I am currently involved in an interesting project that seems to be the answer to Sudan’s health problems. The ministry of health has decided to conduct a complete overhaul of the current healthcare system, and to choose a state in which to run a sort of pilot for the reform initiative. The Red Sea State, home to Port Sudan, was chosen for several reasons, and negotiations resulted in the writing of a proposal and the kick off of the project. I took over the work from Ahmed and am now sort of in-charge of the technical work in the institute that I currently work in.
This post is not about the reform initiative, although that in itself is quite an interesting topic and one that gives us hope for the future of health in the country. Past experience has showed us that not everything we are promised actually happens, but let us for once be optimistic. The post is about my visit to Port Sudan, and my first experience of a government freebie.
|Nice hotel, but the napkins were burnt and the room service only once every 2 days|
I now know that I wasn’t really supposed to be included in this visit. It was mainly the undersecretary for the ministry of health (a very important person in the ministry, second to the minister himself), the director of primary health care in the ministry (also a very important person in the ministry), the consultant to the public health institute (my boss and also a VERY important person in the NCP and the ministry), a representative from the national health insurance fund (a not so very important person as a person, but a very important person for what he represents), and finally director of emergencies in the ministry (a very important person in the ministry, and the daughter and granddaughter of 2 major chiefs in Port Sudan and more or less related to the entire state). And then there was me. A not important person at all, who doesn’t really represent anyone, whose name no one knows (except for my boss and recently the head of emergencies), who isn’t related to anyone in the state, and who is too skinny and too short to stand out in the crowd of big people I was engulfed in for most of the trip. I had known and planned for this trip for the past 7 months as the whole reform initiative is something I am quite interested in, as well as the fact that I had planned to carry out my masters dissertation in one of the reform areas. However, the afternoon of the travel, I came to the ministry for a final meeting and was approached by a guy with a grey moustache, asked if I was Reem, informed that there was ‘some confusion’ with the travel arrangements, and given the general idea that I was not cleared for travel. After the meeting with my boss I informed him of what I had been told, and he immediately got up and left the room, and came back a couple of minutes later to inform me that indeed there had been ‘some confusion’ and that he had cleared things up.
The only interesting thing about the flight was that it was my first experience with flying first class. Yes, the plane was tiny, the seats and services were basically economy with bigger arm rests, and I was too scared of us falling out of the sky the entire length of the flight to appreciate this fact, but still, the fact remains that I had finally flown first class. So there.
We were received by a group of important looking people who would be our escorts for the entire stay in Port Sudan. I later came to know their identities as the state director of health (equal to undersecretary), the director of the health insurance fund in the state, the state minister of health (who later met us at the hotel), the director of preventive medicine (a short chubby lady) and a few other people. We chilled in the VIP lounge and were then whisked away in big shaded cars to the Hilton, where we were received by the state minister of health himself. It was quite an affair, and the Hilton was very nice and bright, and I felt a surge of pride in the fact that it was my aunt who had designed it. There was an issue with the room as the first one we were taken up to had some maintenance work but the second one was fine. We dropped off our bags and were whisked away once again to a dinner invitation. I was distressed. I had brought an outfit along just for the dinner, and I didn’t want to go in the plain clothes I had worn for the trip, but there was no time to change. However, when I saw the club where the dinner was held, I didn’t feel so bad. And when I saw the dinner, I was downright happy I hadn’t wasted my time and changed into anything fancy. The dinner was foul, eggs, liver and chicken. We all shared plates and bread and it was not fancy at all.
Anyway. Back in the hotel lobby, the state director of health walked up to me with an unpleasant look on his face.
I didn’t know who this person was and didn’t like the look on his face. I couldn’t tell if he smelled something bad or had an itchy nose or if that was just the look he carried around on his face. He then informed me that he had received a call that afternoon from the ministry’s office that a 6th person who had not been previously included, was now included in the trip. A person named Reem. Reem mino?
