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Ramadan's Cat


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I thought Li'l Bit was no longer for this world but he proved me wrong again....thank goodness! Yesterday morning, he was out of his box, skinny as hell, but when he pounced on my hand and bit it I thought, “Maybe he's going to make it!” Later he devoured two and a half fish balls. This morning I scrambled him an egg, something about which my feelings are definitely mixed. Most African children don't get an egg! But, I scrambled him an egg and the little bugger ate the whole thing. I mean, a large chicken egg is bigger than his head! (Ref. : Kliban, Never Eat Anything Bigger Than Your Head, companion volume to Tiny Footprints and Whack Your Porcupine!) I am ever astounded by the incredible,florid, robust scramble for life!


Today is the last day of Ramadan. A good friend contacted me. He is out of money and Koriteh, the celebration of the ending of Ramadan, is tomorrow. He is the fourth or fifth person to hit me up for money this week and it puts me in a moral bind. His whole family will do without the treats and special food and new clothes that go with Koriteh. To them, I am rich. By American standards I am just above poverty level. I will have enough money to get the house finished the way I want it –I hope – but even the house is far beyond what the vast majority of Africans can afford. Far beyond! I have tools, furniture, art, two motorcycles, rugs for my tile floors. I will have running water and electricity. Yes, I am rich!

Acutely conscious of the economic differential between myself and the others here, it tears my heart to refuse to help. Ebrima keeps telling me I can't help everybody, and he's right. But it is so hard to say no when I have so much and they have so little. I don't expect this will change much as long as I am here. I must come to terms with it somehow. As my Cuban boss at RVTH used to say, “Eets no easy!”


I am working my way through America's Constitution: A Biography by Akhil Reed Amar, professor of constitutional law at Yale. A brilliant book, dense, intricately explicated and fascinating. His discussion of the ramifications of the 3/5ths clause is revelatory. By counting slaves as 3/5ths of a person it gave the slave states political clout greater than that of the free states, essentially weighting the entire political process until 1860 towards a slavocracy. Until Lincoln, the majority of our presidents were from slave states. It is the one great shame for which the early history of the republic must atone.


The other book I'm reading is Michael Herr's Dispatches. Probably the fourth or fifth time I've read it since the Seventies, and it is always new. It may be the best book to come out of the Vietnam War. And it makes me think of my own stories.


It is nighttime and our ambulance is screaming down 6th Avenue towards Tacoma General Hospital. The rig rocks back and forth and I, a freshman paramedic, am bracing myself agains the motion, trying to get an IV line into the left arm of a tiny, teen-aged girl with pixie-cut, wheat-colored hair and waxy-pale skin. Her skull is badly fractured and she is deep in shock. Two Tacoma Fire Department paramedics sit on the bench seat in their turn-outs and watch. Faces blank, they watch my efforts but make no move to help. They are more experienced than I am – in fact, they have helped train me – and they already know.


In the Emergency Room the team takes over. From the treatment room across the hall we can hear her drunken boyfriend shouting her nickname over and over. “Stubby! Stubby!”

It seems such an absurd nickname for this delicate little dead girl.


When they are in shock the IVs are so hard to start, especially on kids and diabetics and sometimes it's hard to see the veins on Black people. And it's especially hairy when it's a six-year-old shot in the belly. Hardly any blood. Just a little red meat sticking out the hole.


Two of them are already dead and left in the car. Three in the front seat. Three in the back. I've hauled two into the St. Joe's Emergency Room. Some other rig will get the other two. Car crumpled up against an industrial-grade telephone pole; such an impact that the pole is sheared off at its base. In the main trauma room we load the second guy on the table. As we wheel the cart out to clean it up I glance down and notice a small, neat, cube of gray matter the size of a die, wobbling like Jell-o on the polished, black toe of my right shoe.


Night. Spotlights on the accident scene. Climbing through the smashed rear window of a small pickup truck with three bodies on the bench seat. One fireman with a hose up front, to knock the flames back in case it goes up and another fireman pointing at the driver. “Forget that one! See, his neck is broke.” The one riding shotgun is also beyond effort. The one in the middle was a bitch to get out.


