) The deacon, without missing a beat, looked to me, now lying on the floor and asks “….well, do you?”. Somehow, in the ensuing chaos, I regained my composure, responded “I do” and the ceremony progressed as it should. Despite this inauspicious start to our married life, thirty-six years on, we are still happily together.
Shortly afterwards we were off to Toronto for a briefing with the Canadian Red Cross, followed by some much needed R&R and a delayed honeymoon in Portugal. Another briefing with our employer, the League of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies in Geneva and finally, we were on our way to Maputo, Mozambique.
Though hardly a developing world neophyte I was not prepared for what we found. Claire had done three previous assignments with the Red Cross, twice to work in the refugee camps strung out along the border of Kampuchea and Thailand during the brutal regime of Pol Pot and once in Djibouti, with desperate refugees fleeing a cataclysmic drought in Somalia. She knew what life on the edge looked like. My travels in Nepal, India and Burma had exposed me to poverty and hardship, but Mozambique was quite another story. In 1985, Mozambique was one of the poorest countries on the globe. Under-five morbidity was, I believe, the highest in the world. The economy was not functioning. Most of the colonial ‘elite’, the Portuguese, either fled or were given the boot when Mozambique gained independence in 1975. Many locals claimed the Portuguese sabotaged infrastructure as they departed and, true or not, most infrastructure, by the time we arrived, was on the verge of collapse. Power outages were frequent and of long duration. Maybe ten public buses served all of Maputo, a city of close to a million. Health care for most of the population was non-existent and education marginal, at best.
Unlike other colonial powers in Africa, Portugal did little to foster local skills or opportunities for the indigenous population. Many low skilled jobs in the colonial era were held by white Portuguese. With independence and the newly formed, single-party state under Marxist-Leninist leadership, the remaining economy collapsed and within a few years an anti-communist guerilla force (RENAMO) started a long running, bitterly contested, insurgency that further crippled what was left of it. Both white ruled Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and South Africa supported the guerillas. In turn, the Mozambican government tried to support the independence movements in both those countries by providing ‘safe’ haven for their ‘freedom fighters’. All of this was happening at the height of the Cold War and the growing anti-apartheid sanctions against South Africa. It was a tumultuous time of instability, insecurity and enormous hardship for the local population.
And then, we showed up. The salient memory of our arrival at Maputo International Airport was, quite frankly, body odour. Soap was a scarce commodity in the country. Over time however, I would grow fond of that smell as with each arrival in the airport, it meant we had left the tension and hostility of racialized South Africa and the return to, yes, a country in ruin, but still a proud, independent, black-led country with a warm and hospitable people. Our next memory was the eerily quiet drive into town on a broad boulevard, deserted of vehicles, covered in drifts of sand and the people walking with loads balanced on their heads or pushing handcarts along its edge.
We had been contracted to help in the development of the nascent Mozambique Red Cross Society (MRC). Claire was to develop the First Aid program and I, to create a logistical capacity for emergency relief operations. Don’t ask why they hired me, that’s another story. Neither of these functions existed at anything but a rudimentary level. Communication with Red Cross offices in the provinces was sporadic and the central office in Maputo was chaotic and bureaucratically inert. All made worse by the recent political appointment of a new Secretary General (the title of the head of the MRC), a conniving, corrupt man with self-interest his only motivation. From the outset, our work was a challenge. Claire was to design a locally appropriate first aid course and write the accompanying manual in Portuguese. She was assigned a Mozambican counterpart, an essential component of any development project, but Senor Lote was a 74 year old nurse more interested in reminiscing of past tales of big game hunting then actually doing anything. In thirteen months of working together Claire cannot recall him contributing anything to their ‘institutional capacity building’ work. In the end, Sr. Lote proved to be Claire’s undoing but more on that later. At least Claire had the technical knowledge, a facility with languages, previous development experience and, most importantly, the patience and diplomacy to persevere.
I, on the other hand, was out of my league. My background as a high-balling, first-world, independent framing contractor with an aversion to bureaucracy, short on patience and focussed on production, left me woefully ill-prepared for work in a country where no matter how hard you beat your head against the proverbial brick wall, nothing happens. My first four months in country almost did me in. Everything conspired against actually doing anything. State run enterprises in a failing state, runaway inflation, uneducated/unskilled workforce, no spare parts (due to the non-convertible currency), lack of fuel, civil war, the list goes on, all played their part. Out of desperation, I ended up creating my own crew and slowly, very slowly, I started getting things done.
