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Moved in Senegal


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16 Sept.

Moving to a new home is more than shifting body and belongings to a new spot. Some of it is an exercise in archaeology. I dig through stuff accumulated since the last move and shake my head in wonderment that there is so much of it despite actively trying to downsize. I find things I'd forgotten I had. Things I thought I'd given away, sold, or lost long ago. I wonder why the hell I kept that. Saying, “I had hoped that had worn out and been thrown away.

Then, there are unexpected treasures. A framed picture I love. Today I unearthed a pen-and-ink sketch of Skip James, the legendary Delta blues man. The Penn State Folklore Society, of which I was President at the time, had him up for a concert Penn State in 1965. A member did a drawing for the concert poster and I ended up with the original. He sat on the bare stage in a straight-back chair and sang his blues and gospel. Mrs. James would join him from the front row on the gospel songs.They were both so honest and unassuming. The audience was completely charmed and gave him a standing ovation at the end.

After the concert, we had a party and Skip and Mrs. James sat on the sofa and listened to us white kids play our peckerwood music and nodded and smiled. They actually seemed to be enjoying themselves. Skip kindly autographed the drawing for me. (It only took me 49 years to get it framed, which I did last year.) He and I talked for a while and he and Mrs. James invited me to visit them when I got back to Philadelphia.

It was four years later – in the meantime I'd transferred to U. of New Mexico to study archaeology and anthropology, graduated, and moved back in with my parents briefly -- that I was listening to the Univ. of Pennsylvania radio station. The DJ was playing Skip James songs, some with him singing, some covers of his songs by other groups, that I decided to look him up in the phone book. It listed Mrs. Skip James. That was possibly ominous. I didn't quite know how to approach it. I couldn't very well ring up the number and if Mrs. James answered ask, “Hi! This is David from Penn State. Is Skippy still alive?” I finally hit on calling the U. of P. DJ and that's what I did.

“Skip died two weeks ago,” he said. “He'd given up singing blues for the last few years. Decided it was the devil's music and only would sing gospel.” Well, I thought, that wasn't such a great loss. But I was sad at his passing. I should have gone to visit Mrs. James. But I didn't.


Out of one battered box I dug out some old cassette tapes. One turned out to be a recording I did umpteen years ago one afternoon in Bellingham, Washington, of Flip Breskin playing guitar and singing. Great songs, interesting discussion, and the jazziest, raggiest, funkiest, fun-est version of “Shortinin' Bread” I've ever heard. At first it sounded like Rev. Gary Davis was playing the guitar. Flip's guitar accompaniments are minimalist, with tasty, subtle walking bass lines that you might not notice unless you listen for them. Good bass lines are like dancing on an oak floor. You don't necessarily pay attention but it makes for a solidity you'd miss if it wasn't there.

So, Shortinin' Bread has been bouncing through my brain ever since. Thanks for the re-visit, Flip.


Nearly four years in storage in the African climate doesn't do things much good. Some wood items have deteriorated beyond repair. Books disintegrated from fungus or were eaten by termites. Parts of my platform bed vaporized. Had to build another. Vieux (that's Vieux lecharpentier, not Vieux le masson) arranged for the wood. Bois rouge is what it's called here. I think it's African mahogany. Lovely stuff with some sweet figure, not as spectacular as bois venn, but much easier to work with. After sanding, Vieux recommended a refined form of palm oil for finishing. Malang and I had to moto a dozen kilometers to Bandioukaky to buy some. The oil is a beautiful golden color. The wood drank it up and the figure and grain just popped out. Very pretty! I'm pleased.


