Ashley and I are constantly itchy, sometimes to the point where we have difficulty concentrating on anything else. We’re not positive what it is (although we have ruled out bedbugs), but my suspicion is just that it is fleas from our dogs (although Ashley has refrained from touching them for a few weeks and I’m often itchy without visible bit spots, so we don’t really know.) We have gone through what I thought was a year’s supply of anti-itch crème fairly fast as, although it helps, it does not solve the source of the itching. We hope we will figure it out at some point, or it will just make our return to the US infinitely better.
Other than that, we are mostly good. We’ve each encountered few stomach troubles and have steered clear of most everything else. (Collectively the PCs have come up with a range of maladies (none bad enough to necessitate seeing a doctor), driving home the point that we are indeed living in a third-world country.)
We have seen a range of health issues and physical differences within our village as well. For those of you who might find a list of health conditions boring, please skip this post, but I will try to do my best to connect these with the social world of Tabora whenever possible.
The most common things we see are the distended stomachs of the children (which really are the only thing that makes them look like those “poor African children” in those Christian charity commercials. Other than that, these kids are incredibly happy and full of life and it would take a lot of work for us to film very much footage of them looking like the only feeling they’ve ever had is despair.) The majority of them also have scabs all over their heads- I have no idea what these are, but they’re incredibly prevalent. A few of them also have small bald spots. Again, the kids here don’t seem to worry about being contagious, but since they are so common I think they may be something we could catch. (Children also must have their heads freshly shaved for school- my understanding is that this is to limit the spread of disease.)
Some of the kids we hang out with the most have gotten contagious spots (like chicken pox without the itching). Their moms went to the hospital and got medicine for them, although it’s a big trek to go that far. I don’t know anything about their healthcare and if it’s a really expensive thing or not. As to the girl I mentioned with spots in one of the earliest blog posts- her spots have now gone away, so I guess they were curable.
We are constantly being asked if we have medicine for things, which is always a bit hard to respond to. Although we would love to help, we are wary of becoming the medicinal dispensary for the whole town and so have told people that we don’t have any.
People don’t seem to have a concept of germs- when they cough they cough all over you, no one seems to avoid me or touch me less when I have a runny nose or am sneezing from my allergies. We have seen a few people wash their hands with soap, but not many. Standard practice before you eat is to pour water over your hands, especially if it is a meal you are eating with your hands like ugali. I have no idea if people wash their hands after they go to the bathroom or not, but we have been told eating with our left hands is impolite because that is supposed to be the dirty hand- the one you wipe with when you go to the bathroom. It is unclear to me how much having better sanitation would improve their lives, although I assume it would have some effect (especially boiling the water before they drink it.)
We have seen a premi baby who looks very strange- much more like an old man and much tinier than any 3 month old baby should. I have no concept of if babies are born at home or not and if doctors or midwives or just friends are involved. All babies wear hats and are constantly swaddled- having never had kids of my own I know nothing about how cold babies get and if this is done for health reasons or not. (Update 10/20: This baby has since died. I was surprised that it had lived to be three months old already, but I had assumed that as it had successfully survived the first three months it would continue on living. I wonder if most babies born here with severe disabilities end up dying, as there are a very limited number of interventions the parents can afford and the hospitals can perform.)
I still have no idea what the process of having children here is- I don’t know if there are midwives and they are born in Tabora, or if people go to the hospital like they do in the US. I suspect it’s the former, but have never heard anything about it.
People often point out my moles and ask what they are. I’m pretty sure they think they’re some kind of disease or problem, and I’ve tried explaining that it’s just part of having white skin, but my answer is rather undercut by the fact that Ashley mostly just has freckles.
We have encountered two children that cannot speak (but vocalize frequently and are not deaf). One lives next to us and I’m starting to suspect that he’s much smarter than people think he is. At the beginning I thought he was just a weird child who cried all the time, but after a while I came to understand that often his “crying” is just his attempt at expressing something. I’ve started saying hi to him and interacting with him, which he really enjoys. I think he’s hard to play with for the other kids, so they don’t treat him that well- we see him get into fights all the time.
The word for these kids literally translates to “stupid person.” Our landlord’s 15 yr old grandson is considered to be stupid too, although all I can tell is that he stutters. He’s really kind and I love seeing him. He’s not allowed to man the water pump, instead the family will hire other teenage boys. I suspect that he may not have the math skills to do it, but I do not know. As far as I have seen, he’s perfectly capable of doing everything.
One of the facts of life that I was not expecting- there are a number of people here with light skin. They seem to be called albinos, although they don’t fit the definition of people without any pigment on their skin. We know six or seven of these people, which is a much higher percentage of the population than I would have guessed- I assumed that in a place where everyone is African that everyone would have dark skin. These people are not actually white, they just have lighter brown skin (still very much darker than our skin) and a few of them have light hair as well. They carry out their days just like everyone else; they don’t seem to have more trouble with the sun than anyone else. People call them mzungu– which means white person– and it’s not clear to me if that’s making fun of them, or just culturally a normal way to refer to these people. There were a lot of moments when we first arrived that people would point out that the lighter-skinned person belonged with us instead of with the other Taborans.
As we are looking towards the future of our project I am starting to think about how much of this is related to nutrition- would the number of scabs children have decrease if their immune systems were bolstered by better nutrition? Are there tangible changes in health that people could see with improved nutrition, or are all of these things just facts of life of living here? The PCs have been told unless we work very hard to continue eating well this year our hair and nails will visibly get weaker while here. Are there corollaries for better nutrition we could show the villagers to help them see that the effort they’re putting into eating well as they work with us is actually having a positive effect?