A major component of my work was securing the land, then designing and building a large warehouse and vehicle workshop that would provide a logistical capacity for the Red Cross to respond to natural disasters, or at least, that was the aspiration. Securing the land illustrates the obstacles I faced. I needed the Title for the property we wanted and proceeded to the Land Registry in the bleak corridors of City Hall. I finally found the responsible staffer, in his darkened office fast asleep at his desk with neat stacks of yellowing, dust covered, papers, draped in cobwebs that had been there since Independence 10 years earier. Months later we secured the property but by the time I left the country (before construction had even started), the land was now occupied by squatters, resistant to eviction. Another time I needed a bank draft in CDN$s to send to the Canadian High Commission in Zimbabwe. Weekly, I would go to the bank to check on its status. I would watch as my prospective bank draft, with an ever increasing amount of paperwork attached, would pass from one clerk to the next as they would each affix their respective rubber stamps with an authoritative flourish. Four weeks later I finally received the draft. It was made out for the correct amount but now in US$. Fearing another four week delay, I didn’t bother mentioning the significant discrepancy, notably, in my favour.
Once, I drove Daniel, my crew boss, back to his home to meet his wife and family. His three year old boy, of whom he was so proud, had started a fever that day. I was shocked the next day when Daniel informed me his wee boy had died overnight. Most likely, the brutally fast and unforgiving cerebral malaria was the cause. The following day, I organized a big transport truck to ferry family, friends and neighbours, maybe forty mourners in all, out to the cemetery where they bury the poor. It was a humble and sad ceremony but for me, quite lovely and very moving to hear the women sing. Through the immediacy and hands-on nature of my work I believe I grew close to and was more able to empathize with the Mozambicans despite the vast differences in our lives represented by, to coin a contemporary expression, my white male privilege.
A mundane but practical consideration of any posting is housing. Our first home (located just east of Karl Marx Road, south of Avenida V. Lenin and just down the way from Ho Chi Minh St.) was a run-down, 2 storey affair, surrounded by high walls in a middle class, but now declining neighborhood, not the usual place for expats. It was owned by the MRC and came with a night guard (Antonio), a houseboy/cook (Elias) and a dog (Chica). Antonio was usually fast asleep at night and, as a result, we were robbed a couple of times, nothing of great value but one night our Land Rover disappeared, a much more serious loss. The subsequent police investigation was comical, up until it decidedly wasn’t. The police accused me of, in essence, stealing my own vehicle and raping a woman. The actual thieves had indeed raped someone then abandoned the vehicle, when they ran out of gas. Thank God, my association with the MRC extricated me from what I assume must have been an attempted shakedown. An armed night guard might have been more effective but I’m glad we never went that route with our hapless Antonio.
Elias, our young cook was a gem. Taught by his previous employers, Italian cooperants, his cheese omelettes and French fries, our regular lunch fare, were to die for. He was a lovely young man, illiterate with no education but a very quick study and for whom we became quite fond. Our dog, Chica, used to live out back beside a filthy chicken coop. When Chica went into heat, shortly after our arrival, the nightly racket of stray, mongrels bent on inseminating Chica was intense and added to the long list of reasons why we were sleeping so poorly. Shortly after Chica gave birth, all the puppies erupted in boil like growths (warbles) all around their heads, each harbouring the fat, larvae of a botfly. It was grotesque and clearly painful. Without any veterinary services, it was all a bit much. We euthanized most of them. As botflies can deposit their eggs in laundry hanging out to dry, Elias had to iron all our clothes, underwear included.
The contractor-within soon took over and we started renovating the old place, primarily painting, fixing some millwork and, after a particularly long black out, installing a big diesel generator (a major undertaking). At night, when getting up, barefoot, for a pee, I would inadvertently step on the cockroaches that scurried about our tile floors. Investigating their origins, I opened a hatch on the side of the house that provided access to the crawlspace. The supporting walls of the crawlspace seem to move as an undulating mass of countless roaches scurried away from the unfamiliar light. Multiple concoctions were used in the eradication attempts but, roaches haven’t survived unchanged for millions of years for no reason. Like them, we adapted and survived. Another unwelcome denizen of our neighbourhood were the rats. Many of our neighbours lived without electricity, some without water and very few with the resources to maintain their properties. Most were country folk, often squatters, fleeing the violence of RENAMO and had quite different notions of sanitation. Accordingly, the rats were big, fearless and plentiful.
