Who Gets the Front?

May 27, 2010

“I get the front!”

“No, I do.”

“It’s my turn.”

“You had it last time.”

It’s one of the classic conversations of sibling rivalry, one that anyone who did not grow up a single child had many times. It’s a debate that older brothers usually win, not with any logic or eloquence, of course, but with size, pettiness, selfishness, and shameless pig-headedness. Younger sisters sit in the back, deprived of the instant gratification that every child seeks but with their longterm dignity still intact.

Some parents, sick of the bickering, enforce a system of taking turns. It’s a backwards lesson in a country where might almost always makes right. Kids grow up thinking the world is fair and wondering why the Democrats and Republicans don’t just take turns sitting in the Oval Office.

But why do children want to sit in the front? These days, with hyperparanoid parents and countless nitpicky child protection laws, it is simply because the front seat is forbidden to them until they are big enough to ride the biggest roller coaster at the amusement park. Back when I was growing up, it was because the front seat felt like the throne where a little boy is crowned a young man. Sitting in the front seat was a validation, proof that the adult driver found your company entertaining enough to keep you within earshot and trusted that you would refrain from changing all of the public radio presets to classic rock.

It is more interesting to wonder why adults, or at least certain populations of adults, fight for the front seat. The cars of the United Nations – white Toyota Landcruisers with blue logos – are crisscrossing the globe every day, full of the very people who might be expected to care little about status symbols, people who might be excited to bounce and shake uncomfortably through Asia’s deserts, Africa’s plains, and America’s jungles. Many are, but only if they get the front seat.

The seating arrangement in a United Nations vehicle is a clear indication of rank, much like how the starters on the basketball team sit near center court while the little used subs sit so far down the bench they are nearer paying spectators than they are their own coach. Almost invariably, the highest ranking passenger takes the front seat and the staff with the lowest grade gets stuck in the middle back seat. While the two back window seats might be inherently equal, the time of day and the position of the sun determine which is more desirable. Age, gender, and experience hardly matter; there is little instinct for either chivalry or respect for the elderly when a silverback gorilla claims its territory. Occasionally, a visibly painful infirmity elicits enough sympathy to shake up the established order. I know of one occasion when a clerk was given the front seat just because her father had died.

Sometimes, when the equatorial sun is ahead and to the left of the car, the seat behind the driver is the coolest and most comfortable. But ego rarely loses to logic, and no superior would choose to forego privileged isolation to join the huddled masses in the back. It can be gratifying to watch them sweat and burn.

Once you have experienced the empowerment of a front seat position, it feels tangibly like a professional and personal demotion to sit, once more, in the back. Like a counsellor who has lost the king’s favour, you have to wonder if your career – your life! – is being sabotaged. What will people think? It feels, in many ways, like a return to childhood. Everyone knows the kid sitting in the back really wanted to be in the front.

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May 9, 2010

Any boy or girl is willing to tightrope along the curb on the side of the road, heel to toe and arms outstretched, and any kid can do it for nearly any distance without wobbling. But if the same stretch of curb spanned the Grand Canyon, the lithe kid who skipped from one end to the other blindfolded suddenly would be terrified to take the first step. The challenge is not any greater, but the consequences of a misstep are terrifying.

Getting tested for HIV is always a little frightening, no matter how confident you are the test will come back negative. For no rational reason, getting tested in Africa – in popular conception the disease’s evil lair – is especially nerve-wracking. It is the tightrope across the Grand Canyon.

My behavior in Africa has been no different than anywhere else. It’s not exactly risk-free, but it’s also nothing that would alarm any HIV expert. The difference is that it’s sometimes hard to avoid the perception that HIV is floating on the African air or swimming gaily in Africa’s streams. The virus is so prevalent in Africa that it must be impossible to spend any length of time on the continent without bumping into it repeatedly. An infinity of chance encounters is statistically guaranteed to yield the right combination of open wounds and cold soars at some point. The math may be wrong and the reasoning irrational, but after three years of living in Kenya I couldn’t escape the thought as I ascended the stairs to a Voluntary Counseling & Testing center in downtown Nairobi.

I hadn’t planned on getting an HIV test that day, but I had been thinking about it for a few weeks. Strangely though, once I had resolved to take the next opportunity to get tested, VCTs became much harder to find. Kenya has an impressive network of them, some in absurdly remote locations where the population density would not seem to justify any public services. I remember passing one on the sand track to the west coast of Lake Turkana, in the far northwest of the country. For over an hour we had been driving through the same grey desert scrub; the only people we had seen were camel herders. Finally, we passed a village of maybe a dozen stick huts, housing for not even a hundred people. There was exactly one concrete structure in town, a VCT. Back in Nairobi, though, I had been struggling to find one; I hadn’t been actively looking, but I had been keeping my eyes open for their trademark purple and yellow signs.

