Went to the U.S. embassy yesterday to meet some people, for my security briefing, and to get the badge that allows me to check for mail, use the gym, and hang out at general events. I'm officially a Fulbrighter now.
There was nothing too remarkable about it, just the usual multiple layers of security plus vast bureaucracy and promotion of certain forms of power. While the machinery and larger global politics is certainly ripe for criticism (and which has been done so many times before), everyone I met there, both the Americans and the Ivorian national staff, were all helpful and welcoming. My fellowship is paid for by the U.S. government for international cultural exchange, and I am quite aware of the privileges that I personally have and that I also am able to exercise because of my citizenship.
But again, though my research focus is not health care, it's that topic that seems to attract my attention. I was given a health packet from the embassy clinic, mostly so I could know the recommended local doctors and hospitals (and the French versions of medications was a bonus). Much of the packet is devoted toward preventative medicine, and the HIV & Sexually Transmitted Diseases section is a disaster – I don't know if it was developed locally or copied from similar packets in the rest of sub-Saharan Africa, but the language is so problematic when talking about local populations.
"Cote d'Ivoire, like the rest of sub-Saharan Africa, is a hotbed of HIV infections; 3.9% adult HIV prevalence." Hotbed? While this rate is higher than the U.S., it's not anywhere close to the prevalence in a number of other countries in southern Africa. The date for this statistic is 2008, and the current UNAIDS estimate is lower, at 2.7%, both of which are down even further from 7% in 2003 and 13% prior to the first war. And the "hotbed" language simply serves to reinforce the "othering" of Africa as a diseased place.
"The HIV prevalence among local prostitutes, and presumably amongst promiscuous natives [emphasis mine] who frequent late-night clubs, is 50%. That means there is a 1 out of 2 chance that the person you 'pick-up' in a bar is infected with HIV!" Wut? Let's allow that the 50% figure is accurate for prostitution (I couldn't find a recent source but note previous stats), how on earth can it be extrapolated to "promiscuous natives"? So much sex-shaming and racial/national segregation and repeated othering language used in a public health message. And the cute little exclamation point at the end, that you really only have yourself to blame.
I would encourage a great deal more sensitivity and less fear-mongering toward the local populations. Give the stats, give the health precautions (as done for malaria and diarrhea), but keep the ugly, moralizing, whiff-of-superiority tone out of it.
Here’s an image of my Ebola form when I arrived back in Cote d’Ivoire from Senegal. It’s in English. Super for me, but I’m going to assume that a number of people who got off that plane were not proficient. Why was it not available in French? (Because it’s a Kenya Airways flight, where the flight crew spoke only limited French?)
And again, the giant glob of hand sanitizer, which, seriously, I’m glad to have after germ planes. And there’s sanitizer in lots of public spaces around. I’m thinking about the politics of this versus clean water and hand-washing, but at least in airports, I’m glad for the glob.
Saw this on my way from hotel to the airport, after the taxi's overheated radiator and the fender-bender with a mini-bus. I also saw a motor-scooter with probably 30 live chickens strung up by their feet, looking wary but knowing about their futures, but I couldn't get a photo.
As a side note, Weebly is "banned" in Senegal, where I am now, and who knows yet about Cote d'Ivoire. Updating through a proxy server, but this is pretty irritating.
After walking off the plane in Abidjan, just after I got a whiff of West Africa (ocean, humidity, diesel, and who knows what else), we went through a quick Ebola test. Our skin temperature was quickly taken, and we were all given two generous pumps of hand sanitizer. The 50-ish French man ahead of me joked about having Ebola and coughed on the guy taking our temperature. I hope a malaria mosquito bit him.
We were not, however, given a card about our travels or asked if we have been in a place where Ebola has been found, maybe because we walked off a plane from France. Technically, my country does have Ebola cases …
I shared a ride from the airport with two USAID workers who were very nice, but one was saying that if Ebola cases are discovered in Cote d’Ivoire, they would probably start requesting that Americans leave. (Because the Fulbright is sponsored by the U.S. State Department, I’m involved a bit with the embassy, though I’m not a U.S. employee, and I pretty much am on my own.)
I explained about the clinics set up along the border with Liberia and Guinea and how I think the government is somewhat prepared to contain if an outbreak does cross the border. She thought that anyone with Ebola would be brought to the capital for treatment – but I just can’t think that’s true. For one, if the government has set up treatment clinics near the border, it’s as much to prevent spread of the virus as it is to treat the people with it. Also, someone showing symptoms of Ebola is probably too sick to be transported on back-country roads to the capital.
But then I realized I was lecturing again and just said that I didn’t really know, that maybe the embassy briefing would tell them differently. Because nobody likes a pedant.
Travel and research notes
Fieldwork and travel in Côte d'Ivoire, Senegal, Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Mali, as well as Burkina Faso, Morocco, Tanzania, South Africa, and wherever else I end up. Plus occasional research-related thoughts.