The great delight of our neighbourhood were the local kids. They had a special song they sang for us each time we arrived home. The girls would sit for countless hours braiding each others hair or play a singing and dancing game where they clapped in unison and slapped hands. It was wonderfully rhythmic and took skill and practice to perfect. On occasion we would load up the Land Rover with the neighbourhood kids and head to the beach. A big treat for all involved.
Everyone in our neighborhood knew we worked for the Red Cross so one night, we were woken by knocking on the front door. We were informed that someone was having a baby on the street in front of our house. By the time we arrived the woman, who had been walking to the local hospital with her small children in tow, had already given birth by herself, the new born lying between her legs on a thin cloth on the road. Our neighbours, awakened by her cries, stood around seemingly unsure of what to do or more likely, unwilling to assume any responsibility, so Claire took charge. She sent me off for clean sheets and to boil water, the classic ploy to sideline the inept, but soon bailed on that notion and decided, due to the unsanitary conditions to get the girl to hospital with umbilical cord still intact and placenta within. We loaded mom and child into the Land Rover and took off. Upon arrival, a no-nonsense nurse peered into the back of our vehicle, promptly cut the cord, and walked back into emerg with baby in hand. Mom, soon got up, leaned a little on my shoulder and followed her in. The people were incredibly stoic.
With the renovations finally finished and us feeling at home, the Secretary General of the MRC decided he wanted our home. With absolutely no opposition from the wimpy, Chief Delegate, our in-country boss, we had to acquiesce and were soon looking for another home. We ended up finding a stunning (by our standards) apartment in a high-rise that had only two suites per floor, with decks facing three directions including a beautiful view of the Indian Ocean. It had one downside. The apartment was on the twelfth floor and the elevators didn’t work. Given non-functioning elevators was the usual scenario in Maputo and, in the end, it would fall on Elias to carry supplies up the stairs, we jumped on it. It was a lovely, healthy (walk up and down twelve flights of stairs multiple times a day and see how you feel!) place to live but regrettably, not for long. Claire got kicked out of the Red Cross and I quit, but more on that later.
The Mozambican government was Marxist Leninist in name but pragmatic in practice so foreign assistance came from around the globe. To be sure, there were many Soviet Bloc ‘cooperants’ (aid workers), Cubans and even North Koreans working in country. Many wouldn’t have chosen to come to the country, were not well remunerated and typically, worked within the barely functional government ministries, a dispiriting prospect at best. A friend once saw North Koreans lining up at a food and clothing distribution for the desperately poor Mozambicans. Unsurprisingly, there was a de facto, cold war gulf between western ‘expats’ and the communist ‘cooperants’. We were once invited to dinner at the home of two Soviet doctors. It was an awkward evening and we left feeling uncertain as to their intentions (were they KGB?). We did not reciprocate and unfortunately never developed meaningful relations across this political divide.
On the other hand, all the UN agencies, many NGOs and even commercial interests were well represented by a gang of predominately young, ‘westerners’ from across the Americas, Asia and Europe. Typical of hardship posts, most were adventurous, out-going, multilingual and, in order to deal with the inherent stresses of our work, up for a good time. Parties were frequent and fun. Maria, the Paraguayan wife of Hugo the ICRC administrator, my tennis partner, awesome cook and hostess par excellence, organized weekly get togethers at the old, decaying, colonial, mansion they were renting. Maria spoke seven languages and along with the other international attendees left me feeling inadequate what with my high school French and rudimentary Portuguese. Only the Americans were as linguistically challenged. Often tired and demoralized with the frustrations of our work we couldn’t keep up with all the social engagements but nonetheless we developed close relations with an eclectic, international group of expats.
Tuesday nights were for volleyball on the park-like grounds of the British Embassy, that is after sweeping the court of the giant ‘shongololos’, six-inch-long millipedes. Sundays were for baseball. The teams were a mixed bag of cricket players from Commonwealth countries, Latino soccer players and a few Gringos who knew what they were doing. With time everyone figured out the rules and we gained enough confidence to invite the Cubans for a friendly match. I am sure we were saved significant embarrassment when their embassy refused fraternizing of this sort. Saturday usually found us at the beach. The waters of Maputo Bay were silt laden and uninviting but up the coast a bit, the beaches were clean and the waters warm. Much to our dismay, RENAMO started placing land mines on the beaches. News of the first two land mine explosions were dismissed as rumours and kept us away for only a couple of weeks. The next occurrence, resulting in two confirmed fatalities abruptly ended our local beach excursions. Tennis and running, despite the heat and humidity, filled the balance of our weekly exercise routines. Don’t get me wrong, life was by no means all fun and games. Recreation and our social connections nonetheless played an essential role in maintaining our mental health given the challenging and often stressful work.
