Monday, May 14, 2012

Mayhem after Midnight

It is incredibly hard to find time to write, despite my best intentions and the numerous adventures that occur on a regular basis, which I promise myself I will commit to paper. Or keyboard. In my defense, I am getting over a recent bought of influenza, followed closely by my first pneumonia. One of the sequelae of working in a place that does not have a lot of soap or hand sanitizer, where I spend my time in an over-crowded hospital ward, filled with coughing, vomiting, sweating, and urinating children, is that I am exposed to a variety of illnesses.  In spite of my best efforts, I have found myself almost constantly ill with some form of gastrointestinal or respiratory illness from the month we arrived.  Our lives are so busy and so filled with children and work that each illness seems to take forever to recover from.  My exercise tolerance has plummeted; my energy level has hit rock-bottom. It doesn’t help that no matter how hard we try, Dave and I are unable to get a good night’s sleep.  Sleep has become the Holy Grail in our lives.  So desperate are we for a night of uninterrupted slumber, that we stay in a hotel once a month in order to catch up on our REMs (we call it “date-night”, and pretend that we do grown-up things like go out to dinner, but no parent would be shocked that the prospect of sleep is sometimes more exciting to us than that of romance).
Last month ended with a safari trip to Zambia, with my good friend Tamika (another blog entry I intend to write), where our entourage passed influenza from one to the other, for the duration of the very expensive trip. I had it first, and recovered pretty quickly, but then started a week in the wards when we returned home, and my health rapidly deteriorated.  I did not realize that the malaise and cough and chest pain that I was developing was pneumonia until I came home from my weekly ER shift with a fever.  The next day at work I had a nurse in the clinic give me IV Ceftriaxone, and I went home that afternoon, resolved to get a restful night’s sleep.  I slugged a shot of a magical tonic that Dave bought, over-the-counter, for cough.  A potent combination of Benadryl and Codeine, I think it’s mechanism of action is pure sedation, with possible suppression of the respiratory drive.  (No FDA here- it has children’s dosing on the label down to 2 years old).  I chased this with a handful of Ibuprofen, put soft jammies on, and curled up in my bed with my earplugs in.  I drifted off into peaceful sleep.  To give you some indication of the recent state of my subconscious:  I was having a delightful dream about grocery shopping in a magical, air-conditioned supermarket, with shelves actually full of food, and aisles bursting with variety and color.  In this idyllic wonderland (which could have been any store in the US), I was able to buy every ingredient I needed for dinner in one place, and was even given choices between different brands for many items.
Suddenly, a shrill, screaming sound filled the air, and I was startled awake.  Dave sat up in bed next to me.
“What is that?”
The sound was incredibly loud, and appeared to be coming from our attic crawl-space.  We quickly determined that it had to be our alarm system going off.  Here in Lilongwe, there is not really a 911 that can be called.  The government is so broke that if you call the emergency number and ask for help, they ask you to please send someone to pick them up. This is in a country where people are desperate for “Forex”, or American dollars, and where being an Azungu means being obviously, noticeably different and presumably well-off.  Therefore many foreigners, including ourselves, opt to hire local security companies to protect them.  Our apartment complex has a big metal gate and 24 hour guards, and we have a panic-button installed in our house.  It looks like a doorbell, is in the corners of several rooms and the hallways, and if pushed will summon a crew of goons who show up in full-battle gear with helmets and batons to fight whatever bad guys might be hassling you.
Dave pushed the mosquito net aside and stumbled over the children, who had camped out on our floor for “Family Night”, pulling pants and a shirt on and heading for the door.  Eamonn sat up as he left the bedroom.
“What’s that noise, mom?” he asked groggily.   Determined to go back to my grocery store paradise, and committed to my night’s sleep, I refused to allow myself to completely regain consciousness.
“It’s just the alarm system going crazy. Daddy will fix it. Go back to sleep.” 
But a few minutes passed and the shrill sound continued unabated.  Aine and Malawi sat up, and Aine (who has been going through a “sensitive” phase) immediately began to hyperventilate and cry in panic.  Malawi, who does whatever her sister does, followed suit.  Amid the escalating wails of my children I went outside to find Dave, hunched over the computer, desperately trying to find the number of our security company.  I looked at the time: 3:45 am.  Although we were unsuccessful in our search for the number I was not especially worried, as I was expecting that the goons would arrive momentarily in response to the alarm.  15 minutes passed, during which time both my anxiety and that of my near-frantic children increased, as no security team arrived and no number was found and the deafening siren sound continued. The twins began to cry from their room.  My friend Tamika came in from the guest room, rubbing her eyes.  We began to get texts from the neighbors, making sure we were alright.  And still, the horrible screeching sound persisted.  Unsure why the goon squad had not come, and unable to contact the company by phone, we pushed the alarm button in the hallway repeatedly, while trying to maintain a forced cheerfulness to soothe our wailing girls.
I took the babies out of their cribs and changed them, as Dave climbed onto a chair and tried to reach the system in the crawl space above our second floor.  Using a broom handle, he attempted to rip the wires from the wall.  The electricity went out.  The piercing noise persisted. The big kids continued crying as the babies crawled merrily around the living room, apparently awake for the day and ready for business.  It was now about 5 am. 
Suddenly, a covered vehicle with about 10 men dressed in combat gear, with helmets and batons, arrived at our door, ready to fight.  They traipsed into our house in procession and examined the situation. Several phone calls were made to the home office (using our phone, because none of our hired thugs had a functional phone). Dave demanded that a technician be sent immediately, as the sound was unbearable, and we were all in need of sleep. Further discussions ensued until, at about 5:30 am, we were told by the technician in the home office that we did not have an alarm with sound.  Ours was a silent alarm.  My genius husband investigated further, after apologetically dismissing our personal army and requesting that the company send someone during the week to repair the system we had unwittingly destroyed with our broom, and discovered that our plumbing system was responsible for the caucophony.  The pressure in the pipes had built to such a point that it was causing them to vibrate against one another, resulting in the horrific sound.  The solution, after 2 hours of sleeplessness and much distress, was simply to run the water.  He left a faucet running (a phenomenon which usually causes me much angst), we gave the children some Melatonin and the babies a bottle, and we all went back to bed.
I’m not sure what the “moral” of this story is…perhaps it is that I am destined to never have a good night’s sleep.  Or maybe it is that sometimes life here is surreal.  As I watched the crew of armed guards track mud from their combat boots on my carpeted stairs, a twin on each of my hips at the crack of dawn, it occurred to me, once again, that life in Malawi is never, ever boring. It is unpredictable, frustrating, rewarding, heartbreaking, and challenging, but it is never boring.