“Ahm-a gonna kick your f----- ass!” He is strapped down, restrained on the cart, slavering and screaming at me. Roger Anderson, my driver, turns around and gives me the grin. Half an hour previous he and I had hared it out the front door and leaped down the front steps of the man's house as the man had grabbed his 12-gauge off the rack and we'd radioed in the police to give us help. I went in the back door behind the officer with his service pistol drawn, while other cops were covering the front. Mercifully, the guy was asleep, dead drunk on his bed and only woke up when we loaded him on the cart.

“Ahm gonna kick yore ass!” he yelled again. “Just lemme outa this!” He shook his restraints.

“I could do that,” I pointed out. “But you'd be at a real disadvantage if I did.” He looked confused. I explained,“You're already horizontal.”


And the suicides and the suicide gestures and botched suicides and dead ODs and homicides. A woman with a superbly cauterized, perfect, semi-cylindrical divot cut out of her left deltoid where the barrel of the .30-30 had slipped to the left when she pushed the trigger. The man who tried to shoot himself in the temple with a .22 rifle and only succeeded in blowing both his eyes out. And the man who put a .25 cal. round into his right temporal but was still breathing. You could see the bullet on the skull x-ray, along with a few small fragments, right there in the middle of his brain. We turned out the lights and left him to breathe his last in peace. You have to respect sincere desire.


Every medic loved it when he got assigned Wally as his driver. Wally was portly with wavy, blonde hair. He had a cat and a Model-T roadster that I never got to see. He was smart and funny and, on a scene, knew before you did what you needed next and would have it ready for you. Like Radar in M*A*S*H., he could finish your sentences for you. He would pick up the radio mike and imitate the squelching noise the mike made when you keyed it. He'd pick up the mike and pretent to key it: “Kkkrrrk! Dispatch, this is 719. We're calling in a Code 99. Kkkrrrk!”

Me: “Wally, what's a Code 99?”

Wally: “F--- you. I quit. You'll find your ambulance in Portland, Oregon.”


And how you could come into a place where everything was swirling chaos, whirligigging, out of control and be that one small, calm center and draw it all into yourself.


July 20


A gorgeous, warm, sunny day. I hope it's not a disaster. Puddles are drying from the heavy rain two days ago when we got nearly two inches of rain in an hour. A bright, sunny day is not what we need. It is already late in July and we have had only three “real” rains. Normally, we would have had dozens. The water table is low and I am afraid there may be a repetition of the scanty rains of last year. In The Gambia it resulted in a food emergency and international aid was necessary for the people to survive.

On my own part, I am concerned about my own water supply. I've already had the well deepened by two meters. It may have to be dug yet deeper. I can afford it. What of the people who can't? We shall see.


Li'l Bit, the kitten, is noticeably growing. I fear he will never be beautiful. He is skinny, bandy-legged, a bit pot-bellied, and I will be amazed if he ever achieves any of the grace supposedly typical of his species. He doesn't slink; he bounces. And he pounces...on anything: legs, feet, furniture, plastic bags. Yesterday, he was stalking and chasing some half-fledged chicks. No danger to the chicks. They are bigger than he is. When Dog saw the goings-on he ran over and bowled the kitten over with a quick shove of his nose. A little discipline to let Li'l Bit know such behavior is unacceptable. Chickens are a protected species.


And Dog, who formerly wore an Eeyore-like air of desolation, now grins and wags and manages the compound with a company sergeant's sense of responsibility.


Koriteh (Eid al Fitr, the end of Ramadan) goes on for three days. There is a party mood. Lots of food and drink (non-alcoholic, of course), and visiting. Everyone who can afford it has had new clothes made or bought and there's lots of promenading about, especially the young girls and women who get themselves up in their new finery, elaborate hair-dos, make-up, and jewelery. And many of them are quite stunning.


Groups of children stop by the compound, each one gravely shaking hands with me and demanding salibo, a contribution. You ask who is the leader and give him or her a coin. They pool their earnings and buy themselves food and drink. During koriteh it is customary to give salibo in the form of two kilos of rice to two different poor people. We gave considerably more than that to an old widow that Awa knows and to a Fula woman who lives with her teen-aged daughter and two younger children in a tiny, one-room hut just up the path. When I delivered the rice I got a huge smile, thank you, and a stream of prayers blessing me.


