The Shining Chariot takes a trip
My doctor’s truck continues to be a great source of adventure. This week, the truck took me on a trip to Mambwe, the headquarters of this health district and the site of our closest referral hospital, Kamoto Mission Hospital. I was supposed to go last week, but during a pre-trip checkup, Patrick, the truck doctor, found a crack through the front of the chassis. I wondered why it was driving so rough! Patrick and his men set about banging and welding and patched it all up in a day.
Before I headed off I needed “petrol”. The only gas station in town was out of fuel because of a national fuel shortage, but some guys there said they could get me some and ran off up the road. They came back carrying 3 jerry cans full of diesel fuel and proceeded to fill up the tank. They didn’t even charge me more than the usual $6/gallon (We in the States have nothing to complain about!)
So off I went newly welded chassis and all towards Kamoto on the “tarmac” road that extends the 15 miles or so from the park gate to the airport. Along the road I passed barefoot schoolchildren in their blue uniforms carrying book bags and munching on green mangos they’d picked from the trees along the way. School here is free through the seventh grade, but parents must pay for uniforms and supplies. Most people get around on those tall old-fashioned English cruiser bikes because cars and petrol are unaffordable. People were carrying wives, friends, babies, wicker baskets of vegetables, two by six-foot boards, ten-foot lengths of tin, chickens, sacks of meal, almost anything you can imagine, on their bikes. I saw little kids too small to fit over the top tube riding standing on the pedals with their leg through the middle part of the bike. Women walked along the road carrying babies strapped to their backs. To accomplish this baby strapping, the Mom bends at the waist, tosses the baby on her back, wraps a length of cotton cloth around the baby’s back and under its bottom, and stands up…instant baby backpack and for a fraction of the cost of the ones at REI. With their babies on their back, the women can then carry a load on their heads. I've seen them carry everything from twenty-liter buckets of water to bundles of six-foot logs for firewood. All of this people dodging was fascinating but meant the driving was a bit slow going.
After turning off the tarmac, I reached the “real” road, which is 40 miles of excitement alternating between roller coaster, steer around those potholes if you dare pardner, redneck offroaders dream and absolute bone rattling washboards from hell. Sometimes the washboards would get a bit smaller, and I’d summon the nerve to speed up or look around at the thatch roofed villages and miombo wood forest then BAM a big pothole would show up very unexpectedly bringing me back to the task at hand. I instantly felt a whole new appreciation for what it means to send very ill or injured patients over that very same road to the hospital.
One big hill rises just before Mambwe. Coming down the hill suddenly there was a loud bang, and the truck started driving even more oddly. I learned that one nice perk of giving rides to the local people (the head of the school board, two teenagers going back to school, a little girl with a broken leg and her mother) is that I had my own work crew built in. Once I found the jack, Mr. Zulu and the boys insisted on changing the blown out tire. Twenty minutes later we were bumping along the potholes again.
Dr. Tshibumbu, the doctor at Kamoto who is a refugee from the fighting in the Democratic Republic of Congo, was surprisingly young but world-weary. He is the only doctor at the mission-sponsored hospital of sixty-two beds that includes pediatrics, adult medicine, OB/GYN and surgery. He often has administrative duties that take him away from the hospital for days at a time leaving only clinical officers (like our PAs but often less well trained) in charge. I was heartened to see the little burned girl who I had sent there the week before being well cared for and improving. Kamoto Hospital has an x-ray machine, a small lab, and a donated ultrasound machine that looks wonderful but broke down shortly after its arrival from Germany. Unfortunately no one in Kamoto knows how to fix it. Overall though, I was very impressed with the place, and I was encouraged by Dr. Tshibumbu’s assurance that HIV testing kits and anti-retroviral drugs would be available in Mfuwe within the next six months which will be absolutely wonderful.
Taking patients back from Kamoto to Mfuwe is expected, so when I came out, an eager crowd had gathered around the truck. In the end, I had 5 adults and one child in the back, 3 adults and one child in the back seat, and the clinic director and myself in the front. Obviously safety is a very secondary consideration when transportation is such a precious resource. So we all bumped and banged along back to Mfuwe through a lovely shower that washed the monkey paw prints off the windshield but didn’t get the folks in the back too wet.
Safely back in Mfuwe, the truck’s good deeds were not done. On the drive in to Flatdogs three of our night watchmen were stopped on their bikes anxiously eyeing a herd of elephants just ahead. Elephants especially hate bicycles. I could only fit one bike in the back of the truck, so the chariot became a biker protection vehicle. I drove very slowly as they rode on the side away from the elephants while I kept an eye on the big gray beasts. Not your every day mundane commute!
Finally home, the truck was happily parked in the shade of a sausage tree, and I headed for a swim to escape the 106!!!! degree heat of the day. Fortunately, the hippo had chosen the owner’s private pool to use the night before instead of the Flatdogs pool. Hippos unfortunately don’t just go for a swim; they do other things that hippos do -- like poo (not a word known to Word’s spellchecker, I’ll have you know) in the pool. Even chlorine is not strong enough to neutralize hippo poo apparently, so the pool had to be drained and scrubbed. I blissfully ended my day washing away the dust in the hippo-free pool as the sun set over the banks of the Luangwa. Just another day in Africa!
This page was last updated 01/07/06