Friday, 22 October 2010

Nightmare on Nile Street

Wagons are everywhere, churning mud between their fat tyres, blasting burning diesel smoke into my face, some trying to reverse over me, some trying to move forward. 

Wagons and wagons full of long-lasting insecticide-treated mosquito nets.  

I didn’t mean to order that many. It was a slip of the decimal point.

I try to flee to the river, knowing it is full of schistoso-something or other, and not having a clue what that is. A visiting Minister of Health is driving a crocodile of trucks ahead of me to the river bank where I saw naked men washing yesterday. He is trying to explain to me about snails, and how the schisto thing gets into bathers and bladders. Now the snails are driving us into the river, one truck over the other, as we try to make a bridge of mosquito nets over the Nile.

A friendly soldier says it’s fine to drive into the Nile but we MUST NOT TAKE PHOTOS. I explain that Mrs M has borrowed the camera to take pictures of Jeanette Winterson. The soldier throws me an orange, and waves happily as we sink, sink into leachy Nile mud, beneath nets tangled in water hyacinth.

When I splutter awake, my heart is pounding again. I’ve managed to turn off the telly and the aircon, but it’s stuffy and airless. At least no mosquitoes.  

“It was only an illustrative budget, Your Excellency. You know, one of those ones that doesn’t really matter. Yes, I did put three hundred million nets on the spreadsheet, but I really meant three million... Yes, Your Excellency, I agree that the long-lasting insecticide-treated net is a tremendous innovation: it really is helping Africa get on the right road with malaria. Three hundred million of them should stretch from Kampala to Khartoum. Or would you prefer the opposite direction?”

(I expect most freelancers have their moments of panic. I have at least one thumper on most expeditions. However, although we more experienced freelancers may be at higher risk of losing a decimal point or two, we have the advantage that we can usually remember a situation worse than the one that is currently jangling the chains. The benchmark for me is a terrible night long ago in the now abandoned Johannesburg Carlton Hotel. It reduced me to my creaking knees, forehead scrunched onto the grimy carpet, shallow-breathing the stale smoke of a twenty-first floor, air-conditioned room with sealed windows. No panic since has come close to my Carlton Moment.)

 The Carlton Moment

The music from the neighbouring camps has stopped, and I hear a cock crow. It must be morning. No rain on the roof. I am glad for the quiet, but somehow it seems wrong. For although our camp is bordered by the silent fat river on one side, there is an ever-growing settlement on the other. I wonder how many hundreds or thousands live there. We drive past them every day, and most days I run past them too. Children and adults join me, shouting and laughing. Today a woman with an old weather-beaten face in a filthy ragged smock and flip-flops kept pace with me for a few hundred yards. We cheer each other on. Indeed, I think we cheer each other up.

I know I’m a bit slow on the uptake, but it takes me a while to register the daily lives of the people around me. The makeshift homes between the Oasis Camp and the Goat Market seemed poor and mean at first, but you get used to it. Also, the children always shout, at every hour of the day, “MORNING!” and “How are YOU?” with great big African vowels and gap-toothed smiles. We smack hands. They are very endearing...

(The children's greetings also make me want to hide behind my visor a hundred times a day when I catch myself saying “Morning,” and “How are you?” without a care for the well-being of the person I am so assaulting.  Perhaps this is a sign that a pith helmet would not be completely inappropriate. It is no wonder that these are the only words of English that the children know.)

... So, it takes me a while to cotton on to the lives around me. Why aren’t you in school? Where do you go to the loo? And where do you go to fill up those water tanks?

My latest observations are that many households seem to have nothing at all to sit or lie on, apart from a dirt floor. I don't know what happens when there's a downpour, which must make everything flood, for there is no drainage. I suppose you stand under the shelter all day in your flip flops. When I come home from my run in the evening, families are sitting bolt upright around cooking fires. Already the settlement is going quiet. There is only the roar from our camp’s generator whose exhausts roar into the waste land that is now our neighbours’ homes.  

I cannot see any newspaper or anything to read, except the markings on the cardboard boxes that some people use for walls. The light has almost gone, and the only glow is from the embers. There are no lamps. Perhaps people just go to sleep, and hope for a better tomorrow.

Few of the shelters seem to have complete walls.  I am on the look-out for the white, pink or green tell-tale of a mosquito net against the mud-brown of everything else. Long-lasting, insecticide-treated, or otherwise.

I'll tell you when I find one.


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