July 23


Ebrima and I were supposed to meet in Mandina Ba and proceed by motorcycle to the hospital at Bwiam where we were to meet a fellow named Saikou. Saikou is a solar technician who does contract work for Power Up Gambia, a charity that runs solar power into hospitals and clinics. They had arranged to send a “Solar Suitcase”, provided by another fine charity, We Care Solar, who put solar installations in hospitals and clinics worldwide. The suitcase, a self-contained solar lighting unit, was to be delivered by a group of students from Drexel University in Philadelphia – my brother-in-law happens to be a professor there, but has nothing to do with any of this – who just arrived in The Gambia as part of a World Health Course as part of their college program.

Complicated? Yes, but I can't help but smile at the way people in “small charities” assist one another. We're not in it for the bucks. We're not competing. We work together toward similar goals and there is a spirit of cooperation and comradery.

It turns out the suitcase hadn't arrived in Bwiam because yesterday was the Gambian National Holiday an I suspect the students and their professors remained in Banjul for the festivities. So we postponed the trip until we hear from Saikou.

Africans love to party and, given an excuse like the National Holiday, they put on one hell of a “do”. There would have been drumming, dancing, music, crowds, a parade, all sorts of costumes, Simbis, a presidential revue, the police band, different tribes strutting their stuff and a general good time. Especially coming so soon after Ramadan! I hope the students got to see it and I hope they had a ball.


The solar suitcase is for one of the clinics WAME assists, at Illyassa. They've been delivering babies by torchlight for too long. Time they had some decent illumination.


Two days ago, Vieux, the mason, and I cleaned the tank on the water tower (Fr.: chateau de l'eau), then chiseled holes in the top corners of the tower. We hauled the two-meter-square, steel cover up to the top on two ropes and manhandled it up and over the tank. The cover has 4-inch “legs” that go into the holes in the concrete and are then cemented in. It took a couple hours of jimmying and chiseling – Yes, I can be called an old chiseler! – to get it to fit just right and then Vieux cemented it all in. We'd been up there in the sun for nearly five hours and I was pretty done in so, having no role in the cementing portion other than mixing cement for him and sending it up by bucket, I got my folding chair out, sat in the shade and watched Vieux do his thing.

Vieux has a fan: me. The guy is as much an artist as a workman. He does things to perfection. I'd look at a corner from vantage point on the ground and think, “That corner needs just a little more stucco to make it perfect. I wonder if he can see it from up there.” And sure enough, five minutes later he'd be looking at it himself and skillfully trowel it perfect. Like all fine craftsmen, he makes it look deceptively easy. I've tried it. It's not.


The girls are usually here at the compound before Awa and I (especially Awa!) are out of bed. This morning there was soft knock on the door and Little Awa's voice. I put on my trousers and went out to find the three of them sitting by the hammock, smiling, faces shining. Only Mariama speaks French and my Mandinka is fragmentary. I laid down in the hammock and, before I knew it, all three girls were in the hammock with me! Mariama on my left, Ti Awa snuggled up on my right like some little, warm creature, and 'Yama literally on top of me, where she promptly went to sleep. In the cool morning, with three adoring and adorable little girls and the sun shining, I have not felt such quiet, deep contentment for a long time.


July 24


The rains are late and scanty and I am concerned. So are the farmers. (Concerned, not late and scanty!) Last year there was a food emergency in The Gambia. I don't know about here in Casamance. I think it has been raining more to the east and south than here.


It effects me personally because my well could run dry. If it does I'll need to dig it deeper, but how much deeper is anyone's guess. My friend, Lady Kira Dalton, told me several years ago that there has not been a real survey of the water table in this part of West Africa since the '60s. Nobody knows what the state of the aquifer is. Population has increased tremendously in the last 50 years and so has water usage. A drought here could be disastrous. In the mosques and churches they are praying for rain but the real control is in countries that power carbon emissions.

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I just wanted to say thanks for the update... It reminds me to be grateful for running water, indoor bathrooms and a wealth of other first-world "basics"

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