Archive for March, 2007

African ATMs

March 22, 2007

Frustrating, frustrating morning.

Picture this: a stand alone ATM – in other words, not one physically attached to a bank in case of problems, instead it is situated between car park of main supermarket in town (ShopRite – alternatively called ShopWrong, ShopLift, ShopRot on account of shabby produce and exorbitant prices and – indeed – shoplifters and pickpockets inside) and assorted restaurants. The beautiful people do their grocery shopping and then glide to the assorted eateries for a cappuccino, a smoothie or a quick mixed salad, so that they have something to push about their plates. I – on the other hand – am more likely to be seen shovelling contents of crisp bag gracelessly into mouth and slugging water from a bottle I keep in the car.

Anyhow, I approach ATM with same measure of apprehension that I approach all ATMs lest they protest at the amount of money I’m demanding and swallow card. A number of African women are sitting under a tree beside the ATM, I greet them and they smile. I pop card into machine’s greedy mouth, punch in numbers, feel the thrill of imminent spending power as I hear the counters whirring promisingly inside, take my money, count it (this is a Third World country after all) and wait for my card. A red message pops up on the screen: Warning: Your Card Has Been Retained. I gasp in horror and spin round; African women are observing me with quiet satisfaction: the machine ate their cards too, they confess, after dispensing money. Why didn’t they tell me? They shrug. Has anybody reported this, I enquire. Yes, they say, a man whose card was swallowed before theirs has driven to the bank.

I dial the help line indicated on the machine. No such number. I wait for the man who drove to the bank to return with assistance. He never reappears. Several people approach the ATM with cards outstretched, delighted there’s no queue. It’s tempting not to tell them, it’s tempting to see other people’s mornings disintegrate into a waste of time. But my conscience gets the better of me, ‘It ate my card’, I admit, ‘and theirs’, I motion towards the women in the shade, lest they think I’m poor white trash and it’s not a bit surprising I’ve had my card eaten. A few anxious tourists put their cards back into the wallets and walk away. Not the ever optimistic Tanzanians, though; hopeful that the machine just got out of bed the wrong side and its mood will have improved by now (noon), they stick their cards in anyway and then look utterly, profoundly devastated when it swallows it having belched out the requested funds first. They stare at the screen in outrage, punch a few numbers, peer into the slot and look completely gutted. If I weren’t so fed up waiting, I’d laugh.

Having secured the telephone number for the bank itself, I share it with all the Africans who’ve lost their cards and we begin to harangue the manager, demanding when somebody will come and sort the problem out. We are probably half a dozen but with each phone call, the numbers of people waiting grows in proportion to rising impatience: ‘There are at least 30 people here’, says one man, ‘and we are all going to change bank’.

Finally, oh joy, a man appears in a purple pick up. He does not look like a bank official, the only indication that he is remotely connected to the ATM in question is the tiny bank insignia on his T’shirt. He struts to the machine importantly, he has us all at his mercy. We are meekly polite, fearful he’s going to confiscate our cards and subject us to a tedious process of retrieval. He unlocks the machine, gathers up our cards from its innards and begins to call out names and hand them out. As I reach out for mine, he puts it behind his back! Behind his back. Is this a game? I’m too tired for games. Oh please, I beg. I have a flight to London in 30 minutes. That, by the way, is a lie. He reluctantly hands my card over and I escape to my car which is now very, very hot.

Crisps are soggy and water is warm.

Email this morning from Oz editor. She tried to call she says but could not get through. I note from her mail that she tried to call seven hours earlier than we’d agreed. Doubtless she was unable to get me because it was 2 in the morning here and I had cotton wool in my ears in a desperate attempt to get some sleep. She says she cannot commission the piece because I live too far away. Has she not heard how cyberspace has shrunk our world? Does she think only Australians suffer from insomnia? Perhaps she assumes that everybody in Africa lives in a mud hut and kills breakfast with a spear.

Silly cow.

But at least I’ll get some sleep tonight.

Glow-in-the-dark mosquitoes

March 21, 2007

According to headlines this week, ‘the fight against malaria could be transformed by releasing into disease-ridden areas genetically modified mosquitoes that cannot transmit the infection’ – the idea being that they’ll shack up with wild ones and the gene responsible for transmitting malaria will be slowly bred out over generations.

Malaria – for those lucky enough not to need to be acquainted with it – is the world’s most dangerous disease, which makes the tiny mosquito the word’s biggest killer. It affects almost 500 million people a year and takes the lives of nearly three million – mostly in Africa, where a child is estimated to die from the disease every 30 seconds – at an estimated cost to the African economy of more than USD$ 12 billion per annum.

