Call Mama Doctor

Chapter 2. Road-Users in the Bush

By Louise Jilek-Aall, M.D.

Before the Kenya Castle arrived in Tanganyika I had reached a kind of truce with my teasers on board. They had given up trying to make me drink, and as I spent much of the time studying in my cabin, they soon forgot about me. When the ship moored in Dar-es-Salaam, I was met by a Capuchin priest in a white habit who came to the gangway to greet me and give me a hand with my bulky luggage. As we drove into town, I eagerly took in the exciting scenes of life in Africa. Dar-es-Salaam in the 1950's was still a typical colonial city. The main buildings were schools, churches, hotels and curio shops. Outside the “New African Hotel,” built in the German colonial style of the Kaiser's period, sat the white bwanas in their khaki suits, sipping drinks and being served by fancy-dressed African “boys”. There were only a few cars in the streets. Crowds of barefoot people in long robes walked along, carrying merchandise on their heads and small children on their backs.

We drove to the Archbishop's House where my big trunk would await transport into the interior and I was taken across the street to the Catholic school compound where the lay teachers occupied one wing of the convent with a few extra rooms for guests. They were friendly and during mealtime showered me with stories and well-meaning advice on how to survive in Africa. My excitement and expectation grew the more I listened and I found it hard to sleep at night. The heat was oppressive and a thousand unfamiliar noises from the street also kept me awake. This time of the year the atmosphere on the coast was saturated with humidity. At night water condensed on the roofs, dripping monotonously onto the pavement. My sheets and clothes were damp, and the sweat, which could not evaporate, simply ran off my skin. Being unaccustomed to the tropics, I found the heat nearly unbearable, especially during the noon hours. Unable to find a way to cool off, nauseated and with an aching head, I had to give up doing anything. I lay flat on my bed desperately longing for the sun to set and wondering whether I would ever be able to tolerate this climate. The teachers, noticing my suffering, consoled me as best they could. It would be less humid in the interior they assured me, and it would even cool off during the night. Needless to say I waited impatiently for my departure to Ifakara, the small town in the Ulanga district lying about two hundred miles inland from the coast where the research center at the Catholic mission hospital was situated.

Finally the day came; a message arrived that we were to start out at 2 o'clock the next morning. I felt like a real adventurer as I quietly locked the heavy iron gate of the convent behind me and threw the key back into the yard as instructed. The stars shone with startling brightness. I could hear the motor of the waiting truck as I crossed the empty streets. In the glare of the headlights I greeted the driver, a Capuchin friar from Switzerland. I could distinguish my wooden trunk amidst the load on the truck. Half a dozen boys were sitting on it; they were to come along with us. The truck would hardly ever make more than thirty miles per hour on the poor bush-roads, and many times during the day I wished I could have joined the boys back there as I sat squeezed in between the driver and a mother with her baby riding with us inside.

The first hours of driving through the night were fine. The air was cool and pleasant and saturated with the aromatic scent of the shrubs and plants alongside the road. Gradually the stars faded away as dawn lit up the sky. The morning clouds glowed red and gold and I sat spellbound as the African landscape unfolded in the morning sun before my eyes. Never had I seen anything so beautiful: the rolling hills stretched for miles ahead; the distant Kilosa mountains showed dark blue against the purple sky; the bao-bab trees reached with their silvery branches like hands into the air. On the reddish-brown soil of the wide steppe I saw herds of zebras and antelopes grazing peacefully. The immensity of the land deeply impressed me and I felt in my heart that whatever lay ahead, I would always be happy for having lived in Africa.

