The sad truth is that the color of my skin gives me great privilege. (Oh wait! I’ve mentioned this a few hundred times before! It keeps happening, though, you see. It doesn’t just up and go away.)
My colleague’s little son is sick. My colleague paid for a boat to go up the river and bring him here, and he asked my other colleague to drive over to the river to pick him up this morning. I told him I’d be happy to do the training he had scheduled today so that he could go to the hospital with his son and he said, “Actually, I want you to come to the hospital with me. The line is too long and they will help us faster if you are there. They don’t have a system for urgent cases.”
I cringed. I didn’t want to go. I didn’t want to use my nationality and the color of my skin to cut ahead of the huge crowd of worried mothers cradling their sick children. They don’t all have a kawadja who knows the doctors who they can bring with them to get prompt attention. At the same time, I was worried about his son. Every day for the last three or four days, we have heard reports of him curled up crying in pain, and we saw his father’s worry. They were worried about his appendix. I was worried about his appendix. And I didn’t know how to say no, or if I should say no.
I really didn’t know what was the right thing to do. I still don’t.
In the end, I went. I went, and I went over to the office of the doctors and I said, “I’m here with my colleague and his son. His son is sick and the clinic where they went said it might be his appendix. I don’t know what the system is, and I don’t want to cut in line, but I’m worried about him.”
The first question they asked was, “Is your colleague an expat or a national staff?”
Does that make it better that I went, because they obviously wouldn’t prioritize this little boy who might need emergency surgery if I wasn’t there? Does it make it worse, because all these very sick children should get equal attention, or better yet, attention based on the severity of their illness?
“National.” I said, and I stared them down, and dared them to tell me that this made his son less important.
They told me to find the nice US American doctor who has been helping me with my (apparently unsolvable) stomach problem. He was out front and could prioritize people if they needed immediate attention. I found him and explained, “I don’t want to misuse the fact that I’m an expat, but I’m worried about my colleague’s son.” He came and looked at the little boy, and he poked around on his tummy and then he sent us to Room 4, to Doctor Somebody.
My colleague went to get his son weighed and registered, and I went to Room 4. I stood outside the door, awkwardly, in front of the huge crowd of worried mothers cradling their sick children. I tried to stand to the side, inconspicuously, but Doctor Somebody called out “Kawadja! Kawadja!” and I peeked in. “It’s just a greeting,” he said, a kawadja himself. I explained myself again. After the two patients waiting in his room, he took my colleague’s son and set him up on a table. He talked to the father and poked at the little stomach.
Nothing was enlarged: not liver, not spleen, not appendix. He ordered the basic tests (malaria and a stool sample) and gave him Panadol and oral rehydration salts. Hopefully, it is nothing serious.
Which only makes me feel more guilty for cutting to the front of the line while sicker children with no advocate wait at the back of the line, getting sicker.
You want to know the truth? When I go to that hospital, I go straight to the nice US American doctor. I do not pass go, and I do not collect $200. I go at the end of the day, when the line has died down, but I still go straight in. So does my Sudanese colleague from near Elsewhere. Part of this is based on acquaintance – I know the American doctors because they are the only other Americans in town, he knows the Kenyans and Ugandans because he grew up in
Part of it, though, is based on the privilege of my white skin. I stand out, and I look like the surgeon and the OB-GYN and the medical director, and that gets attention. I know from experience that even if I tried to sit in the line, I would be noticed and rushed to the front. I am obviously too rich and important to sit in line, “obviously” because of my skin color.
In fact, I do have things I should be doing. But so does a mother whose children depend on her to feed them. Neither of us is paying for this service, and I shouldn’t get better service because of who I am and her child worse service because of who she is.
There are a thousand convoluted issues here: there is race, and nationality, and power, and money, and education, and culture. I don’t know how to fix it. I don’t even know how to start. Sometimes it seems that trying to not stand out – to wait in line, to follow the system – only makes things worse, as attention is drawn to me, as I’m summoned to the front, as I protest.
But something is wrong. Maybe everything.