Foregoing the elevator, I went to the stairwell at the Nairobi Intercontinental, ascending to my third floor room.  When I reached the spacious second floor, there were a dozen hotel workers taking a break.  When I appeared, an old white western guy, the scene got–shall we say–awkward.  Their conversation stopped.

I smiled and said, “Jambo,”  an all purpose Kenyan greeting, one from the heart, my guide, Danson, told me several days later.  I heard several “Jambo’s” in return, and tension left the stairwell like air from a popped balloon.  I continued up the stairs, and they continued their conversation.  Trying to speak the language in another country is a sign of respect.  “Jambo,” told the men that I was cool with the situation, I knew a little KiSwahili and was a guy who respected Kenyans as people, not former colony inhabitants.

One of my big regrets in life is never having learned any foreign language well.  Still, within 12 hours of arriving in Nairobi, I could count, say please and thank you, and “Jambo,” which I used a great deal, along with “Hakuna Matata,” the Kenyan version of “Don’t sweat it.”  My French in France was not appreciated.  But my Spanish worked in Spain (and not badly in Italy, either), and the Filipinos absolutely loved it when I spoke Tagalog, 35 years ago.   I blew one vendor away with my “Hindi ako kumakain nang barbeque dito,” essentially stating I wasn’t interested.

At Lake Nakuru, I showed several lodge staff the annular solar eclipse through solar filtered binoculars, the eclipse being the reason I traveled to Kenya.  I love eclipses, and I love showing them to people and explaining the phenomenon.  Many were flat out amazed a guest would take an interest in making sure they could see something that almost certainly they will never see again (the November 2013 eclipse will be partial in Kenya).  In the short time I was there, many called me “Mr. Mike,” an appellation I particularly like, since it simultaneously shows respect and liking.  I told one waiter my age was sitini na moja, (look it up!)  It took him a few seconds, but he got it, and later (in English) talked to me at length about the lodge.  Danson later told me that I had made a big impression on the staff, one of the nicest compliments I received.

People are people.  Just like me.  The Kenyans have a life, a far more difficult one than I can imagine, but they are still people.  Unlike us, they have a beautiful memorial site for their disaster of 7 August 1998. Also unlike us their cellphones work everywhere.  I texted the eclipse phenomenon in real time back home. My text immediately went through from Jomo Kenyatta airport; it didn’t from Houston’s Intercontinental.  Not infrequently, I get “No Service” from Campbell and Skyline.  So who is Third World?

When I left practice in 1992 to take a leave of absence, I received many notes, cards and letters.  The one I remember the most was from a dietitian, who was also leaving to go to pharmacy school.  She said, “You respected the little people.”  I tried to.  I was taught at a very young age not to beat up on those who can’t defend themselves (nurses, custodians, aides), which I have done and for which I have been ashamed.  I’ve seen too many physicians and others in power who beat up on people, and I remember taking the brunt of it when I was an intern scrubbing on a bypass case.  It was difficult to hold the retractor properly when my eyes were filled with tears.  I was thanked only 5 of the 12 times I scrubbed with those two surgeons.  I was the little people, and I never forgot that treatment.  It was so bad, I got blisters on my hand from learning how to take a hemostat off a piece of wet kleenex with one hand without tearing the kleenex, so I wouldn’t get yelled at in the OR.  And I mean yelled.

I finally got some revenge.  On a later case, with the pair, I had my thumb too far through a hemostat.  “Don’t hold your instruments like that, Smitty,” one yelled (a term I detest), “you don’t hold your silverware like that, do you?”

“I don’t use silverware,” I retorted.  “I use my fingers.”  That was the end of that conversation.  When they quizzed me on anatomy, which I happened to know cold, I spat the correct answer back at them.  After three correct answers in a row, they left me alone.  One later had a nervous breakdown; both must have been incredibly unhappy people.

I always thanked nurses for helping, I tried to clean up after myself, and if you read Code Team on my blog, you will discover what other things I cleaned up in the hospital.  But occasionally I lost my cool.  We all do.  I just tried to remember to apologize when I did.  And if one is polite most of the time, he or she can easily be forgiven for a lapse.  There just can’t be too many of them, and an apology,must be coupled with a change in behavior.

When you’ve been at the bottom as many times as I have–undergraduate, medical school, internship, residency, graduate school and now teaching, you understand a lot better what it’s like being the little people.  That gives you two choices:  to haze those below you or to break the cycle.  I’ve tried to choose the latter.


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