My favourite of Gary’s Africa stories is the one with the circle of guys with semi-automatic guns trying to extort bribes from him, and him getting away with promising them syphilis treatment.
Or, the one where he gets brought into the funeral of a woman who died during childbirth just moments before, and begins resuscitating her. During the funeral.
Ritual wailing + chest compressions = his friend saying “You white guys. You just don’t know when to quit”.
Gary’s favourite Africa story is the one about belly button tetanus in babies. It's a much less exciting story, although he is right that it offers valuable lessons regarding social determinants of health. But, as a story, it's not awesome.
For one thing, it starts with babies coming in, dying, one after the other. And with Gary doing everything he can to help them. And failing. Every single time. It starts with Gary broken hearted, and feeling powerless.
And then he talks to his nurse—who is local—and asks for advice. His nurse points out that all the sick babies are coming from the same region.
So they pack up the motorbike, and drive for a full day (to go about a kilometre and a half, because that’s how travel works in Congo), and they show up in that community. They hang out and sing songs and have a meal, and Gary is fed goat testicles (which is supposed to be an honour) and he has to figure out how to sneak them to the dog. (This is the boys’ favourite part of the story).
And then, Gary and the nurse learn that the families of the region have just started a new practice of putting cow dung on babies’ umbilical cord stumps, to make them fall off faster (a practice they learned form other, presumably less tetanus-ey areas where it has worked fine for quite some time). So Gary explains patiently about microbes, and... nobody believes him. It is kinda far fetched, really.
But... the nice doctor who travelled all this long way to eat with them asked them nicely. So they stopped with the cow dung, and then the tetanus stopped. Which Gary saw as proof of microbes, and they saw as proof that it is good to listen to nice people. Especially if you heard that the nice person in question breathed on a dead woman one time and she came back to life.
At first, I thought this story was about Gary The Hero, whose superior knowledge of western medicine saved the uneducated Africans.
Then, I thought it was a story about Upstream Thinking The Hero, and how important it is to see past individual cases to the systemic causes.
Then, I realized it was a story about the African Nurse The Hero, and how he could see things Gary couldn’t. How he realized that all the deaths came from the same region, and knew a field trip was needed.
Then, I realized it was a story about Community The Hero, and how when you eat with people and sing with them and listen to their stories, they believe in you and you can work together.
Then, I realized that stories are never about only one thing.
Years later, I came across Gary in the middle of the night, head in his hands, going over the chart of a patient. As he went through the pages, he told me that he was seeing this same pattern over and over again. Indigenous patients were dying of things (in this case, post operative sepsis) that should not be so lethal. He noticed other things, too—how Indigenous patients tended not to ask questions during office visits. How they wouldn’t meet his eyes, or disagree with him about any part of their care plan.
“Our medical system is not serving these people, and I don’t know why.” Gary told me.
Maybe because of his experience in Africa, Gary knows when to look for help. He began building partnerships with Indigenous leaders, knowing that they could see things he couldn’t see. Unlike white partnerships, Indigenous partnerships are a whole family thing, which means I began building partnerships, too. Which I loved, but which was a little unfortunate for Gary because I am a walking intercultural liability. I am terrible at things like sitting properly at a sweat or knowing what to do when presented with gifts or knowing when to shut the heck up. And, when I see injustice, I immediately want to spring into action and thunder in and make up for my privilege by being The Most Perfect White Ally In The History Of Time. Which I’m pretty sure is annoying and exhausting to everyone around me.
I remember telling Fulgence about one of my screw ups, and him saying: “In my experience, white people build trust by exchanging information and by proving competence to each other. Indigenous Africans—and I suspect Indigenous people here, too—do not build trust in the same way. Showing up, showing up consistently, and listening well... these things count a lot. You don't have to do everything right."
I thought of this, standing in the cold in the rally a few days ago. Watching Colten's sister stare out at the crowd, crying. She said "Thank you for being here". And then she took a deep breath and said "Thank you for being here so quickly."
It's not about showing up well, not always. It's about showing up. and listening. And, I have learned from Gary, it's about relying on people who can see what you can't.
Summer holidays up in Northern Saskatchewan as a kid... That's was when I first learned that there are things I can’t see. The Indigenous kids from the reserve would point at inanimate bushes and say “see the rabbit?”. And I would say no, and they’d all look at each other like “Seriously? She can’t see it?”.
Eventually I realized that they were having fun at my expense, and there was nothing in the bush. So I yelled at them for teasing me and lying. This scared the nothing-in-the-bush and it leapt out and nearly knocked me over in it’s hurry to get out of there. So then I said sorry for yelling, and they shrugged, like “It’s okay—we expect white people not to see animals in bushes. It’s kind of their thing.”
As an adult, I puzzled along with Gary as to why Indigenous patients have worse outcomes on several things like sepsis—a condition that is greatly effected by how soon into the illness you get seen by a doctor. I puzzled and puzzled, until I walked into St. Paul’s Hospital alongside an Indigenous friend, and he paused and shook himself. He had the posture of someone who’d just seen something out of the corner of his eye that he knew wasn’t real--but was a scary anyway. He had the facial expression of someone reminding themselves that are safe.
“This place smells like a residential school.” He said.
You know how you smell cinnamon buns like grandma used to make and in an instant you’re back at her kitchen table?
In a moment, I saw what it takes for my friend to walk into the ER. How good his reason (or bad his sickness) really has to be. How much extra pain would be heaped onto that existing trauma if, say, a triage nurse was dismissive. Or a doctor was overly authoritative. I saw how these barriers—some inherited, and some currently under construction—mean that my friend does not have access to heath care in the same way that I do. How a doctor in a suit is a uniform that says trustworthy to me, and that says white institution to him. How even if that doctor treats both of us identically, we are not getting access to the same medical treatment.
My friend lent me his eyes, to see what I couldn’t see on my own.
Watching Canada’s response to the acquittal of Gerald Stanley, I think about more than Colten Boushie. I think of all the systemic deaths. Kids left behind in schools that don’t see them. Patients that would have had better outcomes with more culturally sensitive care. Missing and murdered Indigenous women. The justice system as a whole--a story that includes but is not limited to this most recent trial.
Every death is a tragedy.
Our choice now is whether we choose to make those deaths mean something. Whether we choose to listen to the people who can see what we can’t. Whether we choose to acknowledge the pattern that they're telling us is there. In education systems, in health care systems, in justice--in all of the systems that make up our society.
What matters is whether we choose to get on the motor bike and go to the place and listen to the stories, and learn to see the things we can’t see yet.
Or whether we yell that the rabbit isn't there.
But we are not being asked by Indigenous people to rage, or to apologize. We are being asked to pay attention, listen, and learn to see differently.
Liked this post? Check out the post, We Are All Treaty Parents, which is about similar themes but has a bit more humour.