Both Claire and I had to, on occasion, travel to the provinces for work. If we thought life in Maputo was tough, we were in for a rude awakening. Typically, we flew with MAF (Mission Aviation Fellowship), a Christian based organization that provided services to NGOs and UN agencies. Overland travel, outside of the major towns was too dangerous and therefore prohibited. In stark contrast to the local, state-run, domestic airline, MAF was organized and their planes (small Cessnas) properly maintained. We learnt to accepts the fervent prayers as part of the pre-flight ritual and became friends with some of the young pilots. Air traffic control may have functioned over Maputo but beyond, it was non-existent. The MAF pilots would often buzz airstrips to shoo the goats, cows, and kids away prior to landing. Once, I was dropped off at the airport in Nacala. The MIG jets lining the airstrip clearly indicated it was used for military purposes but, unable to communicate with the tower, the pilot landed, quickly ushered me out onto the tarmac, turned around, and high tailed it out of there. Two jeeps, with soldiers, weapons at the ready, came flying out the runway to meet me, standing all alone and feeling quite vulnerable. An extremely uncomfortable stand-off was shortened by the arrival, a few minutes later, of the head of the provincial MRC in their only functioning vehicle, an old ambulance. Luckily, we had been able to inform the MRC of our arrival by VHF radio as we approached Nacala.
My trips focussed on assessing the logistical capacity of the provincial MRC delegations. For reasons unknown, I would be given tours of the local hospital. As grim as one could imagine, I politely asked questions but unable to respond in any way to their overwhelming needs, I would feel useless and disrespectful of the efforts of the hospital staff who had to attend me. Trips up country were complicated by simple logistics, namely, where to stay and what to eat. On a memorable trip to Nampula, the provincial capital, we stayed in the formerly elegant, Grand Plaza Hotel. The days were, as usual, hot and humid. All the rooms had air conditioners, but none functioned. We had to open the windows to benefit from any cooling evening breeze but all the window screens were falling apart. Concerns about contracting malaria were soon put into perspective when we went to the dining room. Spaghetti with salt on it was all that there was on offer. That night, Pierre, the Swiss program coordinator and I sat in the lobby commiserating over the hardships of field travel while sharing a bottle of cheap Scotch whiskey. Previously I could not stomach the stuff. It always brought back memories of making ‘jungle juice’, a concoction of small, hopefully undetectable amounts of everything I would steal from my father’s liquor cabinet that we used to drink as kids. That night I developed a life long affinity for Scotch.
That same trip, a Swiss delegate, and I visited an ‘aldea communal’, essentially a ‘strategic hamlet’ (A Vietnam war era construct) wherein the government would forcibly relocate rural populations in order to ‘protect’ them from RENAMO. We witnessed a food distribution of sacks of rice or maize to adults and a feeding of a high nutritional value slurry (oil, sugar and beans) to children. The kids were lined up heel to toe in long patient lines. As expected, they were all thin but what surprised me, at least, were the many kids with distended bellies. Kwashiorkor is an indication of severe dietary protein deficiency resulting in reduced muscle mass, swollen bellies, irritability, lethargy, among other symptoms. Once again, similar to my hospital visits, to wander around the village simply as an observer was dispiriting. Oh, I almost forgot. I gave away some soccer balls. The benevolent aid worker in action. Regarding my assessment of provincial MRC logistical capacity, it could be summed up in one word. Non-existent.
Claire’s trips to the ‘campo’ were marginally more productive than mine. Claire, accompanied by Francis, a Dutch nutritionist, were tasked with doing health and nutritional assessments with the support of the local MRC teams. Claire felt that these missions were simply an excuse to get her and Francis out of the non-functioning head office. Whatever the case may be, they tried their best with very limited resources to do their assessments. Providing moral support to the isolated provincial staff was the most important outcome. On one, week-long trip to the north, conditions had been especially dire. Claire will never forget a dining experience wherein a plate of intestines was the only option on the ‘menu’. She remains convinced that the intestines were still full of the excrement of whatever animal they had been pulled from. Their return to Maputo was a harrowing experience on board an, always to be avoided, TTA flight. It was probably an old Soviet Tupolev that, as the domestic carrier with in-country flights only, would not have to meet international maintenance standards. Their flight had a stopover in the port city of Beira. The Beira airport was a grim place with no water, no functioning bathrooms and no food. After landing, all the passengers were asked to temporarily disembark. They walked across the tarmac to a waiting room and shortly afterwards an adjoining waiting room started filling up with Soviet bloc travellers. The smug look on the faces of the Soviets and the absence of any other planes at the airport led to suspicions building amongst Claire and her fellow passengers. Eventually it became evident that the Soviet passengers were going to get on the already full plane destined for Maputo. Realizing this, Claire and her gang burst out of the waiting room and ran to get back in their seats. After hours of tense negotiations, many of the Mozambican passengers were indeed kicked off the plane to be replaced by the Soviets (returning home for Christmas). Claire and Frances who had paid in USD for their flight were allowed to remain on board. Apparently, the poor evicted passengers were trapped for three days in the apocalyptic Beira airport. An unimaginable outcome that led us to never fly with TTA again.
