Travelling in Africa: A doctor's impressions

---Swati Gadgil
Swati Gadgil
Africa calling...I was selected as a team leader for a healthcare mission to the Congo. It was under the banner of the Rotary and Mercy ships for a period of 15 days. Starting 8th February to 21st February 2014, it was my first visit, and beginning of a romance with the continent, of more subsequent travels there. I reached the International airport, Mumbai at the stroke of 12. The passengers to Africa had lined up. It was Ethiopian airlines. I was scheduled to take a connecting flight to Pointe Noire from Addis Ababa.  I found myself alien in the mass of people flying with me. Apprehension, awkwardness, anxiety, fear and fatigue had already taken charge of my soul and body. I dozed off and was dreaming of being dropped with a parachute in the jungles of the Congo...when the pilot's announcement gently woke me up ... Bonjour! We are now descending on the African soil in Pointe Noire.... 

 Pointe-Noire is a port city and oil industry hub in the Republic of the Congo. Republic of Congo was a French colony, liberated on 15th August 1960. People in the Congo speak French. Pointe Noire with a population of around 715, 334 as of 2007 with area of 1,144 sq. km is a port town with oil industry and situated between Pointe Noire Bay and Atlantic Ocean. I was taken to my hotel room and next day we visited the Mercy ship docked in the bay. A ship hospital. It was an amazing experience to see various medical departments spread over sprawling decks. It was a huge well-equipped hospital made in to a ship which can sail across continents and treat patients who suffer due to poverty, illiteracy, lack of infrastructure medics and paramedics. It reminded me of Noah's Ark! It had doctors and staff from all over the world who volunteer for period ranging from one month to six months. 

My team was to begin the training sessions for the two hospitals identified for the Infection Control Training over next two weeks. Our conveyance and food was taken care of but the only cause of concern was that we were told not to venture out alone after 6 pm. We were warned adequately against robbery, mugging and street attacks. 
My first visit to African Continent set a chain reaction and with the situation on home front creating a new page in life, my son going to USA, my husband who is a gynaecologist travelling to Botswana to serve in a hospital in Serowe and daughter moving out for a five- year study in Law and Business Administration, leaving me alone in Mumbai. We became a global family and I had to  fly between continents.  Soon came my visit to Botswana and South Africa. I was on Kenya airways, Mumbai Nairobi Johannesburg. It was November and the climate was comfortable. My anxiety and feeling of being an alien had mellowed down and I had started feeling comfortable travelling around. I couldn't contain my eagerness to go on safaris and spot the Big Fives in their natural habitat. Jungle and wildlife have always attracted me and I was somewhat well versed with the rules of travelling in open jeep in the wilderness. 

Jungles in India had showed me their paths and pugmarks and water holes. Smell of the jungle would give me a high and irresistible urge to go deeper in to the thick untreaden areas. African lions, Cape buffaloes, rhino, leopards and elephants are the big fives of SA Kruger National Park. We visited the Chobe Game Reserve too and had the luck to witness a chase and kill of buffaloes and eight lionesses. Simply out of the National Geographic films, I could not believe my luck and my cam was excited too, probably at seeing something like this for the first time! More I was seeing the natural wealth of this continent, the more it made me wonder: what it is that makes the natives so violent, insecure and criminals? Why is the tendency to attack, rob, mug and kill so much into their veins? I was warned against wearing gold and diamonds, expensive watch, carrying camera and expensive mobile phone. Every one visiting this continent is warned of physical safety, valuables and mosquitoes and other insects. Vaccination against various diseases and carrying insect repellents is something anybody can accept and understand but I fathom not why this warning against people of the land! They are human beings too. What is it that destiny has in store for them which makes them stand apart from other races in the world? Why it is that development which is seen in other parts of the world is evading them since centuries?  What is the hindrance? There is adequate connectivity by air, land and sea. For ages people from the world have been visiting African countries for wildlife, gold, diamonds, oil etc, then where is the hitch that has not allowed the modernisation and civilisation to seep into their culture?  

We still see witch- doctors and traditional forms of medical treatment, midwives delivering  babies at the health posts or even at homes. We still find a mammoth number of female genital mutilations being done and celebrations arranged around them. How can this ritual be a cause for celebration, I fail to digest and so do many in the world and also their own activists who are raising a voice against this practice of mutilating young girls. Who gives a right to destroy the body that you are born with?  Which religion would insist on chopping off parts of the genitalia under the guise of tradition and belief? Are they not denying the superiority of the almighty if they believe in His existence which is the very foundation of any religion across the world? Under the name of rituals why do we puncture and pierce our bodies and also chop off some parts or try to alter the shape and length?  Fixing rings around the neck in some tribes and piercing nose, ears, eyelids and number of other parts of the body in some tribes is just an example. It can at the most be a tradition but cannot be labelled as a religious ritual, making it a compulsion to all those who belong to that religious sect.

