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My secondary projects are all in the “please please call me back so we can talk about that thing you want me to do for you” phase, my tertiary project is on hold until the end of October, and my primary project (developing the epidemiological monitoring/record-keeping system for the dispensary) entails a lot of brainstorming and working from home (for now, at least). So the other day, I empowered myself to mobilize down to the beach to splash in the tide pools for a while during what would be my “lunch hour.” I was doing just that when a trio of beach boys sidled over and offered to show me some great eels.

In America, this would end in them getting pepper-sprayed, and possibly arrested for sexual harassment. Here, sometimes an eel is just an eel, and they were offering me a snorkeling trip. I politely declined and went back to picking up bits of coral rock with my toes. One persisted, offering me a good price on a ride in a glass-bottomed boat. If not today, maybe tomorrow? This weekend? How long was I in town?

I initiated the usual speech: I’m not a tourist, I’m a volunteer, I’m here working in the public health sector. “Oh, like a doctor?” came the predictable response. “No, more like an educator. I mobilize communities, work with groups, and teach about important public health topics like malaria, water sanitation, HIV …” I trailed off.

He narrowed his eyes. “Prove it.”

”Nini?” I responded. What?

“Teach me about those things. Sasa.”

“Err, sawa … where do you want me to start?”

Water sanitation. I have a well, and my children have diarrhea. What do I do?”

For the next hour, I stood up to my calves in the Indian Ocean, tripping clumsily between two languages, giving my best impromptu health lecture. We covered well construction and maintenance, the importance of pit latrines, and malaria prevention tactics. He asked about his sister, who “did things for money” and had recently been diagnosed with HIV. I stressed the importance of getting support at local hospitals (both in the form of ARVs and looking into joining a group) as well as taking care of herself physically. I explained ways to eat healthier using local foods (fruits and greens year-round!) and getting enough exercise. He asked about traditional remedies – can the bark of the AdrnjoauNw tree cure AIDS? – and we discussed the need to consult with a doctor. By the end of it, he’d resolved to eat more kale, make his children sleep under mosquito nets, and start using Waterguard in all his drinking and food washing.

I walked home with a distinct feeling of “Wait … did that really just happen? Or am I being Punk’d by Peace Corps training staff?”

The public health sector of the Peace Corps is weird like this sometimes. I often feel like I get as much done in these unscripted moments of ambush as I do in formal assignments either from HQ, from my host organization, or from my community counterpart. It’s a good feeling, honestly. Helps to make one feel supremely useful, even in those initial days of flailing wildly and figuring out what you need to be doing. Just … unexpected.

I love my job.

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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Yours truly