Sunday, February 17, 2008

Landcruiser hell

I've spent most of my time this week dealing with a near-continous series of catastrophic breakdowns in our vehicles. I discovered on Monday that the brakes in one did not work, and the drivers were using the gears to slow down. They were supposed to have been repaired several weeks ago but the work was poorly done. Then on Tuesday, the other one started overheating, and it had a leak in the radiator. The driver limped it back to the office and we called a local mechanic to have a look. The radiator needs to be removed and taken for welding. The mechanic looked at both vehicles and discovered an assortment of serious problems (one of which being that the front wheel on one was about to fall off because of some broken part inside the hub) that should have been identified by MENTOR's mechanic (Joseph, our Kikuyu driver, who we sent to Nairobi for his own safety last week). We decided to limp it back home but when they started it up it sounded like a tractor!! Clearly something VERY wrong with the engine. The driver swears he did not drive it far with the overheated engine, and we have not been able to diagnose the problem, but it seems either the oil pump or the water pump is gone and the engine has either overheated severely or run without oil for some time. Either way, it is buggered, and likely unsalvageable, so that's the end of that car, which is our "good" landcruiser.

On Wednesday we organized to have it towed the 15 km to the house. A big dump truck came and we hitched up the car with the winch. We made it to 1/4 mile from the house where there is a steep hill full of loose stones and the truck just couldn't go any further. They tried and tried and the truck was spitting big stones out from under the wheels and I was afraid it would smash the windscreen. Of course by this time I was already completely fed up with the whole thing and just wanted to be able to do some work other than deal with cars. I walked the rest of the way home after instructing the driver to get another truck that had enough power to pull the car up the hill.

I assumed everything was going fine until the driver called an hour later. The usual story: "There is a problem". My blood pressure was already sky high by this time and I was absolutely furious, so I marched down the hill to see what was the matter. The whole front end of the landcruiser was bashed in; the story I got was that the brakes in the truck "failed" and it rolled backwards and smashed into the car. Thank god we have bull bars on all our cars or it would have been even worse. I went absolutely ballistic. Why did the driver get a truck with bad brakes??? The truck driver tried to tell me that the brakes had been functioning just fine until this very moment. Right. Then the owner of the truck turned up and he changed his story to he had not been in the truck, that he engaged the handbrake and put stones behind the wheels and the handbrake failed and the stones broke. The whole story was extremely convoluted and totally dodgy and I'll never know what really happened. In any case, I thought I was going to have a heart attack and I yelled and screamed at everyone, including the crowd of bystanders that gathered to watch the whole scene.

I called the police to make a report. they turned up on their bicycles, wearing raggedy clothes (they very seldom wear their uniforms) and smoking cigarettes. They stood around for a half an hour (of course everyone is speaking swahili so I have absolutely no idea what anyone is saying) and asked me for a piece of paper to draw "the scene". The driver of the truck disappeared as soon as I called the police, but this is such a small area everyone knows everyone so they said "we will find him". We all piled into the pickup and drove to the police station, a few ramshackle buildings and round huts made of iron sheets. The other policemen at the station were sleeping on the ground outside when we arrived. We sat around for another hour while they filled in a couple of notebooks and sat around going "hmm", "ah", and nodding their heads. The owner of the truck offered to pay for the repairs, but only if his mechanic did the work. I replied thanks, but no thanks, I want my mechanic to do the work. This turned into another series of "hmmm" and "ah", myself involved, as we discussed whose mechanic should do the work. after 30 minutes I finally said we would figure it out the next day as I was exhausted, hungy and thirsty and thought I was going to lose my mind if I had to sit there for one more minute. In the end I decided we would file an insurance claim and let the insurance companies figure it out. I'm sure this will take at least six months.

So it sits, with the bull bars bent back so that the wheels cannot be turned, halfway up the hill to the house. We are down to one vehicle, the pick up, which only carries two passengers and is useless in the rain. I don't know how I'm supposed to run a massive field program with one useless car!!! Thankfully, it looks like we are going to hire a Logistician to come out and deal with all of these things so that I can do other things.

At least security is fine now, and we can move around with no worries. I haven't even had time to check the news to see what is going on with the political negotiations. On top of all of this I have two assignments due at the end of March for my Master's courses, one of which is a statistical analysis of a dataset on leprosy and writing a paper with the results. It's ridiculously complicated and I spent close to 50 hours on the "practice" assignment for this course so I'm sure I'll spend at least this much time on this one which is worth 30% of my grade. In addition I'm starting a group assignment tomorrow that will last for six weeks investigating a cholera outbreak. THere are 10 of us in the group and we are to do the work together and write a report to submit at the end of the 6 weeks. It's going to be a very busy month!!!

So I'd better get to work now, Sunday is study day, I will spend the usual 10 hours straight working. At least it's not dealing with car breakdowns!!!

Saturday, February 9, 2008

finally-a whole week of work!

We were actually able to work without disruption for the entire week – the first full week of work we have had without having to change plans or cancel activities since before Christmas! The security situation has been very calm here, and I was actually able to travel to Kisumu on Tuesday.

There was surprisingly little evidence of the conflagration that occurred in Kisumu over the past month. Apart from the burnt out shells of several buildings (including a large supermarket that covered most of a city block) you would be hard-pressed to know that it was total chaos the week before. When Fanette and I left Kisumu on December 30 it looked like a bomb had gone off in the center of town, and I thought it would be months before the mess was cleaned up. On Tuesday, however, it seemed to be business as usual, with the street hawkers and small kiosks and traffic and the shops open and full of goods.

