Wednesday, March 19, 2008

True Grit

Every generation defines toughness through its cinematic icons. The hardboiled private detectives of the film noir ‘40’s were personified by Humphrey Bogart, wearing his world weariness like a bullet-proof vest. John Wayne swaggered his way across the screen in the 1950’s, bringing the hero back into the light while ensuring his essential toughness remained undiminished. The Sixties inserted coolness into the equation and found its role model in the anti-heroes of Steve McQueen and Clint Eastwood. For a kid growing up in the 1970’s and ‘80’s, Eastwood was the beginning and end of discussion when it came to toughness, his squinty stare striking fear into the hearts of bank robbers, cowboys and the occasional orangutan. But toughness extends beyond bar fights and broken noses, and as one grows up, one realizes that there are forms of toughness that are much quieter and more admirable than those possessed by the fictional heroes of the big screen.

This week’s edition of the blog is dedicated to possibly the toughest group of people that I’ve ever met: my fellow VSO volunteers stationed in Nigeria. Over the course of the past four months (just celebrated my four-month anniversary in the country – I believe that’s generally commemorated with a can of Spam.), I’ve met up with many of the volunteers who have been working in the country over the past year or so and listened to the stories they’ve had to tell. As you may have gathered from my previous blog entries, Nigeria isn’t the easiest place to operate effectively. Combine the lack of basic utilities with the dangerous road conditions, sprinkle a dash of gastronomical dreariness on top, and you have a perfect serving of the expat challenges that we all face here. But none of the difficulties that I’ve whinged about in the past come close to some of the horrors faced by some of the people who have chosen to make Nigeria home. Their toughness isn’t defined by these horrors. Rather, it’s their responses to them and their refusal throughout to quit the country for an easier lifestyle that speaks to their inner resolve. In most cases, I’ve left out their names, since most would likely prefer to remain anonymous when it comes to discussing their struggles.

The most common danger that the volunteers have faced comes from illnesses. Like many of the services provided in Nigeria, the medical system here has a reputation so poor that I’ve developed a paranoia about ever needing to seek treatment. Stories of volunteers coming down with malaria are common enough that it ranks just slightly above catching a cold when it comes to comparing battle scars. In most cases, volunteers have adhered to a weekly routine of taking Lariam, so when malaria does present itself, its effects are somewhat subdued and recovery is all but assured. For some volunteers, however, the side effects of taking Lariam have been worse than the threat posed by the disease. Hallucinations of maggots the size of small dogs crawling up one’s leg or ghostly children standing by one’s bedside have caused some to drop the pills from their regimen and assume a greater risk by going unprotected. Sometimes, the exposure to malarial conditions can come in the most unexpected of places. A VSO meeting for volunteers in Kano resulted in multiple cases of malaria when the hotel that was booked for the gathering proved to be missing the screens needed to keep out the mosquitoes carrying the disease. More recently, a volunteer who had recently arrived in the country fell victim to a double whammy of malaria followed by typhoid (initially misdiagnosed and therefore untreated). Had she not been properly immunized against the latter, she would have been in serious trouble.

But the worst case of illness that I’ve heard so far came from a much more innocuous cause. A simple bladder infection that was undetected in its early stages developed into something much more serious – a case of blood poisoning that became life-threatening. In this particular case, the volunteer returned to her home country to seek treatment after being discovered on the brink of incapacity by another volunteer. After receiving the needed treatment, she was told by her doctor that her condition proved fatal in the majority of cases that had progressed to the stage she had reached. After a period of recovery, the volunteer packed her bags and returned to Nigeria to complete her placement.

The Nigerian roads have also caused their share of damage to the volunteers. A retired couple were one week into their new assignment when they were involved in a terrible accident not far from where they were working. Ironically enough, they ended up receiving their initial treatment at a hospital located on the premises of the organization they were set to support. Once again, the seriousness of their conditions mandated that they seek treatment in their home country to ensure proper care and rehabilitation. And once again, there was a resolve to see out the balance of their assignment, rather than allowing their misfortune to define their experience. Returning to Nigeria with pins in place to help mend their bones, the couple resumed the planning for the commencement of local operations.

And the most recent example of a VSO volunteer overcoming challenges demonstrates a toughness of a different kind. In this case, it isn’t a reaction to a mishap or illness suffered here that demonstrated a determination to persevere, but rather a pre-existing condition that would give most people pause to travel to a country as daunting as Nigeria. The newest group of volunteers to arrive included a young woman from Canada who is both visually and hearing impaired. Christine, or Coco, as she prefers to call herself, has no hearing, so she communicates through sign language and writing. Her vision isn’t much better, with only a low percentage of sight in one eye, so that she can only see the hand signals at eye level up to five feet away. When darkness falls, even this limited ability fails her, so she relies on whatever light source is available to help her see. With such a severe amount of impairment, Coco depends on the assistance provided by two interveners who handle the translation duties and help her to adjust to new locations.

Coco’s attitude and personality defies any initial expectations that people may have before meeting her. Determined to take part in any meeting or gathering as an equal participant, she soon puts those around her at ease with her sense of humour and enthusiasm. At the after-hours party that ended the series of VSO meetings, Coco was among the last to leave the dance floor. Her strength will soon be put to the test in her placement, as her interveners are due to return to the US in the next six weeks and be replaced by more inexperienced local counterparts, but if the resolve she demonstrated over the course of the days spent with us is any indication of her determination to succeed, I’m sure she will be fine.

I don’t mention these examples to give a congratulatory pat on the back to my VSO colleagues, since most would likely see this as unnecessary. I've told their stories only because I stand somewhat in awe of what they’ve gone through and, more importantly, of their stubborn refusal to let illness, accident or limiting condition stop them from helping others. I really don’t know if I would react as admirably to a setback, and I hope I don’t have to find out. But if I do need to respond to a challenge, I hope that I can draw some inspiration from the examples that they’ve set and continue on as they have.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I cannot comment more than to say Wow. I'm speechless. Victor