Critics are scepitcal that the GM mozzies (which, by the way, will glow in the dark – how useful) will have an impact – any impact – on malaria; this isn’t the first time GM mosquitoes have been trialled, the last batch – seven years ago – died because they weren’t as hardy as their bush-savvy cousins. Even the American scientists involved concede further research is required. In the meantime, nobody talks about education, nobody promotes the importance of vector control, nobody does what Dr Ronald Ross – who was responsible for confirming that is was the mosquito that transmitted malaria and how – did: encourage better drainage, for example. What’s wrong with adopting an old fashioned – and simpler – approach to a problem if it worked? Because it did: the mortality rate at the time – over a million deaths a year – was reduced to less than 10,000 during the 1950’s as a direct result of Ross’s work.

African’s cannot afford to wait while scientists develop a mosquito which may or may not affect the gene pool of wild mosquitoes and inhibit their ability to transmit the parasite. And while they’re waiting they cannot avail of new combination drugs recommended by the WHO because a course of treatment, at 3 quid 40, is too much for most pockets; local doctors still prescribe (very much cheaper) chloroquine which is known to be ineffective in over 90% of cases now due to parasite resistance to the drug.

Africa needs education. It’s not rocket science. It’s not even science. Just education applicable to African’s lives. It doesn’t need to be a perpetual guinea pig for the lofty intelligentsia of the well fed West. Sorry.

Editor in Australia did not call. I left my cell phone as close to my computer screen as possible all morning hopeful that the screen wobble would warn me of an imminent incoming call so that I could prepare by taking deep breath before picking up. (How can they say mobiles aren’t bad for brains when they make computer hardware tremble? Imagine what’s happening to the gelatinous cerebellum if something as sturdy as a computer monitor succumbs?).

Considering time difference, editor is probably fast asleep now. And I shall endure another night of insomnia in anticipation, I hope, of a call – and a commission – tomorrow.

The early bird doesn’t necessarily catch the worm

March 21, 2007

You wouldn’t necessarily know I lived in Africa this morning; the clouds hang low so that the two mountains I can normally see – Kilimanjaro and Meru – are blanketed in a damp, grey shroud. You’d only guess I was in Africa for the pair of Hadada Ibis that are pecking about delightedly on the lawn which was mowed yesterday, unearthing a banquet of insects for their breakfast. Shortly they will be chased away by my three geese who parade about the garden with proprietary and stately waddle (only geese waddle in stately fashion, not ducks, which merely waddle). The geese don’t want a share of the insects the ibis are enjoying, they just don’t want to share their garden. Sometimes the ibis rise briefly into the air and laugh at the geese, but soon even their humour is defeated by this trio of feathered bullies and they push off. Uh oh, here they come now – the geese – hissing and spitting in tones of furious and indignant rage, the ibis will take flight but not until the geese are within feet, they will continue to nibble nonchalantly on for now which only serves to infuriate the advancing geese further.

I am listening to the news as I write; another member of the MDC, Mugabe’s opposition, has been beaten to within an inch of his life. For eight years the West has stood by and watched whilst a monster cruelly reduced Africa’s Bread Basket to Africa’s Basket Case. What could we do, it whined? And imposed sanctions which didn’t make a jot of difference to Mr Mugabe’s life; if he wanted something that wasn’t available in his disintegrating country, he just hopped aboard his jet and flew to South Africa to get it. Sanctions only made the little people’s already hellish lives even more miserable. Zimbabwe’s shocking situation is the fault of the West’s post-colonial hand-ringing; their fear that a greedy, belligerent African ruler would play the race card means that the lives of hundreds of thousands of Africans are in jeopardy. Warning: Political Correctness can kill.

Hattie – the youngest of my three children at ten – is going on a field trip this morning, to the new crêperie in town (which, my instructions indicate, is in a pink building). It’s a French field trip, Hattie says, because they are going to eat crêpes which they eat in France she informs me. Except her pronunciation isn’t up to much which reduces Amelia (13) to a fit of hysterical mirth, ‘Ha, ha’, she squeals unkindly, ‘Hattie’s going to eat CRAP for breakfast’.

I am awaiting a telephone call from an editor on an Australian women’s glossy to whom I pitched a story about insomnia. She – unlike her predecessor – is not prepared to commission the piece over email; we need to have a transcontinental conversation she says, which has meant lengthy email correspondence as we negotiate a mutually suitable time to talk given our considerable time differences.

Talking on the telephone makes me anxious.

Consequently I barely slept last night.

A fact that may have lent useful research were I not so bloody knackered.

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March 18, 2007

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