Thursday, June 10, 2010


Way back in December (lo those many years ago), through a series of twisting happenstances, it was assigned to me out of my group of acquaintances to go search the city’s pharmacies for a pregnancy test for a Congolese woman we knew who might have malaria but who might also be carrying a child – and who needed to know about the latter before starting the fetus-damaging treatment for the former. It was all melodramatic and secret but it needed to be done.

The second pharmacy (the first had been gated & padlocked) that my driver drove me to was a small dark room, white painted crumbling concrete walls, stacks of small cardboard boxes spilling pills. I held my breath and walked in and looked up – and there! There was a woman behind the counter. I smiled with relief. I had no idea how to say “pregnancy test” in French, much less Kiswahili, and was dreading playing the charades game with a man.

I took a breath and searched deep into the reservoir of the middle frontal gyrus of my brain for French. "Mon ami, elle pense qu’il y a (peut- être) un bébé dans son estomac, mais – d’accord, elle ne sait pas. Et… elle voudrait savoir."

Blank stare. I continued. "Avez-vous un examen? Ou, je ne sais rien, avez-vous quelque chose l’aider?"

The woman fished around in a big box filled with littler pill boxes and emerged holding up a sheet of birth control pills.

"Oh! Non… il est trop tard pour ca," I said.

At which point the woman’s blank stare slowly suddenly turned cruel and she yelled and shooed me out of her shop. Maybe she was frustrated with my inability to be articulate. Maybe she thought I was asking for mifepristone or Plan B. Whatever my issues were, she wanted no part in sorting them out. I fled.

My patient driver, asking no questions except whether he couldn’t accompany me into the pharmacy to help (“Oh God, no!” I gasped) drove us to a third pharmacy.

Of course, of course, I enter the third pharmacy, and – it’s all men. Men everyone. Two men behind the counter. Three men lounging in front of it. If we were in Banjul, they’d have been drinking attaya and gossiping. In Kitgum, they’d have had waragi. In Cairo, they’d have been smoking shisha and playing backgammon with bottle caps. Outside of Pittsburgh, they’d have had beers and there'd've been sliced off heads of dead deer decorating the walls. At their gaze, and envisioning what I had to ask them, I wanted to melt into a puddle on the ground, feeling wicked like the witch of the west.

And so what happened? They couldn’t have been nicer. They played along with my game of charades, smiling kindly – until suddenly, Essai de grossesse! exclaimed one of the men like he was in a bingo parlor and had just gotten all four corners marked off. He laughed. His friends grinned. I blushed. I smiled. I purchased two pregnancy tests for two dollars and quit the shop, followed by waves and winks.

But in the car – in the car I leaned my forehead against the cool glass of the window (rolled up halfway as dictated by security rules) and I felt alone. I’d been so happy to see the woman in the first shop. I’d thought – French? Who cares! Swahili? No problem! English? Who needs it! – I’d thought the woman and I would naturally speak the same language of womanhood. Instead, it was the men who were generous. Generous to my broken sentences, to my made-up sign-language, to my embarrassment. Maybe that one specific woman whom I met was having one very specifically bad day, or had a terrible headache. Maybe those men, who were probably fathers, husbands, brothers, were just exceptionally nice human beings. It’s quite possible. But this wasn’t a singular circumstance. There have been many times – before then, since then – where I’ve entered a street, a government building, a coffee shop, and it is the men who help me and the women who stare.

Perhaps it is because, if you are a man, you are more used to being listened to yourself when you speak. You have more confidence in your own ability to communicate. Perhaps that gives some men a little extra patience when it comes to attempting to comprehend the communiqué of a stranger. It's more complicated than just that, I know. But maybe that is part of it.


Anonymous said...

Wow the universe is so strange. I had a similar "kind old man" experience yesterday and have been composing a blog post about it my head ever since. I will write it when I get time. Yours post was very nice, as always.
Linda (@meowtree)

Rachel said...

Can't wait to read yours, Linda!!! :o)

Anonymous said...

I always get this in Liberia and Ghana and have discovered after living there for years is that the men love/interested in women and are ready to help and the women seem to look at me as competition or with envy or expect more from me - this is generalizing of course - but happens over and over and more so in two cents.