‘Who knows?’ was the answer he had gotten. Which was why he was wondering who I was and why I had been included in the trip. Do I have a presentation as well? Yes, I said. At this point I wonder why I hadn’t asked him who he was and what business was it of his who I was, but I didn’t. Anyway, this guy was like a nail in my eye for the entire trip. He continuously carried that look of disdain on his face, was always in my way, always blocked me at the door, and kept making stupid comments on things like when I took pictures. When me and the lady with me were about to enter a room, he would stand to the side and say ‘ladeez ferist’ to let the other lady pass, but then step in front of me and walk in ahead. When we were shown around the new renal centre and were standing in a small backyard with nothing more than pipes and back windows, he would turn to me and tell me I could take a picture if I want, since that’s what I do, isn’t it? When we were introduced to an official, I would be left out. On the day of the presentation and 20 minutes before we were to meet the wali, he kept me back to download mine and everyone else’s presentations on his flash disk, then left. By the time I had finished and picked up all my things, he had disappeared. And so had everyone else. I found myself standing on an empty street in front of the building, while he and everyone else had gotten in the cars and driven off to the wali’s office, the most important man in the state and the main reason of our whole visit. I was livid. I was so upset I almost cried. I called my boss and in my distress I couldn’t even tell him off for leaving me behind, but just told him that I could just stay behind if it didn’t matter that much. Anyway, he called someone who came rushing down and brought a car that drove me to the wali’s office. I then joined everyone in the waiting room, and found the guy sitting in the middle of crowd, looking as smug as a bug in a rug. I gave him the dirtiest look I could but he didn’t even look at me. Eventually we were called in to see the wali, and entered a huge office with spot lights and plants and blinds, in front of which sat one of the most interesting men I have met. Again, I was kept out of the introductions, and sat on a chair at the end of the office, seething and cursing the man and everyone on his team who were going out of their way to treat me like the insect that I felt like. Not an insect, but an insect’s toenail. I felt that bad. This whole government freebie thing was losing its shine fast. The whole first class tickets and staying at the Hilton on the state government’s dime apparently showed people as the cheap gits that they are. They gave their smiles and suck-up speeches to the important people but people who weren’t people to them were a waste of money. Anyway. The undersecretary gave his speech, and my boss gave his speech, and the health insurance guy gave his speech, and then the wali gave his own speech. The whole affair was quite interesting, but something else kept my attention. It was the waiters’ activity. There was a whole group of extra people in the room: 2 photographers, 2 waiters, 2 people who had just appeared with us out of nowhere (I think they were taking notes or something), one guy from the ministry back in Khartoum (who had been in charge of arranging the visit and who had said ‘who knows’ who I am to the other guy) who had apparently flown in that morning just for the visit, and finally a small man who had been following us around the whole time and who I think was the state minister’s assistant. This man was a local, who had small hands and feet, who didn’t look very bright, and who was wearing a weird coloured shirt. It looked kind of curry or turmeric coloured. What annoyed me was that he was sitting ahead of me in the office, while I sat in the end. I was already annoyed by the rude treatment of the director, and this little man annoyed me even more. As the waiters brought in the drinks and coffee, I carefully followed their movements looking for any cold treatment from their side as well. However, I got my karkade and coffee just the same as everyone else, and even before most people in the room, being the closest to the door. The ‘who knows’ guy was sitting next to me, and as the waiter passed in front of him he motioned to him for some coffee. I then noticed that he hadn’t been given a drink. I then looked around the room again: none of the extra people had gotten drinks. Neither the photographers, nor the note takers, nor the guy in the turmeric coloured shirt. I was unpleasantly surprised. I didn’t worry too much about the photographers since they were probably attached to the office, or to the local TV channel or newspaper or something, and were only passing through. I had no idea who the note takers were, but I later found out that they too were reporters or something. I didn’t bother at all about the ‘who knows’ guy sitting next to me. He eventually got his coffee. It was the turmeric shirt guy that broke my heart. He had looked at everyone else getting drinks, has waited patiently for his own, and hadn’t gotten anything. He wasn’t just an insect’s toenail, he was lower than that. And it wasn’t something that was new to him like it was to me. It was most likely something that he went through every single day of his life. I tried to read the look on his face but couldn’t decipher it. He was someone who wasn’t anybody important, who no one introduced to anyone, who no one even bothered to give a drink with everyone else. I then remembered my own stupid behaviour towards him: I was upset that he, a no body, had sat down near the middle of the room while I was right at the end. My earlier feelings of hate and 7agarra that had been consuming me suddenly disappeared, and were replaced by a very uncomfortable and ugly feeling: shame.
Our return tickets were economy class, free seating (dafoori bas), and I tripped on the stairs climbing to the plane, a combination of high heels, too many bags, and a skirt that is too big and too long for me. I learnt a number of lessons from this trip: that only stupid people are rude to people they think are unimportant; always wear comfortable shows NO MATTER WHAT; and that I need a backpack for a laptop bag instead of that stupid thing I have now. And that if the wali of Port Sudan ever decides to run for presidency, he has my vote.