The center was reminiscent of any public service office. It occupied half of the fifth floor of a downtown walkup. The stairwell was grey concrete with flickering florescent lighting, disconcertingly like a horror film set in a psychiatric hospital. Inside the VCT a slightly better effort had been made to present a warmer, more reassuring décor. There was brown carpeting, some wood paneling on the walls, and a water dispenser. The focal point of the waiting room was a coffee table surrounded by the cheap, white, plastic chairs so ubiquitous in Africa. A television in the corner played the local news.

The receptionist gave me a numbered card that became my surrogate identity: 10804. Everything was completely, rigidly anonymous. Every paper I signed, every health survey I completed, every administrative record they kept used only my number to identify me. When, later, the nurse who would administer my test introduced herself, saying “Hi, I’m Jane,” I instinctively started to reply “I’m Martin.” But before I could utter my name she cut me off, clearly a little vexed at my breach of protocol.

I paid the receptionist 100 shillings, not much more than a dollar, and I sat down to wait for my number to be called. On the coffee table were a few small, neat stacks of brochures, all printed by the government of Kenya with financial support from the United Kingdom. The subject of each brochure was “Talking About…” a particular aspect of HIV: The Facts on AIDS, Living with HIV & AIDS, AIDS with Our Children, and Antiretroviral Therapy. On the cover of each brochure was a cartoon portrait of a happy Kenyan family. As in America, where being politically correct and market savvy requires advertisers to feature a mix of white, black, Asian, and Latino Americans, the cartoon families – though all black – highlighted the diversity of Kenya’s population, from urbanites in suits to Masai cattle herders in tartan robes. One family appeared to have a Muslim father and a daughter wearing a Christian cross pendant on her necklace. In addition to the locally produced brochures, there was an outized pile of one edition – number 110, from June of 2000 – of a newsletter called WORLD – Women Organized to Respond to Life-threatening Diseases – out of Oakland, California.

Like the VCT program in general, the brochures are surprisingly well done. They are honest and blunt, which seems like exactly what they need to be if they are meant to encourage dialogue. They are carefully phrased to destigmatize HIV and AIDS, persistently reiterating that “people who have the AIDS virus can still be productive citizens of society” and people with AIDS “should be treated just like anyone else.” The brochure about living with HIV and AIDS is largely aimed at the infected person’s family: “the care and support provided by family and friends is extremely important in keeping loved ones alive and preventing anyone else from getting infected. If a person becomes sick with AIDS they should be given the same love, respect, and care as any other person in the community.” The one about talking to your children repeatedly stresses the importance of discussing the dangers of prostitution and “sugar daddies.” All of them make informative, nonjudgmental references to homosexuality, a topic rarely discussed with any candor in Africa. In a uniquely African passage, the reader is warned about the use of “uncleaned sharp objects for tattooing, circumcision, scarification, initiation, and other cutting of the body.” Anyone considering ART should first ensure access to clean drinking water.

The nurse called my number from a clipboard she had in her hand and led me to a cold, clean room that contained only a small table and two chairs in one corner, where we sat, and another smaller table in another corner. It felt very clinical, but there was a large window over my shoulder which let some warmth and light into the room. The tabletops had nothing on them; everything she needed was on her clipboard. An empty wastebasket was tucked under our table.

As the name of the place suggests, there was some counseling to be done before getting to the testing. She ran through a survey of behavioral questions about what I had and had not ever done. It was oddly like the drinking games played by many teenagers – and, embarrassingly, some adults – looking for a script to facilitate flirtation. As teenagers my friends and I had given ourselves something called a purity test that asked one hundred yes or no questions and then tallied our responses to determine how relatively pure or impure we were. At that stage in life it was hard to discern the point at which cool became weird and degenerate, but before an HIV test every affirmative answer felt a little shameful – and was followed immediately by a short, scripted lecture from the nurse.

The counseling over, she pricked my finger and milked two drops of blood from my nervous, constricted blood vessels. She smeared them on to opposite ends of the testing swab, and then she got up from the table where we were sitting and walked my incubating HIV test to the far corner of the room and put it on the table there. It looked like a scrap of old parchment alone in museum display case.

“It’ll be ready in about 15 minutes.”

She returned to her seat at the table we had been using and continued her counseling, now telling me about the type of test she was administering and the odds of a false positive or negative. I’m sure it is all fascinating information if you’re reading it online and undistracted, but at the time all I could focus on was the number of pinkish lines forming on my test swab across the room. I sat up straight and craned my neck, but it was too small and too far away for me to resolve whatever was going on with my test results. Noticing my distraction, the nurse checked her watch and said, “It’s probably ready now.”

