Saturday, December 31, 2005

Right Turn from Gao

As we turn right from the main road of Gao onto a track of dried mud, our Jeep sends a group of Fulani herdsmen and their goats scattering. Our driver isn't going very fast though, due to the potholes, and the herdsmen regroup around our vehicle, staring at the two very pink-skinned women in the back. Greetings fly back and forth through the hot air.

I don't understand the language, but I suspect that similar to the Dogon greetings, that not only we, but also our mothers, fathers, siblings, children, and aunts and uncles are being greeted at this very moment. One man lifts up his indigo boubou to show us a septic green wound on his leg. I find some antiseptic cream from Walgreen's in my backpack and hand it to him, hoping it will help forestall gangrene.

Mali is one of the world's poorest countries. In CARE's 2001 Human Development Report's list, Mali is ranked 153rd among 162 countries listed. Life expectancy is 45 years, and infant mortality is 119 out of 1000 live births. By age five, mortality rises to 231 children out of those 1000 live births. That means that more than 2 out of 10 children do not survive past age five.

Given the lack of medical care out here in the bush, it's easy to see why.

My first month in Ghana, I fell sick with a mysterious illness that started with what felt like a swollen pimple under one arm, which I noticed while we were on a minivan ride to Cape Coast. I didn't really pay attention then, because of our van speeding past mud huts with thatch roofs lining the palm-fringed coast, and the radio program talking about Osama bin Laden paying for bridges and hospitals in poor areas of Africa. At Elmina Castle, site of a former slave fort, I stood in dungeons where captive Africans scratched the walls trying to escape, before exiting the Door of No Return to board cross-Atlantic ships, never to see their homeland again.

In a few days I felt incredibly weak, like my blood was running with lead. All the glands above my waist swelled. I had to stop working. Stophe, our country director, took me to get a malaria test, which it what you always did when you had a fever in Accra. The test was negative.

I began looking into getting Medevac'ed and thinking about what I would do if I only had a little time left. Then my fever got higher and soon I couldn't sit up, or think much anymore. It got to the point where Auntie Rose, the Geekcorp housekeeper, came in my room and said prayers over me that sounded like speaking in tongues.

The doctor at Akai House in Accra, who treated all the embassy people, thought it could be mono. A week later the blood test results for mononucleosis were negative. I lay in bed, weaker, helpless, unable to raise my head. It took several blood tests for my doctor to finally diagnose a bacterial blood infection, based on a very high proportion of white blood cells. Even then there was no test to determine exactly what the bacteria was, but the doctor took a guess that it was staph and luckily, his (quite pricey) prescription of amoxycillin worked. And luckily we had the Pillbox Pharmacy, which even had air conditioning, right there in Osu. The medicine as well as doctor's visits would have been too expensive for many Africans.

As we leave Gao for the bush beyond, our driver flashes a cheery smile to the Fulani herdsmen, and then guns the engine, revving the Jeep further away from the town, out toward the range of the great nomadic elephants of Gourma.

On the Path to the Pachyderms -- Gao, Mali 2001

Our elephant guide Amadou is tall, dark, elegant, and speaks only French. He smokes in great kinetic waves of his arm, and chats animatedly to our driver. Large aviator sunglasses with a pink-and-black gradient cover Amadou's lined eyes. He has been leading people to the desert elephants in Mali for as long as he can remember, and seems as excited today (January 2001) as if it were his first time.

It will be indeed exciting, and lucky, for us to sight any elephants today.

As recently as the late 70's, thousands of elephants still roamed in West Africa, but now, due to the spread of desert and humans, it is rare to find a group of more than 100 in a particular area. This group of 350 elephants remaining in this harsh landscape, the Gourma region, are the largest tribe left. Their migration path of 450 kilometers (280 miles) which spans Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger, is larger than any other elephants, and they must be able to pinpoint where to find their next source of water, or they would not survive. This most northern group of elephants are expert at finding available water sources and can actually hear rain from a great distance. They live harmoniously with the local nomadic populations of Fulani and Tuaregs, who follow the elephants to find water themselves. Recent research has proven the Gourma elephants to be a genetically distinct group, who have specifically evolved to survive a tough environment.

Kate and I sit in the back seat, our rear ends acting as shock absorbers. I wish I had taken my high school French class more seriously, but find hypnotizing the haze of smoke and trilled syllables that I can almost, but not quite, understand. As we turn right from the main road of Gao onto a muddy, rutted track, we are not quite sure where we were going, or how long it will take.

But we are thrilled to have made it this far, to the edge of the Sahara, on our way (we hope) to find the Sahelian elephants we have been seeking.