Welcome to the Third World
Blindfolded, hands tied behind their backs, they are led on a terrifying hike through unknown terrain, the unpredictable gnarly underbrush tripping them up. Sometimes they are helped up. Sometimes not. Forbidden to talk, they have to rely on other senses to keep them afoot. Luka strains to keep track of Carter's breathing and faint, restrained sounds he makes just to assure himself they are still together.
The group of marchers halts twice when Carter falls and becomes ill. He is sick to his stomach, Luka knew this would happen. When he begs to check on his friend, he is pummeled to the ground with a blow to his midsection. After a couple of hours, the swishing through the jungle growth and muted thud of feet hitting rocks and petrified wood suddenly stops and they are forced to their knees. The men are pushed down, as though their faces could get any lower to the ground, feeling the thick overgrowth swipe and punish their already frayed and bug bitten skin. Are they together? Is this the end?
They hear voices behind them and a language not recognizable to either. When the voices are replaced by the metal clicking sounds of guns, they fear the worst and crouch lower, hanging their heads as if to bury them in the soil of the jungle. Carter starts shaking – he can't stop. He tries to but terror has taken over his ability to control his body. Luka's breathing becomes labored as he grits his teeth in fear and anger, saliva stringing down from his mouth mixing with his blood and sweat dripping to the ground. Is that whimpering or someone struggling? They are no longer able to define if the very quiet sounds of fear they are making belong to themselves or the other. They have reached a moment of utter silence. Then, in synchronization, they are deafened by three gun blasts and a simultaneous painful crack to the head.
Luka Kovac and John Carter, emergency room physicians from County General Hospital in Chicago, arrived in the Democratic Republic of Congo as volunteer doctors with an organization that spends time in third world and developing countries. The Congo – definitely third world. It is a country that has seen better days, though not for generations. The main cash crop is diamond mining. The local government? Definitely not democratic, although one might argue that the politics of it is as economically profitable as the diamond trade. It is a region strife with boarder wars and of a geographical topography and climate that is as inviting to the rebels as it is to the depravity it incurs on the human soul. These souls in the Congo are driven to survive yet are constantly in conflict with each other and nature, ignorant to the reality that these two parallel battles will never merge to claim either goal. The official language is French. Unofficially, Lingala, along with 200 other languages and dialects. In short supply is medical professionals and medicines.
Kovac has experience with this organization. Carter, however, is completely new to this experience in more ways than one and hopped along for the ride in hopes of getting as far from Chicago and the people there as possible.
The pair was greeted at the airport by Sean Griffin, the organization representative, and Joseph Bisango, the cab driver/translator/host. Sean is a slight but physically strong man from Ireland. Not a doctor, but a man who has spent the better part of his life skirting danger both at home and abroad. The smaller dark skinned man, Joseph, spoke with a French accent, and seemed to wear a permanent smile. He eagerly took the doctors' bags and loaded them into the Jeep. He noticed the foreigner's discomfort with the heat and explained, "It is the wet season until the end of June. Don't let the heat fool you. Soon you will be complaining of the rains."
It was a tedious drive to the main office in Kinshasa, the capital. Along the way the men were silent as their eyes couldn't help but stare out of the Jeep at the primitive conditions that passed for homes. Corrugated tin – four walls and a roof for the lucky ones. Carter nearly fell out of the Jeep unable to take his eyes off one little boy – his malnourished abdomen protruding, his eyes sunken – hauling water in an old gas can almost half his size. Children wandered aimlessly through the streets, some performing jobs or chores, others – little ones not more than 4 or 5 years old – existing. Just existing. Luka had seen this before, in his war torn Croatian homeland. He knew the looks in the children's eyes, and in Carter's.
When they arrived at the little office, Carter complained of the oppressive heat and removed his outer shirt to reveal a t-shirt emblazoned with Cornell University, State University of New York College of Veterinary Medicine in big red letters. Sean and Joseph looked at each other and took a deep breath, together rolling their eyes.
Sean asked, "Dr. Carter, did you read the literature from the U.S. State Department in your packet?"
Carter uselessly wiped the sweat from his brow with his forearm. "Yeah, I took a look at it on the plane. Why?"
Luka, looking embarrassed pointed to his colleague's chest. "Your shirt. Vet school?" Luka smiled coyly and shook his head just a bit before saying, as though he were sharing a secret, "It's not exactly within guidelines."
Carter was obviously puzzled by this critique of his choice of clothing. "What? It's Cornell – the most prestigious vet school. Harder to get into, you know, than med school. My sister graduated from there." Carter was oblivious to the concern.