As a newbie to the world of International Aid, my experience in Mozambique was, in large part, disheartening. There were many aspects to this, foremost of which might have been my own naivete and lack of patience. That aside, there were many things to complain about. The League team working with the MRC was, in our estimation, hopeless. The Brazillian administrators were lining their pockets. The Portuguese information officer flirted, gossiped, partied and did little else. The Swedish Chief Delegate was a bureaucratic pushover unable to insist on anything from the MRC. I, brought in to create infrastructure without any confirmed capital budget, was left twiddling my thumbs.
The UN agencies were all well represented and their requisite, white Toyotas and Nissans were everywhere. (Funny the way Japanese aid seemed to be always tied to the purchase of Japanese vehicles.) We once watched a fresh-off-the-plane UN employee get his brand new Nissan stuck in the sand on the beach as the tide came in. The UNICEF administrator, a flamboyant character, was reputedly deeply involved in the black market. From what we could observe, the international aid community was largely ineffectual, yet vast sums were being spent on just maintaining a presence. Of course, the festering civil war, the decaying infrastructure, weak institutions, a largely unskilled/uneducated local populace, and the tough living conditions in general made all of our work very difficult. So, what’s the solution? Dammed if I know. Despite my general disillusionment with the delivery of ‘aid’, there was something about the inherent adventure, the possibility of making a meaningful contribution and, of course, the overwhelming needs, that kept us engaged. Note: We continued overseas relief and development work for 8 more years in Nicaragua, Angola and Zimbabwe before returning to Canada for good.
Mercifully, outside of the intensely formal and stiflingly bureaucratic state-run institutions, my work with the lower rungs of society, those who worked with their hands was quite rewarding. Once I realized that for many, survival of their family was their primary concern and what happened during their ‘official’ employment was secondary, I came to understand how hard working the people could be. Most everyone had a second job or source of income in the ‘informal’ economy. The former might generate ration cards for state sponsored distributions, but the latter is what put food on the table and access to whatever consumer goods might be available. As is so often the case in this type of economy, inflation wreaks havoc on the local currency and the spread between the official and black market exchange rates complicates all transactions. During our time, the black market rate for meticais was approx. forty times the bank rate and growing. This can lead to all sorts of profiteering for those with access to USD.
Shopping locally was always a challenge. The informal markets were typically reasonably well stocked with seasonal local produce but always at black market rates. The state-run super markets were desperate affairs with long rows of empty shelves and occasionally stocks of a single item (canned sardines or maybe big bars of coarse laundry soap). We had access to the two ‘Loja Franca’ the Duty Free Stores of which there were only two in the whole country) where one could buy items with USD. The selection was very limited but we could always be sure to find the ubiquitous gallon jugs of super cheap Portuguese wine and very good South African wines for $2 to $3 a bottle. Needless to say, we drank a lot of wine. Once more established, local fisherman would occasionally come to our door with fresh caught, giant African prawns for $2/kg. In the end, we bought many of our household needs through a shady, South African import-export firm that flew in stuff from Nelspruit, RSA.
Given Mozambique was considered a ‘hardship’ posting we were allotted a two week R&R every six months (in addition to our 2-week annual vacation). We took every advantage and had some wonderful trips camping, hiking, doing safaris, etc. in RSA, Lesotho, Swaziland (now called eSwatini) and an awesome trip through Kashmir and Ladakh in northern India. I also did an extended business trip to South Africa on behalf of the Red Cross that included a very sketchy outing worth recounting.
