Appeared in Business in Vancouver – January 7, 2014
Poverty is relative. You knew that. In Canada we debate the definition – low-income cut off (LICO), absolute poverty and such. This puts things in perspective.
Linda Barrett – not her real name – is a registered nurse and an adventurous Canadian. We met in Ontario last May. She charmed me with her wit, humour and smarts.
After years working in the Arab Middle East she’s now a volunteer in a hospital in an African country, which I also won’t identify. Read on.
“Haven’t stopped sweating profusely since arriving,” she writes.
“It’s 10 p.m. in a small room with three bunk beds, and can’t sleep. My roommates fell asleep at 8. Me, the night owl, am drinking Sangria with Sprite in hopes of knocking myself out. Have the top bunk = good.
“Allergic to something (old sponge used instead of mattress is first suspicion). Oh yay!”
Linda’s roommates are in their twenties, better than past ones in another African country “but they still get on my friggin’ nerves.” Two are Americans.
“The other one, who is anal-retentive like me, is the medical resident from Taiwan. Both of us are disgusted by how much the other two are slobs.
“All of us use the same toilet and washroom. Toilet does not flush so you have to dump water in the bowl and hope it goes down. There is no running water so you have to use well water and a bucket to wash. The water has typhoid so you have to make sure your mouth is closed when you bathe.”
Their township, nurses told Linda, has the highest incidence of typhoid in the country. Almost all the nice and supportive hospital staff have been sick with malaria and/or typhoid, “so common that they’re almost like the common cold back home. Everyone is waiting for me to get sick. So far so good.”
And that’s life for the more privileged. Think of the inhabitants.
Linda writes: “The house is directly across from an orphanage, so we are constantly accosted by little ones starving for attention.
“Ages range from two to 13. When home from the hospital, I spend my time playing with/disciplining children, and attending to injuries, infections, etc.”
The orphanage owner, a nice man but no manager, runs out of donations and volunteers, and “a lot of responsibilities have ended up on my shoulders.
“Have to get used to the [country’s] way of doing things,” Linda acknowledged. “Hey, found vanilla and chocolate soya milk here, of all things! No running water and we occasionally have no electricity, but I can have all of the soya milk my heart desires.”
The Internet is unreliable: “I have sadly fallen behind the times. I didn’t find out that Nelson Mandela had died until two days later.”
If you have an image in mind of what a Canadian volunteer abroad might look like, it’s wrong. Linda is black, really black – skin so radiantly beautiful that in Arabic countries strangers stared at it and stroked her arms with wonder – her hair in dreadlocks, a wide, laughing mouth, big lips and dazzling white teeth with a gap in the top front.
One wonders how people react when she opens her mouth and speaks pure, perfect Canadian. And she’s in her mid-forties but looks 20.
Now we’re here in a business newspaper, so know this: last spring, still in Ontario, Linda explored nursing work in B.C. and found that just the professional entrance cost would be $500.
Canada lowers barriers with the U.S., Mexico, Europe – but interprovincially, that’s another matter. Some world, eh?
© Trevor Lautens, 2014