When she brought my test back to the table, she made me read the results to her. “It’s negative,” I said.

“Yes, it is. But I think you knew it would be, didn’t you?”

I have had exactly three HIV tests in my life, in three different cities. One was given by a white American woman, one by a black American man, and one by a black African woman, and every one of them said something similar suggesting that I just don’t look or sound or act like the sort of person who would contract HIV. For all of the industry’s talk about how anyone can get the virus, every one of its practitioners I have met has made the same superficial judgment about me.

Maybe I don’t look so fearful as the kid who has to tightrope across the Grand Canyon. Maybe I’m confident enough that it’s just like balancing on the curb on the side of the road. And maybe it shows.

Or maybe, as a form of encouragement, they say that to everyone whose test results are negative. Maybe, in Africa, they don’t get to say it as often as they would like.

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Illegal Immigrants, For a Few Hours

April 29, 2010

Lonely Planet said it was an official border crossing. Michelin made it look like a road, at least. But this, these two sandy tire tracks in the savannah, with a little row of tall grass growing wildly in between, this could not be an international highway. Where are we?

There’s a police officer ahead, two of them actually. He’s waving at us, better stop. Damn, I hope he doesn’t give us a hard time. We probably do look a little suspicious crossing the border this way. He probably thinks we have a car full of gems or rhino horns.

“It is very lonely here, you know. I haven’t had a soda all day.”

Is he asking us for a soda? Is that all he wants? Maybe he can tell us where the border is.

“Yes, it’s that way. Not far, you go.”

A conspicuous and incongruous metal sign is barely visible above the tall grass on the right side of the road. Tanroads, it says at the top, like a header, and below it lists four cities and the distance to each. Are we in Tanzania? Did we cross the border? And what is a mileage sign doing here? There isn’t a single mileage sign in all of Uganda, and now here there’s one where there are no drivers to read it.

At what looks like it might be an official border a log has been laid across the road, and a sign is propped on it: Police Checkpoint. To the left of the road is a house of cards, several rectangular sheets of scrap metal stacked in a way that just barely keeps them all standing. A thick, balding, jovial man in a purple soccer jersey sits on the dusty ground outside, plucking a chicken.

Najua Englisy?

“I only speak Swahili.”


“Kyaka, you go.”


“Yes, you go.”

With our tenuous claim to legal entry we drive to Kyaka, about a hundred kilometers away if the unexpected road sign could be believed. What happens if you get arrested for sneaking across an African border? In a car you never bothered to import? Without insurance? Can’t be good, can it?

The only people at the immigration office in Kyaka are a very large, underdressed housewife and what are presumably the children she and the absent immigration officer have parented. We sit in her living room and watch a Mexican telenovella while she phones her husband for us. She passes her phone.

“You come Monday. I am at the market.”

But we are illegal – shit, can I say that to him? that we’re illegal? – but we just crossed the border and we need to buy our visas.

“I am coming.”

In his office, which was separate from his living room, he is friendly but suspicious of our irregular movement.

“You must drive to the official border.”

But it’s an hour away, and we’d be illegal the whole way. The car doesn’t have insurance. What if the police stop us?

“I can’t stamp you in until Uganda stamps you out.”

But now that we’re here we can’t get out of Tanzania until you stamp us into Tanzania. They won’t let us back across the border. It was an argument we would win, though he quickly refuses when we ask for a multiple entry visa. Suspicious in his own way, he does not issue a receipt for the money we give him for our visas.

“You have seven days.”

Having legalized ourselves, we have to import the car. The nearest office doesn’t have the right papers – but does have a large heap of delicious dried pineapple sitting on the dirty counter – so we have to drive to another one, all the way back to the official border crossing that we talked the immigration officer out of sending us to. We are fearful that every police officer along the way might notice our illegal, uninsured car. We pass through several roadblocks, but no one stops us.

The customs officer requires a copy of the car’s registration, and the nearest copier is in Uganda. After struggling to get our visas in Tanzania, we now sneak down an alleyway back into Uganda, just to use the copy machine. Back at the customs office in Tanzania, the paperwork is perfunctory. As we are leaving we ask where to get the car insured.

“Why do you want to do that?”

What if the police stop us?

“What is this sticker here?”

Our insurance in Kenya.

“You just point to this one and you tell the police it is for Tanzania. They cannot read.”

Are you joking? Is he joking? We chuckle in a way meant to show we are either laughing with him at the absurdity of a government official suggesting we break the law or laughing with him at the idiots over in the police department, whichever one he means.

“You just look very serious. You don’t laugh, you look serious. They will let you go.”

We drove away. Do you think he’s phoning his police buddies at the next roadblock to tell them to be looking for a white couple in a Suzuki without insurance?

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