As the day went on and the sun climbed higher, the heat in the truck intensified. It became more difficult to sustain a joyful mood. Drowsiness overwhelmed us. The mother and her baby slept soundly even though their heads were banging against the sides of the cabin as the truck bounced on the bumpy road. Alarmed, I noticed that the driver too was struggling to keep his eyes open as he steered the heavy truck along a winding road through the forest. I forced myself to stay awake, asking questions and cracking jokes just to keep him alert. We had just turned off the paved road at Morogoro and were driving on the dirt road towards Mikumi when suddenly the driver jammed on the brakes and switched off the motor. The truck stopped dead, clouds of dust rising up from the wheels. He put his arm across me and whispered, “Don't move!” Through the dust I perceived a huge grey mass in front of the truck. We had just rounded a bend on the road and it was a few seconds before I realized that we were facing an elephant. It slowly lifted its trunk and swung its head from one side to the other as it searched for the smell of the unexpected intruder. None of us in the truck dared to move or make a sound. The elephant seemed immense as it raised its ears ready to charge at the slightest further provocation. Then the elephant slowly turned away and walked off into the bush, crushing branches as it went. With a sigh of relief the friar started up the truck again.

We were now wide awake and could hear the excited voices of the boys in the back. The driver told me of cars coming too close or hitting an elephant. The infuriated beast is able to smash a car and will charge people who try to flee the scene. Newcomers to Africa who panic and run headlong into the bush have little chance to escape since the elephant is a much faster runner. Seizing its prey with its trunk the elephant will throw the victim up in the air and then crush him under its heavy feet. Those who know better will run a zig-zag course because the elephant in motion cannot stop to turn quickly. Once out of the view of the animal the trick is to lay motionless in a ditch or behind a bush. Fortunately elephants have poor eyesight. To them things which do not move or make a noise have no meaning, especially if there is no irritating smell. If the wind is favorable the elephant, guided mainly by smell and movement, will lose track and quickly give up the chase. “The best protection against such dangerous encounters is to drive slowly,” concluded the friar.

In the early afternoon we stopped at a small village to let the woman with her baby get out. The cabin was more spacious now and more comfortable. But soon the sun burning through the window made us drowsy again. The driver stopped the truck at the roadside. This was his favorite picnic site, he said, as he helped me out, and here we were going to have lunch and take a rest. He brought along his safari-box with food and tea and went to a beautiful place under some old trees. We sat down on a stump. “What about the boys?” I asked, a bit concerned. “The people in the bush never eat meals during daytime,” the friar explained. “They take a few sticks of sugar cane with them on trips and whenever they feel the need, they cut off a piece and chew it. The sweet juice quenches the thirst and is nourishing at the same time. In that way they keep alert without becoming heavy with food.”

While we were resting in the cool shadow of the trees the friar told me about his work. He had been driving this same route for many years and knew the road like his own pocket. During long hours of driving he had come to know many different kinds of people. Within the confines of the truck he had met with persons who were quiet, thoughtful, preoccupied, or even depressed, while others were gay and talkative. Sometimes the passengers were nervous and would be impatient with his slow driving, at other times they were in harmony with themselves and therefore appreciative of his caution. He had made it a habit to size up his passenger at the beginning of the trip and to plan the day accordingly. Allowing his companion time for rest and sleep when that seemed necessary, he would at other times kindle a conversation, especially when he himself felt a tendency to doze off. To keep the passenger talking he had a repertoire of themes of which he would choose one, depending upon whether he had a priest, a nun, a physician, a nurse or a teacher in the truck, the friar revealed with a laugh. For a moment I felt uneasy, wondering in what category I had been placed, but our conversation was flowing with such ease and humor I could not possibly believe that it was calculated. As we drove on I listened to him in silence and together we enjoyed the splendor of a tropical sunset and watched darkness descend on the plains. When we finally reached Ifakara late at night I felt that this Capuchin friar had become my first true friend in Africa. Whenever I thought of him in the years to come the little figurine of St. Christophorus which dangled above the dashboard in his truck came to my mind. I always tried to arrange it so that I could travel with him when I had to go to the Coast. The journey was never the same if he was not the driver.

Copyright © 1979 Louise Jilek-Aall
Reprinted with permission

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