Sean cleared his throat, realizing that another newbie had arrived and his work was just beginning. "There are certain items of clothing", he began with his Irish brogue, "that make you stand out as an American – from a distance. People here associate all Americans with wealth. You might as well paint a bull's eye on your wallet there in your back pocket." Carter looked down at his shirt and gave the men a puppy look of innocence, as he took it off, turned it inside-out and put it back on.
Sean gave the men their medical supplies before heading back out to the Jeep. "Joseph here will take you back into the hills to the clinic where you will be working. You will be staying with his family and he will escort you back and forth to the clinic. You'll undoubtedly encounter checkpoints. It's to be expected. But you have all of your papers, every thing is in order, and," he smiled for the first time, "you have my good friend, Joseph."
Carter looked concerned, but ready for the challenge. Luka picked up on this and chimed in, "Sure. I've seen this before."
Sean gave Luka a big pat on the back, "I bet you have, Dr. Kovac. But your reality here is AIDS, Malaria, Ebola, malnutrition and simple lack of supplies. The only thing getting in the way of modern medicine are those rebels over there on that hill," he pointed to the mountains in the east, "on the other side of those lakes," he rotated his body north without putting his outstretched arm down, "and in those jungle areas ahead of you."
Carter quipped, "Geez, surprised you left cannibalism off the list!" There was little to no laughter as he and Luka exchanged an uncomfortable smile.
Sean gave back, "You really didn't read the paper work, did you? Actually, the UN is investigating credible claims of cannibalism that took place in January of this year. It's all there in your packet." Carter sat down in the back seat, unable reach a logical retort to that announcement. "Now, we'll be in touch." Sean stood back tipping his hat to the men. "Off you go."
As the doctors settled into what little space was left unoccupied by the supplies in the Jeep, Sean reassured them. "When you get to the clinic you will understand why you are so desperately needed. Look around at the shear beauty God has given us here and of the people of this land. They are the ones who you will remember when you return to your big city hospital. Their faces will forever be with you, as will the difference you will make in their lives. I will see you in a few days."
Through the downtown streets there seemed to be no traffic rules. The two hung on as Joseph zipped around corners, narrowly missing taxi cabs and people on bikes. The smell of air pollution was overpowering. Smoke, exhaust, sewage and a conglomeration of odors not easily identifiable. Catching a ride is exactly what people did to get around. Men, women and children willfully packed the outsides of trucks and dilapidated buses barely hanging on, making mass transit an art. They didn't slow down as they drove right by the large city hospital. Carter spun his head sideways watching the large building as they sped out of site. Obviously not their assignment. The journey would take more time.
As Joseph drove out of the city he veered off the uneven roads and onto the archaic ones. Ahead of them was a vast backdrop of brilliant greens and yellows. They were heading into a time taken from the history books and were allowed to view it past photographs and sketches. As they drove north, the abundant vegetation enveloped them and their narrow roads. Rubber, banana, coconut palm and plantain trees. Luscious tall timber trees drew their eyes up to the skies. Teak, ebony, African cedar, mahogany, iroko and redwood. The rain forest of their imaginations became reality as the sounds and sites of the tropical birds and native animals sped by.
There were two checkpoints manned by militia. The first was a simple matter of showing papers. Joseph purposely slowed ahead of the men in uniforms and guns to speak with the doctors. "Get out your papers, and don't speak unless they ask a question."
Luka asked, "Are these men friend or foe?" Carter looked at the group ahead of them, then back at his friends, nervously.
"This should be no problem. I know these men," Joseph was unconcerned, "but you cannot always tell if they are militia friendly to the government or rebels from one of the border countries. Either of you speak French?"
Carter mentioned that he had taken French in high school and college and proudly attempted a fractured sentence. Joseph slowed to nearly a stop, turned around and over his sun glasses looked Carter squarely in the face. "You need to not speak French while you are here. At all. Do not attempt it." As Joseph stepped on the gas to inch them through the check point, Luka struck up a conversation with his host in flawless French. The two laughed and, as the paper work was glanced at and returned to the men, Joseph drove off continuing his lengthy discussion with Luka – in French. Carter sunk down in the back seat, took a deep breath and made a mental note of the days left in this trip.
The second check point was a bit more complicated as the men were asked to exit their vehicle and bags were inspected. Joseph obviously was not as familiar with these men. He and Luka did all of the talking, what little of it there was. One soldier with a scar that ran from his ear to his mouth reached into Carter's bag and was amused as he pulled out an expensive, but useless cell phone. He held it up as entertainment for his comrades, put it in his own pocket, and waived the Jeep on through. Before Carter could say a word Luka shushed his intentions. "Sit still and don't say a word."
