A graphic travelogue made during a month-long trip to Dar Es Salaam.
Outside the ER
It may not be much, but what you are looking at here is the only drawing for which I have been detained by the police. The story goes something like this. It’s pretty normal for me to do some observational drawing in public places when I’m traveling. I like to sit outside for one, and it’s a great way to get to chat with passers by besides. People are usually keen to watch what you are doing and to ask questions about it. Great way to meet people, great way to practice Swahili. So I walked over to the hospital to find a place to draw.
The emergency department courtyard seemed like a natural spot. Plenty of shaded places to sit, lots of folks to draw while they are waiting around. Laura happened to be operating in the theatre there so I had it in the back of my mind that we might get a chance to eat lunch together if I was nearby when she got a break.
I sat down and began roughing general proportions. As I do, the usual number of people lean over as they pass to get a look. I hear “Hey mzungu! Mambo?” from a smiling group of young mothers as they make their way by. “Poa!”, I respond. Some little kids briefly flit by and peek.
Then a middle aged man comes and stands next to me. I can feel him peering over my shoulder. I continue. After about five minutes of watching me he says, “Um, excuse me sir. What are you doing?”
“Do you have permission to draw?”
At this point, who this man is, what the problem is, and my relatively few options for getting out of here without paying a bribe and/or being charged with something, crystalize in my mind.
I look up and see his badge. I smile and decide playing dumb is probably the best course of action.
"Do I need permission?” I say in my best “golly-gee-sir-I-didn’t-even-think-about-that” tone of voice.
"Yes, you need to see the Director of the Department of Public Relations. He will look at your drawings and approve them. Come with me.” He gestures to the emergency department building and I head there directly thinking to myself, “Maybe I should just keep acting dumb when I get inside and ‘accidentally’ go down the wrong hallway and lose him?” He doesn’t follow too close, so I try it. I walk calmIy down a hallway that I know leads to the back of the building pretending to be oblivious. I make it halfway to the back door. “Sir! Excuse me, sir!” He catches up to me and guides me up some stairs, eyeing me suspiciously.“What are you doing here?”
“I’m here with my wife, she is a doctor. She is working here.”
“How long have you been here?”
“How long will you be here?”
“Why are you drawing a map of the emergency department?”
“Huh?” I laugh, “It’s not a map. I am just drawing it for myself. I am an artist. See?” I flip through some pages of my sketchbook. He looks briefly, not convinced. We arrive at the office of the Director of Public Relations. He knocks on the door. Nobody answers. We wait around a few minutes while he asks if the Director is coming back. He gets on his radio. I can’t understand what he says. It’s too fast.
“Come with me sir, you are being detained.” Well shit. I follow him as we make our way towards the south gate of the hospital to a little guard shack. Nearby, there are hundreds of people milling around waiting to bring food to their hospitalized relatives. We weave through them and duck into a small doorway. Inside, behind a large desk sits a man who by his sharply pressed shirt and official looking nametag I take to be my escort’s boss.
He gives the same line of questioning. What is my name? Why am I here? Why am I drawing a map of the hospital? What is my intention with this map? Do I intend to show this map to ‘bad people’?
His delivery is nothing but respectful and calm. Though the content of his questions leaves little ambiguity as to what he thinks I might be up to. At this point, I make a mental goal to avoid being transferred anywhere from here. Clearly, if I get detained on suspicion of aiding terrorism, things could get very complicated for me. Over and over again I politely explain that I am “just an artist” and that I am “very sorry” for causing alarm, I know that they are “only doing their duty”, and I have “absolutely no bad intentions” with my drawings. I tell him repeatedly that my wife, as well as the director of the surgery department can vouch for me. The questioning goes around and around. After a few minutes, he takes my sketchbook and begins flipping through it, scrutinizing. At this point I am mentally going through the contents trying to think of anything offensive that I might have drawn. He flips by a picture of Laura. “See? That is my wife. Mke wangu.” I say. He pauses. “Can I call her? Maybe she can help to make things clear?” I flip through the contacts on my cell phone. I make a mental note that it was definitely a good thing to have put the number for the US Embassy in there.
He agrees I should call. I let it ring, she is probably in the middle of an operation. I get voice mail. I hang up. “It dropped the call.” I say smiling sheepishly. I dial again. This time she picks up. I even more sheepishly explain that I have been detained, and if you wouldn’t mind, could you come help me out? I try my best to explain where exactly I am. I have to hope that she understands my directions. From her tone when she hangs up though, I have my doubts. “She’s coming.” I say.
Half an hour goes by, Laura gets lost. She calls and I try to explain again. In the meantime, the boss is still flipping through my sketchbook. “You draw just like a photograph.” he says. “Thank you.” I say. He comes across a self-portrait. He looks at me, looks at the drawing, looks at me, looks at the drawing. “That is just like real.” he says, smiling. He shows the drawing to the man who brought me in. They both smile and point, comparing me to the page, the page to me. I begin to relax. The boss is chuckling a little to himself as he reads some other pages. I try to smile and act as calm as I can.
Finally, Laura arrives in full doctor uniform. I am so glad she decided to wear her white coat and badge today. The boss is looking at a portrait of Laura now. He looks at her, looks at the drawing, looks at her, looks at the drawing. "That is your wife.” he says. He gives her the same speech he gave me about being concerned that I was drawing a map, about needing to “make sure” I am “a good person and not a bad person.” And finally, that I really must get permission from the Director of Public Relations if I want to keep drawing at the hospital. With that, he hands me back my sketchbook, writes down our full names (though he curiously doesn’t ask for any form of actual I.D.), and lets us go.
I am shocked.
We walk out of the shack in a fog. My pre-visioning of what it might be like in a Dar Es Salaam jail cell begins to fade. As we make our way back towards the hospital, I smile and say to Laura, “Remember that time we were in Tanzania and you saved me from getting put in jail for drawing?”
She smiles, lets out a small chuckle, and sighs. She looks half relieved to be getting out of there and half angry that her husband is such an idiot. I walk with her back to the operating room (she had to scrub out of a case to come get me). I thank her sincerely as we part and I make my way back to the guesthouse. I make a mental note. In order to avoid this situation again, all subsequent drawings in this journal are to be drawn from memory.*
*And they are, unless otherwise noted.
In 2012, my wife and I went to Batangas, a medium-sized port city in the southern part of Luzon for a month-long surgical rotation. Many thanks to Dr. Macatangay and his family for the tremendous hospitality and assistance. Also thanks to the surgical residents at the charity hospital in Batangas, some of the hardest working docs around.
When you're a Surgical trainee in the Philippines, you sleep where you can. In this case, a brightly-lit corner of the OR.