7.   Risks in the Developing World

By Paul Vanderveen

Copyright © 2003 by Paul Vanderveen

When I first arrived in Dakar, proud of my first successful bribe, I was tired from the flight and ordeal and promptly fell asleep in my new home. By the time I awoke a couple hours later, Jan had unpacked my bags and arranged the study nicely. I went into the bathroom to wash up and turned the water on, starting to drink it.
     "You can't drink this," she reminded me, shutting the tap.
     Shocked at what I was about to do, I recalled a bad dream from a few days earlier--accepting a glass of water with ice in it from a stranger and drinking. The dream had frightened me, but back then I had thanked my brain for impressing upon me the need for caution about what I allowed to pass my mouth or skin. In many parts of Africa, life was short. People had the potential of living as long as North Americans or Europeans, but average life expectancy was only 40 or 50, due to many environmental threats, such as contaminated food and water and insect-borne diseases such as malaria, to which I also would be exposed. Africans had developed some resistance to some threats, due to constant exposure, although millions died or were weakened. Modern medicine, coupled with caution about exposure, reduced risks for me, but did not eliminate them.
     In the bathroom half awake, I realized that my dream had not been sufficiently impressive. I put a note on the mirror, "You can't drink the water," and told myself to read it daily until the message was automatic, even if I were in a daze.
     I had prepared extensively for my move, using organizational skills I had developed in various management and administrative jobs. Planning countless tasks over the preceding months while working full-time, I left my job on a high, having given five months notice and helping hire my successor. I had girded myself for the challenges of living in an unfamiliar culture, took emotional inventory, remembered my options, evaluated worst case scenarios and watched over myself as I coped with the stress of leaving a good job, finishing a challenging work project and saying good-bye to colleagues, family and friends.
     I had not given much thought, however, to other American travelers, naively assuming that they also planned carefully and took precautions. Only stable types would forsake the safety of the United States and venture abroad to less developed regions, right? People took personal inventory and considered whether they were physically, emotionally, financially and medically fit to travel, didn't they?
     Shortly after arriving in Dakar, I learned a new word, "psychovac," a verb. I first heard it when one of Jan's friends said, "Remember that Peace Corps volunteer who jumped in the pool during the Embassy Christmas party and wouldn't get out and then would only speak French? They had to psychovac him back to the States." I wondered what this meant, imagining a powerful vacuum sucking a defective American back home. I found it hilarious, when I realized that Americans working for the US government were evacuated back to the States for psychological reasons often enough that people here had a special concept for it, used in all seriousness.
     Landing back in Dakar after our Moroccan trek, we saw a couple dozen US military transport aircraft on the airport tarmac, an impressive sight at such a small airport. What news had we missed? Dakar, it turned out, was safe haven for many nationalities the US was evacuating from fighting 750 miles down the coast, in Liberia. During the day and especially at night, we could hear and sometimes see, through the study window, the huge military transports on final approach and decided to volunteer to help.
     Evacuees were housed at various hotels by nationality, and we were assigned to a hotel for American nationals and others traveling with them. Our shifts, both day and night, were relatively quiet, mostly helping people with small concerns and daily needs, such as first aid, snacks and bottled water. We also listened as they talked, which many had a need to do.
      We heard some harrowing stories of escape from hoodlums and criminals who had been looting, robbing and killing. People who made it alive to the American embassy in Monrovia were robbed of money and possessions along the way and witnessed others being shot and killed. Some African peacekeeping forces were apparently involved in the looting, particularly Nigerian troops, taking stolen goods to their boats.
      A doctor, taking care of two young children, had been working in a hospital and had seen many bones broken from gunshots. He said that they could not do much for the victims, many of whom died.
     Most of the Americans seemed disoriented and relieved to have escaped this life-threatening situation, grateful for any assistance. Three, however, expected free room and board, plus air transportation to the destination of their choice. One caused a disturbance with other evacuees. Another invited some Senegalese strangers she had met on the street to come in and eat at U.S. taxpayer expense. Embassy staff gave us a code word that, in a radio communication, meant "bring the local police to arrest these characters."
     Other odd characters included missionaries who spoke of "those evil tribes up north" who would skin people alive and eat their flesh in front of them. They seemed more intent on validating their religious mission than on understanding locals.
     I thought that the kooks and crusaders resonated to the turmoil. Did they constantly monitor themselves, taking personal inventory, exercising care and so forth? Not likely. I wondered if they realized how much more at risk they were here than in the States, with fewer people able and willing to rescue them from themselves. I was beginning to realize just how easy we have it in the States, where Americans, facing fewer risks, have difficulty seeing anyone face the facts of life and death. Locals face these facts all the time--not having an America to which to return, and seemed less likely to rush to someone's rescue.
     The mosquitos in the hotel were particularly abundant and nasty. Looking around after my last shift ended, I found standing water under the hotel. We were in the dry season--it hadn't rained in Dakar for months. I wondered whether hotel staff had given any thought to the life cycle of the mosquito.

  1. First Bribe
  2. You Decide
  3. Acknowledging Others
  4. Passing Grade
  5. Two Foreign Cultures
  6. How Do You Say "Help" in Arabic?
  7. Risks in the Developing World
  8. Un, Deux, Trois  < Next
  9. Hello But No Cadeau