Listening to Flip sing made me sad, too. Moving to a place I love also involved moving away from people and places I love, as well. Will I ever get to sit around and listen to those great folk musicians in the Northwest? I've had the good fortune to meet and hear so many of them, and even to play along with some. Will I ever attend the NW Regional Folklife Festival every Memorial Day weekend, which I did as a perfomer for many years. Dale Russ, Larry Hanks, Denny Hall and Judy Wayenberg, Hank Bradley, the Canote Brothers, Sandy Bradley, Artis the Spoon Man, Sandra Dean and the fine Greek musicians she would play with after she moved away from Irish music. Thione Diop from Northern Senegal and his wonderful drumming workshops. Frank Ferrell. Bertram Levy. (Bertram always wanted to find a musical genre that most other people couldn't/wouldn't horn in on. He'd mastered several styles of banjo, was recognized as the best Anglo concertina player in America, recorded several albums, one with Peter Ostroushko. Last I heard he's playing bandonion, leading an Argentine tango orchestra.)

The Northwest is packed with a surfeit of musical talent; most of it underpaid, I might add. Northwesterners get spectacular folk music at a bargain price!!

I was amazed when I first moved there in 1972. Back East I'd get $50 for an evening's performance. The rate in Seattle was twenty bucks. In the Northwest, I ran into some wonderful musicians and moved to Vashon Island. Kanout Manufacturing Company, the trio of Rick Tuel, Chris Howie, and Mary Litchfield (later, Mary Litchfield Tuel) were kind enough to let me perform with them and every Saturday night would find us on the ferry, headed to Pioneer Square, to play the Merchant's Tavern. The ferries have a covered, but open-air section at each end that has great acoustics and we'd jam there on our way home. The ferry workers and passengers would come listen. We'd get an ironic kick out of singing sea chanties – on a ferry!


23 September


Cut five days out of life and throw it away. Nah! I shouldn't say that. I read several good books during that time. Malaria again. Kicked like a mule this time. Worst since my first bout nearly ten years ago. What African Adventure would be without it? After all, it's in all the books, Out of Africa, West With the Night, Snows of K, etc., etc.


Trouble is, I'm not here on an adventure. I live here. Got to get the window screens for the house fabricated.


The good news is that I had fever and chills in my OWN BED that I'd built! In my own house! With electricity and running water and a stand-up shower. We moved in last Tuesday, I think it was, but things are still a bit hazy right now.


28 September


So, I got better, had one great day when I finished painting the front gate, then developed headache and fever all over again. The gripey belly had finally left after a few days of metronidazole. I put up with it for a few days, then, noticing some lymphadenopathy starting to develop (that's swollen glands to you mortals) I started myself on Cipro which, luckily, the pharmacy in town had. Began feeling better the next day.


The pharmacies here are staffed mostly by people who have no idea what they are selling. Many people go to the pharmacies instead of to a doctor or nurse and, in my personal experience, it is worse than a crap-shoot. A patient is as likely to get a topical steroid as a topical antibiotic. After all, they both come in tubes, right? Most meds are sold over-the-counter, with only a few reserved by prescription. This is no different from other places I've been: the Caribbean, Central America, Mexico. What distresses me about most of the pharmacies is that when a patient presents a prescription they will automatically be offered the most expensive choice of the particular drug prescribed. Tablets and capsules come in pre-packaged boxes or blister-cards, and the number of tablets in the package may be fewer than what the practitioner wrote. So, the patient will have to buy two (or more) which usually leaves him/her with an odd number of left-over doses. A waste of money for the patient, and more money for the pharmacy. And these are people who can not usually afford the medicine in the first place. A particular med may have several different choices, equivalent to name-brand and generic or even just different countries of origin. There is no way to know whether they have been assayed for equivalency. But, if one is cheaper than the other count on it that the customer will be offered the most pricey. And, of course, the customers, who know far less than even the pharmacy workers, don't know there is a more affordable alternative. They don't know to ask.


What's a mother to do?


Finding a particular medication may involve visits to a half-dozen different pharmacies. Often the search is fruitless. Often one will be told, “Is finished.” That means they've run out. When will you be getting some in? Shoulders shrugged. It could be a week, months, never. So, one can't be sanguine about one's supply of a med. Just because you bought it there four times doesn't mean they'll have it the fifth.