The remaining supermarket, however, was total chaos. I had to go in to buy “goodies” for us as well as stock up on essential items, and it was absolutely jam-packed, I could hardly push my cart up and down the aisles. The queues to pay were enormous, and the concept of orderly queuing is not something that hapens here, it’s every man, woman and child for themselves, pushing and shoving, elbows and shoulders, to get your spot in line and get to the front first. So, in I went with my cart and muscled my way to near the front of the queue, but the genius architect who designed the store did not leave any way to move the empty carts out of the way, so they started to accumulate at the front of the queue and made it even more of a mess. After it became impossible for anyone to move, someone finally came and they had to physically lift the carts over the checkout stands to remove them. Of course it was 95 degrees inside and I was starving, just to make the misery complete. It took almost an hour to get out of there. I will never complain about having to wait in line at the grocery store at home again!!!

It seems that rainy season is upon us, and the roads turn into a greasy mess when they are wet. Vincent, our Logistician, and I set off in the pickup yesterday morning to go to Busia, as Fanette and Isabelle were both doing fieldwork and needed the landcruisers. I took over driving because Vincent has little experience driving in mud, especially in a rear-wheel drive, lightweight vehicle. Not that I do either, but it’s almost identical to driving on snow and ice, and growing up in Canada you spend 6 months of the year slipping and sliding if you’re not careful.

Anyways, I managed to get a couple of km up the road (much to Vincent’s delight, he couldn’t believe a woman can drive like this!) by using the clutch, keeping our speed up without gunning the engine, taking my foot off the gas when we started to slide, and gingerly handling the steering every time we started to skid and spin. We almost made it through the worst part when we simply slid right off the side of the road into the ditch. Absolutely nothing we could do. The usual crowd of guys gathered around to help us and by inching backwards and forwards we got ourselves righted and carried on (after paying the requisite 5 bucks). By the time we came back 3 hours later it was dry. We are expecting another landcruiser from Nairobi next week, we will definitely need 3 4-wheel drives here during rainy season.

What else...another story from Isabelle about her experience working in Sudan, that really puts into perspective how fortunate we are living in the developed world. Don’t read if you are easily grossed out. She said a woman turned up at the hospital whose finger had been almost severed. She said that the bone was sticking out and it appeared that a dog or some other animal had ripped it off. She was very stoic and didn’t complain and was very matter of fact about the whole thing. Isabelle asked her what happened. She said that she and another woman got into a fight over a bucket of water and the other woman bit her finger off. Imagine. Having your finger bitten off over a bucket of water. That’s how harsh life is in some parts of the world. We really don’t appreciate how easy we have it and how much we take for granted. After running out of water here and having to bathe out of jerry cans I feel guilty for lingering in the (cold) shower. It is a precious resource.

Isabelle was working in one of the health centers this week and she called me to ask what the MENTOR policy is on transporting people in MENTOR vehicles. A woman had turned up at the health center who had suffered a miscarriage and she was bleeding heavily. Isabelle told me that unless she got to a proper hospital where she could have a blood transfusion she was likely to bleed to death. There are no ambulances, and no means to get people to hospital when they are in bad shape. It is a difficult position to be in because if we start providing transport to some people then it will be never ending. However, being that we are a humanitarian organization if someone is going to die without our intervention we are morally obligated to assist. Isabelle took her to the hospital, and she bled all over the car, but she got to a place where her life would be saved.

I had a couple of interesting discussions this week about why people are so resistant to making simple behavior changes that might save their lives, like having their houses sprayed to protect against mosquitoes, or boiling their drinking water to prevent cholera. In the car on the way back from Kisumu, Jack, our driver, and Vincent and I were discussing why people don't take basic precautions with water, when they can boil it or use a drop of bleach to kill cholera bacteria. They said that around here, there is a belief that you must drink water from the river. Even if purified water is provided, there is some belief that river water is better for you (I'm not quite clear if this is some sort of spiritual belief or where it came from). Also discussed the same isue with a public health officer at the Ministry of Health. He said he worked on a cholera outbreak in Coastal Province some years ago, and no matter what they told people about boiling water the outbreak persisted. They finally sent people into the communities to discuss with people about what was going on. It turns out that they were boiling the water, but not drinking it...apparently to them, boiled water is "dead", and is harmful. Only "living" water should be drunk. Once they spent time educating people that this was a misconception, they began to drink the "dead" water and the cholera was eliminated. This might seem like complete craziness, but the influence of strongly held beliefs on health practices can't be underestimated when designing interventions. We have the same problem here, with people refusing to have their houses sprayed for various reasons, from thinking that the insecticide is poisonous and will harm them to not wanting to remove things from their houses to have them sprayed because they are afraid someone will steal them. It's a matter of education, and the more we can do to provide this the more successful our intervention will be.

Well, after those heavy stories, here are a couple more pictures of funny things I've seen...

Priorities.....someone bought this piece of land and the first thing they constructed (after the small temporary shack to the left) was a huge gate. I asked why this huge gate was sitting on the empty plot of land, with no fence and no house. By putting up the big gate it indicates big things to come as well as a sense of ownership of the land. Building a house can take years, as the materials are bought bit by bit as they can be afforded.

We went by this property last week and I saw a giant flat-screen tv being unloaded and put into the shack. Also a high priority!

Giant White Bubble

This is Ugali, a staple food in Kenya. It is boiled cornmeal, and is as ubiquitous as rice in Asia. It is bland, tasteless filler (as far as I am concerned anyways) with zero nutritional value. It is served with every meal. This was at our Christmas lunch, and we asked the cooks to prepare it along with beef stew and chapatis. There was at least 10 pounds of the stuff left over AFTER we fed 25 people. I tried to feed some to the dog but even he wouldn't eat it!

Things you don't need to worry about at home - goats on the verandah and in the flower garden- and cheeky as well - i went out to chase them away and they looked at me like, "what?"