Where There’s Smoke

I got a common cold in Ethiopia. Coincidentally, in my current location, Scotland, I became violently ill which prevented me from blogging for a couple days.  So if you’re worried about getting sick when you travel, don’t go anywhere.

It was the day I would give my training about proposal writing.  I awoke with a scratchy throat.  Was it due to all the chemicals sprayed around my room?  My bed was draped with a bed net to keep out malaria-carrying mosquitoes—was it drenched in the insecticide permethrin?

At breakfast, as usual, all eyes were glued to the big screen TV hanging in a corner.  Germany’s Angela Merkel was being congratulated by Dilma Roussef of Brazil and “World Cup Winner—Germany” was scrolling across the bottom of the screen.

I know next to nothing about sports, but I turned to Maki and said, “That’s strange.  Is the World Cup every year?”

“No,” she said, although she didn’t seem very sure either.  I looked around and all the guys were glued to the screen and didn’t seem to think anything was amiss.

Then, the words “2014 Winners!” scrolled across the screen.  Maki laughed her dry laugh.  “They’re showing 2014—I wonder how many times the staff has watched this.  This is what they call cable TV here.”

She asked someone to change the channel and he flipped it to the other staff favorite, America’s Stupidest Home Videos.

“Keep going,” Maki ordered, and the canteen fell silent because the next channel was live BBC news coverage of the Grenfell Tower fire.

I was the after-lunch-world-disaster-news speaker.  The staff filtered into the training room.  Maki sat in the back working and listening with one ear.

I had a circle of about 20 attendees and since the power was out and I hadn’t been able to print my handouts, I handed my laptop around to try to paint a picture of the global fund raising scene: who is the largest donor to international development in terms of total dollars (the US, by far) and by percentage of Gross Domestic Product (the UK and Scandinavian countries, by far); what kind of programming gets the most support (health, water and sanitation, agriculture, and increasingly, counter terrorism activities); who receives the most funding (giant nongovernmental organizations and corporations) and where (the Middle East is a priority right now).

I looked around and saw inscrutable faces.  They were making eye contact with me.  They weren’t sneaking peeks at their phones.  They weren’t yawning.  But they weren’t nodding or smiling or sitting forward eagerly.

The generator kicked on and I had to raise my voice to make myself heard.  My throat got scratchier and scratchier.  I had been provided with a two-liter bottle of water and I kept trying to sneak sips while talking, which was awkward.

Suddenly the cook appeared with a smoking pot of burnt coffee beans.  She walked around and the staff waved their hands over the smoke and took a deep inhale.  Everyone seemed to think this was great, so I followed their lead.  Ugh.

The hour was soon over.  No one asked any questions.  I hadn’t expected them to applaud, but it was kind of a flat ending.

“Were they bored?” I asked Maki.  “Was it too much, too basic …?”

“That’s normal,” she said.  “The staff just aren’t expressive in meetings like that.  I thought it went fine.”

That was good enough for me.  However, an hour of talking had strained my throat to the point where I now sounded like I’d smoked hundreds of cigarettes.  Which I kind of had, if you consider all the diesel fumes and toxic roach- and rat-killing chemicals and dust and coffee bean smoke I’d inhaled over the past few days.

My throat is kind of my Achilles heel, so to speak.  The previous winter I had had total laryngitis for 11 days.  I retreated to my room to avoid having to talk, but eventually had to emerge for dinner.  People were getting to know me now, and wanted to talk.  When I opened my mouth and croaked they looked puzzled—is laryngitis not a thing in Ethiopia?  Did they think I was talking this way on purpose?

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