Africa in all ways is a land of wonders, challenges, appeals and a Warfield to fight for survival! The jungles are their treasure and need to be protected.  Tourism is their lifeline! People from world over throng the jungles and the game parks for wildlife and photography.  Camera lenses going crazy, clicking away at the hint of any movement or rustle in the greens. Capturing the picture- perfect environment and the wild animals posing for the tourists speaking different dialects. The open jeeps which carry the visitors inside the game parks have drivers who are guides and know their job well. They enjoy their drives and know their ways around in the jungle locating the felines and the tuskers while the spotted ones are scampering around spotted, I mean deer and not leopard. Leopards are mostly found clinging to the huge barks or they simply dart past your vehicles at a lightening speed. The locals have their ways around with the beasts. The twinkle in their eyes lights up their face when they are at the right spot at the right moment!  Tracing the pugmarks and looking for prey or the hunter. It is a thrilling co existence of the prey and the hound in the flora which is mother to both. It is evident here why and how is the balance of ecosystem maintained!  The sheer number of the four legged animals scares one with thoughts of what would happen if they don't feed on each other! Some expanses would look black and no green is seen as the African Buffaloes swarm the grazing grounds. Imagine if no one was preying on them they would easily be seen everywhere, even around the civilisations! Threat to the ecosystem would be evident if the felines decide to go vegetarian! Almighty has given everything in abundance here, a magnified picture of the smaller perspective in other parts of the world. 
Many tourists from all over the world take these safaris to experience the untouched nature and the sheer mass of wild life which is still protected in this part of the world in today's era of rapidly expanding and developing science and technology where the ungrateful humans are busy attacking the ecosystem to their best capacity in all ways! The dooms day is near when the nature will oust the unfriendly elements from the universe. Yet it is heartening to see one continent from where the Noah's Ark can sail out in to the sea with best of all the species! Enchanting untouched nature gives a healing touch to the souls charred by the blazing ways of life in the developed parts of the world. Botswana, South Africa and some other countries are growing at par with the cities in other developed nations, wide roads, good infrastructure, schooling, medical schools, transport etc. A fact that hits hard is the absence of marriage as an institution and the hindrance being the tradition of the prospective groom gifting ten cows and a piece of land to the girls family in the wedding ceremony. The boys were sad when they were discussing this with me. They prefer to have partners without marriage, a companion who can be a special friend. The population in some countries at its lowest due to lack of marriages and no kids. Also some ailments like the retrovirus playing havoc not allowing humanity to grow. One thing that stunned me was we are not supposed to be asking personal information like father's name or who the family members are. Come weekend and spirits run high. Every one breaks in to a dance every other minute as Fridays run in to afternoons and the wine stores have long winding queues with a Sold Out board flashing early in the evening! The weekends are for fun, booze and dance. Alcoholism is a menace as it leads to domestic violence, poverty and hunger in some families and kids bearing the brunt of it. Government policies to control addictions are not showing the expected results though.  

Being paranoid about drunken driving, I preferred travelling on week days more. A weekend at the Rhino Sanctuary was memorable as the spotted deer went scampering right outside my cottage and also fearful, as chill went down my spine when I spotted a one foot long dark green and black in coloured chameleon traversing across my cottage roof towards the long winged insects around the lamp which was lit outside the small creaky door which was supposed to keep the rhinos out!! The night passed by with stars floating to the other horizon and morning rays woke us up to a beautifully laid breakfast in the glass walled restaurant.  Here again as we were savouring the omelette and buttered toasts, a huge visitor took us by surprise. It was a rhino who walked through the backyard and headed to the swimming pool to quench its thirst. We got over our initial shock and instantly pulled out our cameras to shoot the moment while it was drinking from the pool. 

Travel to Chobe Game Park was memorable too with forty feet tall giraffes standing by the side of the road and then the trip to Vic fall across in to Zimbabwe. The fall is comparatively dry on the Zambia side so everyone prefers to visit the Zim side and not the Zam side of ZimZam! The island named after David Livingstone has The Victoria fall which is the widest in the world and is called the roaring mist. The helicopter ride over it was amazing and chasing the rainbow was fascinating and colourful part of the morning. 