Africa demands flexibility. And patience. And shoe leather.


So, I'm lying in bed with my nose in Evelyn Waugh's Unconditional Surrender. Awa – sweet lady – is snoring softly beside me. And suddenly I hear a sonorous thump! Then two more. What the hell could be making that sort of noise? What could be big enough to make that noise?


Quick inspection with headlamp. Nothing. And no more thumps, either. Back to Waugh. (Pun intended) Thump!.......Thump!........Thump! Thump! Headlamp on again. Behind my pillow, on the headboard, is a toad about three inches long. How has he gotten in? And how has he gained the heights of my headboard? Toads aren't notable climbers or athletic jumpers. Chase ensues. I finally catch him. He is slimy and slips away. More chase while I ponder why he is slimy. Toads have dry skins. Frogs have slimy skins. (T'was brillig/And the slimy toads...) Catch and release is the rule here. I won't get to eat this one. One bears up! Out the back door into the planter he goes and godspeed. Or godhop.


So far we have had two toads, two bats – or it could have been the same bat twice – and a delightful little gecko. No snakes, lizards, or mongeese.......yet.


Oct. 9


I've been back with the family in Banjul for four days. Been under the weather since my last malaria episode and went to see a doc I used to work with to try to sort it out. I'm waiting around for test results.


Banjul is such a slum, but I love it. The streets are potholed. In the rainy season the compounds flood and it's dusty when dry. Lots of mosquitoes and lots of malaria. Open sewers. And it's like coming home.


When I first enter the family compound the little ones come running over with arms outstretched and grab me around the legs. The women call, “Dawda Marong! You are back. Welcome! Will you stay?” and someone brings me a cup of water, a traditional greeting. I am fed. My laundry is done. If it looks like I want to wash a bucket of water magically appears. Everyone is solicitous.


I went to visit Royal Victoria Teaching Hospital where I worked as a volunteer in the Accident & Emergency Department for a year in 2006-7. The hospital has been renamed by the president. No more colonial name. It is now the Edward Francis Small Teaching Hospital, after a Gambian who campaigned for independence, but everyone still refers to it as RVTH. Many roads in Banjul were given new names years ago but the old names persist in popular speech.


I dropped by to visit my niece who is studying there to be a lab technician. She's serious and disciplined and smart and she'll do well. She dresses modestly and wears the hijab of a devout Muslim woman. With all that, she also has a lovely lightness and sense of humor. She loves to tease me calling me “Toubab!” (white guy!) and I reply, calling her “Mofine!” (black person). We went to see her boss at the blood bank, Mam Jarra, another old friend.


And while we were there a young, well-dressed man who looked vaguely familiar came up and greeted me. “Doctah David! It is so long. You are back? Do you recognize me?” He was in the second graduating class from the medical school and rotated through the emergency department when I was there. “Oh, you must come back. We need you very badly. Why don't you come back again? We all learned so much from you.” I was overwhelmed. He went on an on. “You were not like the other doctors who visit. You lived with the people. You ate what the people ate. You listened to people and set an example for us students.” By this time I was looking at my shoes with my eyes full of tears.


It was the second time this had happened. Some months ago in a different city another young doctor came up and hugged me. He had been another of my students who told me he had never forgotten the lessons I had taught. It was such an overwhelming feeling.


And shortly after I pried myself away another man came up to me and grabbed my hand. “Doctor David, I am so happy to see you. Do you remember me? I was the nurse in Infection Control who wrote the article for the newspaper about you when you first came. You were such an inspiration to all of us. If I had to write of the doctors who did the most for this hospital you would be on this short list.” We spoke for about 15 minutes about the situation at the hospital. Shortages. Loss of staff to the private sector. No medications (even worse than when I was there). A poor country getting poorer despite good people trying their best.


The praise overwhelmed me. I felt so humble for the recognition. I may have earned the enmity of some higher-ups in my time here, but the “little people” remembered my efforts and it lifted my heart.

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