I was staying at a hotel in downtown Johannesburg, then known as one of the most dangerous cities in the world. Always curious about life in apartheid South Africa at the height of sanctions I went to the hotel bar and engaged the black bartender in conversation. Muzi, the bartender, was a colourful character and asked me to join him after work to go see Chic to Chic who were playing at a bar in Tembisa. I knew and enjoyed Chic to Chic’s music so, always game for a new experience, I accepted. We first drove to Muzi’s place so he could get into his clubbing outfit, a gaudy, purple, 3 piece velour suit. He stayed in one of the infamously dangerous men’s hostels, single sex accommodation for migrant workers (primarily miners) that ring the city (https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-32692461). It was a bleak, 4 room cinder block structure shared by 12 men with a communal latrine out back. Muzi’s clothes, clearly his prized possessions, were neatly wrapped in plastic, hanging on a string over his bed. If I had been half way knowledgeable of where he lived I wouldn’t have gone. All I know is I definitely shouldn’t have been there. I stayed close to Muzi, tried to be inconspicuous and fervently hoped to get out of there as soon as possible. We jumped in my rented car, got back on the Ring Road and headed for Tembisa, truly a case of out of the frying pan and into the proverbial fire. Tembisa is the 2nd largest black township, after Soweto, near to Johannesburg. As we pulled off the highway, the street lights disappeared, the roads turned to dirt and the smoke of countless cooking fires cloaked the township in an earie light. When we walked into the nightclub, the whole place shut down and stared at me in disbelief. Muzi introduced his new Canadian friend all around (I have never been more thankful of my nationality!) and the tension slowly dissipated. What evolved was a wonderful night of dancing. Both men and women wanted to dance with me. Chic to Chic was great and, of course, everyone had rhythm. Maybe a little less so, the lone white guy. (my favourite South African dance video, please enjoy – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=euOJw3v7R6w)
By one in the morning it was time to go but Muzi was now drunk and hoping to get lucky, so he didn’t want to leave. He drew me a map on a napkin for the directions back to the Ring Road. His map was a straight line with a series of equally spaced, 90 degree, intersections with robots (traffic lights) at each, nothing at all like I remember coming in. Feeling less than confident, I went out to the parking lot, napkin in hand and was instantly surrounded by balaclava wearing night guards, all carrying knobkerries (a vicious looking club) looking incredulously at this nervous white guy. There was not a robot in sight nor, I subsequently learned, one in all of Tembisa. Asking directions of the guards led nowhere and just as my anxiety was getting the better of me, a promoter from Soweto came out of the club and offered to lead me out. The subsequent twists and turns on dark, dirt roads with no signage would have been an impossibility to navigate on my own. I let out an enormous sigh of relief once back on the Ring Road. In the following days as I told white South Africans of my Tembisa visit they just shook their heads claiming I was lucky to get out alive. Maybe a bit of hyperbole but nonetheless, it was an incredibly naïve and, let’s be honest, stupid thing to do.
In the end, our stay in Mozambique was suddenly cut short. Claire’s work had two components. The primary task was writing a First Aid manual for Red Cross workers. One would immediately think that it would be reasonably easy to adapt an existing manual or simply translate one from another country. In the end, the need to update the old colonial-era manual, the devolving health care situation in the country and the different end user group necessitated a complete rewrite. The overwhelming demand for education prompted the inclusion of a section on primary health care including, vaccinations, hygiene, common illnesses and even how to measure and administer medications. Claire’s counterpart, old Senor Lote, was not up to the task but luckily Claire had the support of an overworked Brazilian doctor in the Ministry of Health who provided invaluable feedback. It took Claire 8 months to write, edit and print the manual. She was not happy with the finished product but the need to get it into the field and start the training program was too important to delay further. She then organized and implemented a two week training program for the provincial MRC workers. The participants were such keeners, all eager to learn and so appreciative of the opportunity.
Regrettably, old Lote unable to offer anything but a rigid adherence to protocol, felt sidelined in the process. Claire pushed ahead and, in the end, unwittingly offended the old bugger. At the end of the course Claire was called to a meeting with all the MRC brass in which Lote accused her of assorted offences. Our boss, the Swedish Chief Delegate, caved completely, offering no defence of Claire.
As a result, Claire was “asked to leave” the MRC. Despite exhortations for me to stay on, I quit my position in solidarity. In a remarkably short time, we organized our own going away party, packed up our things, said our farewells and we were gone. The stresses and strains of our tumultuous time in the country were soon behind us as we embarked on new adventures.
We had to debrief in Geneva before returning to Canada but we delayed the inevitable by doing a dugout canoe trip into the Okavango Swamp in the Kalahari, then a canoe trip on the Zambezi River culminating in an unsuccessful climb of Kilimanjaro….but these are tales for another time.