I’m still alive

Just a quick note to tell you all that I am still alive. Things have not been super busy, but I haven’t felt too much like writing.

This week a logistics helper came from Monrovia and completed a renovation of the building that used to be our food store into a new office building. After we finish moving out of the office this week, we will have more bedrooms for both the new expat arriving soon, and for guests. Right now, there are no rooms in the inn. I kept the rehabilitation plans really simple in order to get them done fast. I had planned to leave the wood trim unpainted and only whitewash the walls. But it turned out that we had some white paint left over from the health post renovation at Lepula. So I gave the team that paint to use. Then they complained that you can’t paint the walls white and the trim white. Fashion nazis! So we dug around some more and found some Jade Green paint that was also incorrectly bought for Lepula. Ministry of Health standard for health posts in Liberia is whitewashed walls with Forest Green trim, so the Jade Green was right out. I gave them that to mix with the white. The result is a shade of green that reminds me of the United States Forest Service every time I see it. Everyone really likes the new office because of the green windows and doors. They are pretty snazzy, actually.

Colors aside, the office itself is going to be a major disappointment. The building is too small. We went around and around trying to make a good plan for expanding the residence and moving the office and never came up with something that made everyone happy. The best I could suggest was to make bungalows for people to live in, and expand the office into some of the residence. But that met with stiff resistance from people who feel like it is unhealthy to have the office and the residence in the same building. (Obviously these people have never worked for a Silicon Valley startup.) Fair enough. So instead we have a very small office with lots of little rooms that are a little difficult to put furnishing in, not only because the floor plan is small, but because the hallway and doors are so small the furniture won’t fit. And if you do tip something sideways and get it in the door, then the ceilings are too low to let you tip it up again. Luckily the Liberian ceiling construction is flexible, so you can push the furniture up into the ceiling to make it fit. It seems like maybe I will have the carpenters here this week modifying the furniture to make it possible to move it in. What a hassle.

This Saturday I leave for my vacation. It is supposed to be in Ghana, but I have not gotten confirmation about my plane flight. Hopefully everything is lined up. I sent my passport down to Monrovia a while ago to get my visa, so I’ve done everything I can from this side. I still don’t really have a clue what I will do when I get there, but I have good suggestions from my family who researched it online, and I also have a guide book I will read on the 6 hour drive to Monrovia.

We continue to have minor livestock crises. The cute little chicks have grown into unholy terrors who are pooping all over the patio. So we are sending them to the place where our goat is as a thank you for taking care of the goat. Jeff the goat will come back to MSF and be the main dish in Jerome’s going away party. Today I heard a huge noise by where the another chicken had made her nest in a little box. I looked in and found two newly hatched chicks, a lizard, and a really mad hen. I have no idea where the lizard came from, but it was about as scared as the chicks, and it was getting one hell of a beating from the hen. We held down each of them with sticks and then threw the lizard out. I have not checked on the chicks, but I assume they are OK.

We’ve had some pretty bad generator problems in the hospital, which is a pain, because of course people only notice it is not working at night. Somewhat embarrassingly, the last time we had the problem one of my watchmen started turning off lights as an experiment to see if overloading was the problem. Guess what? It was. I’m remembering now that the mysterious generator problems started about the time we added a bunch of new light bulbs. It turns out that we had a miscommunication. I thought the instructions the electrician was working under were, “fix up the system to be more reliable and add lights, but only if the system can handle the additional load”. What he did was add lights wherever anyone asked for one. So we have a bunch of new lights and an overloaded generator. So now I get to go be the bad guy and disconnect a bunch of lights. We are using a much more powerful diesel generator for the time being, and that’s postponing the real fix. Probably the easiest answer is to just throw money at the problem and buy a bigger generator for the hospital that can handle the load we have now. Part of the reason lots of things in the hospital are less than perfect is that people always say, “the new hospital will be finished soon, so don’t fix this one”. But the construction project is way way behind schedule, or it would be if the plans were not changing so fast that there could be an actual schedule. (Later, I got permission to just keep the powerful generator, so I did not have to take away any lights. Yay!)

What brought this all to a head the other day was that the diesel generator had two problems in one day. First, it wouldn’t start. I suspected that the fuel lines had air in them, so I called my head driver to see if he knew how to fix small diesel engines. He said no. My mechanic was in Monrovia, so he was no help. So I gathered a bunch of tools and went over there feeling much less confident than I looked. (This is the normal state of an MSF log, I’m assured by experienced ones.) I examined the generator closely and found the starting instructions that I’d glanced at before. It turns out that there’s some extra steps to starting a small diesel engine that I didn’t know about, as all the small engines I’ve dealt with before are gasoline ones. So I followed the instructions, and sure enough it started right up. The watchmen who called me for help had been following my old (wrong) instructions.

There’s this saying that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. Think about the generator story from the point of view of my watchmen. They can’t start it, so they call me on the radio. I come and invoke a hitherto unknown technology among the watchmen called, “reading and following directions”, and then do something different than what I taught them, and the generator starts. They must think I am a wizard with a magic wand that starts generators.

I made a new starting instructions sheet, translating from the small sticker that won’t stay on the fuel tank because they slop diesel on it, into Liberian English. Also, somehow instructions printed on MSF letterhead have more force (like the word of God) and get followed when the same instructions on the side of an engine are treated like decoration.

The second problem was that the generator developed a bad noise. They called on the radio and told me they wanted to stop the generator, leaving the camp without power. I agreed, and then went over to listen to the noise myself and decide how bad it really was. It turned out to be a broken engine mount, which I knew about before, but had been ignoring, hoping it would somehow fix itself. (Well, also, the parts are really hard to get for this generator, so I figured we didn’t have a replacement anyway.) I made a replacement engine mount out of a rag and some copper wire, and gave them the green light to use the generator again. This week I will have the mechanic make a replacement for the rag and copper wire out of an old tire.

I’m not sure how I feel about this upcoming vacation. I think I need the rest for sure. But I’m kind of wondering how being gone for a week will really make a difference. I’m also not looking forward to all the travel necessary to get out of Nimba and onward to some nice resort outside of Accra. The vacation also marks the halfway point of my work here, and I’m also not sure how I feel about that. On the one hand, it means I have the same amount more work to do, which seems like an awful lot, and that it would be sort of nice if I could just go back to Geneva directly from Ghana. On the other hand, it means that the end is in sight, and all the people and things that I like about this place will soon just be a memory. Already, we will lose one of our team, Jerome, in the next two weeks. I really like him, and will miss listening to him parrot my English. His favorite thing he learned from me is “you-gotta-be-kidding-me”. I didn’t even notice that I say it, but he listened and learned it, and then used it one day. It was like hearing an echo of myself, he did it so well. Then he wanted to know what it was he’d just said, since he couldn’t really understand the words… he was just parroting the idiom as pronounced fluidly by me.


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