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My collection, courtesy of the US Government.

“To possess another language is to possess a second soul.”
— John le Carré

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I’m not a doctor. Most (all?) of you should know this by now. I hope to someday BE a doctor – though only a PhD, not the kind who could actually remove your kidney with a ballpoint pen for shits n’ giggles. This is, however, lost on an enormous number of the people here, even those I work with somewhat regularly. As I integrate into my community to the point where people recognize me, they begin to realize I’m not a tourist … so what am I, exactly? Oh, right: must be a physician. Duh.

It’s certainly not an illogical conclusion: I’m from a foreign country, I’m always tromping around with the head public health officer looking all official n’ stuff, I have a vast (or perhaps half-vast?) knowledge of public health issues and disease transmission, I drop in to the local health clinic 4-5 days a week, and on the days I’m not there, I’m in the District Hospital/Minister of Health’s office/etcetcetc. It’s an honest mistake to make, I’m not offended, and I always try to be gracious but explicit in explaining (in Swahili) that I’m NOT a medical doctor, just a public health volunteer. To be frank, it’s a little flattering – I’m happier they assume I’m someone useful, rather than just another faceless sex tourist.

It can, however, create problems. It took many patient repetitions of explaining Peace Corps official policy before the good folks at the dispensary where I’m based stopped asking me to give shots and do prescriptions. (Need someone to hold a baby while the mother gets a shot? I’m on it. Want me to push the plunger? IX-NAY ON THE EEDLES-NAY, pole sana.) It utterly broke my heart when the motorcycle fundi I walk past on my way home every day said he thought his kid was sick and begged me to come have a look. I always feel awkward during introductions when I’m put in a situation where I have to correct someone and say no, it’s not doctor Megan, it’s just Megan, thanks.

Most people are gracious about it. They’re mystified about why I’m here – hell, some days I’M mystified about why I’m here – but it’s always a chance to start a dialogue about what the Peace Corps is and what public health volunteers do. Others … well. It can take a little more repetition to get the hint.

Case in point: today, I went to mail a letter to my friend Lisa in America. Standing in line, a “beach boy” I recognized turned to me and said “Eeeh, ciaooo belllaaaa, you staying at the Turtle Bay Villas?” I smilingly responded (in Swahili) that no, I was a public health volunteer, I live in [my village], and I’d be here for two years. At which point I became significantly less interesting to him and he wandered off.

When I got to the counter, the woman greeted me and told me (in Swahili) that I speak very correctly. (Well, yeah – I’ve done that speech enough times that it comes as naturally as breathing at this point. It’s all the rest of the language that can be tricky.) She made small talk for about 10 seconds before asking:
”So you’re based at the dispensary over there?”

A decent question. Solid small-talk. But it all went hilariously down hill from there.

“Yeah, for two years, although I also do things at [other local health center],” I responded.
“You’re a doctor?”
“No, actually I’m just a –“
“Because my teeth bleed sometimes. Is that normal?”
“I don’t know, I’m sorry, I’m not a –“
“Here, look.”
“Oh. That looks … Huh. Uh. I don’t know. I’m not a doctor.”
“What drugs should I take?”
“Excuse me?”
“What drugs should I take for my bleeding teeth?”
“I don’t know, I’m only a volunteer in –“
“Look! Again!”

At this point, she poked herself in the gum. Which, true to her description, began to bleed. I winced. The conversation had essentially reached the Break Point – the moment in which I just start backing away slowly saying “I’m sorry, I can’t help you, I’m sorry …” An unnerving number of exchanges with strangers seem to end this way. But before I could get out the door, she seemed to catch on.

”You’re not a doctor.”
“Nope. Just a health educator and advisor. If you need to learn about malaria or water sanitation, I can help you completely. But teeth …”
I trailed off and shrugged.
”Hmm.” She studied me carefully. I said goodbye and was on the stairs before I heard her call after me:

“So – which drugs will help my mouth?”

Labda kesho.

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The opinions expressed on this blog do not represent those of the Peace Corps, the United States government, or any other organization. The author is solely responsible for all content on this blog.
Yours truly