It was two hours before Joseph turned into a little town comprised of no more than 20 buildings. Having stopped once to refuel the vehicle from the gas cans strapped to the back, the doctors were exhausted and sore from the bumpy journey. The road ended there at the town, and facing the visitors as they completed their trek was a building that reminded Carter of the little church in the TV show, Little House on the Prairie. He half expected the school bell to ring and a dozen nineteenth century children to come bounding down the steps.
They had arrived at Joseph's home. Compared to the other houses in the village, this one was large and elegant, yet simple. They looked around at their temporary home and town. Humble but comfortable. The voices inside the house told them that children were present, and they were joyful voices. Three kids and a woman, Joseph's wife Toomay, came out to greet the men, throwing their arms around Joseph. He embraced the woman while being tackled by the children, all so happy to have him back home.
Luka gave Carter a nudge as he stood staring at the little church. "It's probably a Catholic church," Luka told him. Luka was unloading the Jeep of their luggage. "About half of the country is Catholic."
"What's the other half?" Carter whispered back.
"Little of this, little of that." Luka couldn't resist the little jab. "It's in the literature." He came prepared and expected as much from Carter.
Carter spun a three-sixty taking in the view of what now would be his temporary home. Over the roofs of the homes across the street he looked down into the next town over in the valley and saw the hospital with the big red cross painted on the roof. Pointing in that direction he quizzed his host. "Joseph, can we walk to the clinic from here?"
Joseph came back out of his house to get one more load of the doctors' belongings. "That hospital? Yes. But that is not where you will be working, Dr. Carter."
Carter was confused. Not quite sure of what he had gotten himself into. "What do you mean? There's another clinic?" An annoying fly buzzed his face, his waving hands doing little to ward it off.
Luka came out to see what was holding the two up. "What's the matter?" He could see Carter's impending disappointment cross his face. He grabbed the fly, held it between his fingers and crushed it all with the savvy of experience.
"Luka, I thought you said we'd be working in a clinic? Joseph tells me that we're not."
Joseph seemed as though he was getting some sort of sick, sarcastic humor from this. "I didn't say that. I just said that you wouldn't be working at the hospital." It was the same every time. The doctors come with great expectations and are less than humbled by the reality.
Luka decided that it was a good time to clue the young doctor in. "We are actually going to be working up in the jungle clinic. It's a first responder clinic. From there we will refer cases down to the hospital in town or even Kinshasa." He went on to further explain that since he is an experienced volunteer, they put them where they are needed most.
Now Carter wished he had read more. "And this clinic is where? And what staff and supplies will we have?" This was getting to be something he was not expecting.
"No travel brochures for this place." Joseph told them, "Not sure your Triple-A knows it exists."
Carter put his hand up to stall any further mention of the hell he was picturing. To Joseph, this was an everyday thing. To Carter it was more like a bad day in the sewers of Chicago. Putting down the strong box of meds, he sat down and took a deep breath. "Someone needs to tell me what the hell I'm doing here. Now."
Luka and Joseph looked at each other almost gambling to see which one would give Carter the news. Joseph took it upon himself to describe the clinic in the jungle. Not much for supplies, and the building was shabby at best. "You are safe here, and at the clinic itself," he told the doctors, "but in between is danger. There are rebels; there is government militia. It's the rebels you have to watch out for, if you can tell them apart."
Carter stood now, paying attention like nobody's business. "We have to drive there everyday through that?"
"Maybe not." Joseph had quieted his voice so as to separate their conversation from his family life behind the thin walls of the little house. "There are two native women there – nurses – who will help you. But they do not always stay there through the night. You will be seeing patients of all shapes and sizes, most from deep within the jungle areas. Any patient that has to be admitted will have to be transported down here. However, there are times that I will not be able to get there with all the rain. If that happens you will have to stay behind until the roads open up."
“Wait a minute,” Carter digested, “if the nurses don’t stay the night, why would we be safe staying behind with a patient?”
“There is always somebody watching you. Somebody you cannot see.” Joseph was quite serious. “The people who use the clinic are friends and family of rebels or militia, sometimes they themselves are fighters. There is always some faction who will come to their aid if need be. The nurses belong to a village of one sect. They do not feel safe there alone at night. But if you were there with a patient, somewhere you would have protection. But alone? I cannot guarantee that. Your supplies, the building are all valuable to everyone who lives here. But you are expendable in certain situations.
"What about helicopters? Why can't we chopper the patients out?" Luka asked.
"Like I said before," Joseph's voice became even more passive, "You are safe here. And the clinic is in a very safe place. But in between once you are off the road, particularly, the danger is quite high. The rebels will shoot at anything above them. Choppers cannot come in."
Luka and Joseph joined the rest of the family inside the house, leaving Carter sitting on the strong box contemplating his short term future.