Boat ride in the Zambezi River took us to more such islands which had thousands of Cape buffaloes and antelopes and African elephants. It was a sight to watch a family of Elephants cross the river, the video showing the magic of how the elephants would wade in to depth of the river, the water rising up to their eyes. At times they spraying water with their trunks and being very joyful. The youngest of the babies always waddling behind the mother. It is a magnificent world of green, black and colourful birds too. All the rare birds seen along the river, feeding on insects and small fresh water fish. Wide eyed tourists from across the world enjoying this astounding world of jungles. All this while crocs and hippos were keeping the boat captain on the edge. Both hidden perils with just the ears of the hippo showing above the water surface and the long outline of the crocodile when it would swim closer to the water film. When playful, the hippos would snort loudly while the lazy ones would yawn opening their jaws wide enough for us to walk in and out! Their blinking eyes seen through my lens and in zoom looking like those of sleeping beauty! The hippos have a male who leads the team and every other hippo, females and babies are supposed to be following his directions.  They remain immersed fully in water bodies throughout the day as their skins crack under sunlight and heat. Absence of sweat glands burns their skin and it starts bleeding, hence being underwater through the day is a must for them, and as the sun goes down the leader is followed by all of them out of the water and head towards the Pasteur for grazing which is a night long affair. They hide in the waterholes before the sun shows up. The huge reserve at some distance from my cottage got me keener about their activities and their calls became familiar. As my vacation in South Africa and Botswana was coming to an end, the last weekend I thought of enjoying with the locals. Cars with their boots open, loud music blaring through the big speakers and alcohol abundant to dissipate the boundless energy in the toned dark bodies swaying to the tunes in rhythm. Moods upbeat but washed in alcohol by Sunday evening, ending up in brawls or fights or knocked out and miss the Monday morning working hours. The maid and driver would turn up swaggering on Monday late afternoon or Tuesday morning, reeking of alcohol. Their jackets carrying the dust from the sides of the roads and making me wonder when it was washed last. 

On the return journey from my first trip to the Congo, delay of half an hour of the Pointe Noire Addis Ababa Ethiopian flight gave me a layover of one night in Addis Ababa and travel from airport to the hotel gave me glimpses of their night life too. The small roadside joints with flashing disco lights, music and people going in and out and on the roads. I was hiding behind the curtain of the shuttle carrying us. I was the lone lady on the shuttle, the rest being males from different nations. I reached the hotel with my cabin bag which had essentials for a day and locked myself in the room. Having checked all the walls and surfaces for cameras, it being my phobia while staying out, I managed to sleep for four hours before I was again down in the restaurant for breakfast as we were to be shuttled back for our respective flights. My trip to Kenya was loaded with memories of my childhood as my maternal uncle had migrated to Nairobi five decades ago when the communication systems were pathetic. There was no direct phone line, and definitely no internet connections. Booking a trunk call and the entire clan waiting for my uncle to come on line, the voice reaching us with a lag and his newlywed bride would always be last to take the call so that everyone would then move away and they could have some private conversation. Now I was arriving in Nairobi to be received by my husband and travel by road to Nakuru.The different local languages were a little similar to the slangs in India, may be because Indian have crossed over to that continent since generations and sugar being called 'Sukiri' in Botswana in Setswana language and 'Sakhar' in Marathi in Maharashtra. Tea in Kiswahili language of Kenya is called 'Chai', a word used in as Indian devnagari. I was enjoying the impact of one civilization over the other and was wondering which was born first. The inland roads in Kenya are still not laid well and dusty, except the highways which too are just two lane ways and every weekend or holidays the Nairobi Nakuru Eldoret road would have the traffic moving at a snail's pace. Though the cameras would be flashing to nab the offenders' road accidents are quite common. Boda boda is another mode of transport where the motorcyclists are allowed to ferry passengers sitting behind them, sometimes more than two. I was warned against it as they are known to be rash. 

Flamingos at the Lake Nakuru, Elementaita, and Naivasha are a tourist attraction.  Jalaram temple and Krishna temples attracting not only Indians but the locals and other nationals too serve to your mental spiritual senses as well as the culinary quest.Good food served attracts many road travellers. This December, we travelled to Mombasa for New Year and were eager to go snorkelling and scuba diving deep sea in the Indian Ocean off Malindi beach and Watamu beach. The boat ride was memorable as I took charge of the anchor with the captain's permission and also drove the boat on our return ride from the island where we were served lobsters, red snapper, octopus, crabs and every delicacy of sea food. One entire day was reserved for my sun balking and dips in the transparent green glassy salt water at a private beach. Sun beds laid out with umbrellas and side tables for drinks and food and the salt from the sea breeze sticking all over my body, was actually refreshing.  Feeling the basic element that makes us and making me one with the universe, realisation of us being a minuscule entity of the universe.  Enjoying the local culinary preparation of cassava and maize ugali, okra, Spinach, terere, sukuma and beef and mutton roasts.
Africa is haven where humanity co-exists with the wild life, both untouched and pure. Just that the looting and mugging leaves me puzzled! Wonder whether it is the sense of inferiority complex in the natives which makes them snatch away anything and everything from every other person whom they feel are more fortunate or is it that the addictions are pushing some of them over the edge and turning them in to hardened criminals?  Also availability of guns is a menace as you can never tell when you would find a local sticking a gun to you point blank, straight at you or at the glass of your car window. One is always warned against wearing valuables or carrying money on person and also to not put up a fight with the burglars or the roadside thugs, save your life is the bottom line. 

This is indeed disheartening as the continent seems to be friendly and Gods land with all his treasure hidden in every part of Africa. May be there is a subtle dislike towards outsiders as they encroach upon the possessiveness of the tribes who are African aboriginals. 
God bless his own land and protect the wildlife from the rest of the humanity which is out to exploit every inch of this Earth and environment!
May one continent stay safe and a haven for the Noah's Ark.....