Ending 2012 With a Splash!

Another check on the bucket list!

Let’s end the year not about hemophilia… sort of. While in Zambia, just three weeks ago, I rafted the mighty Zambezi River, a dream I have always had. Here’s my recollection of the day!

Saturday, December 8, 2012
from the David Livingstone Lodge, with the sun setting outside my door, facing the river once explored by David Livingstone in 1855, tired,
spent and at peace. I spent the entire day rafting the Zambezi, and just
couldn’t be happier! I am sun-burnt, a toe nail is ripped, my right thumb
is not working, as I jammed it when I was ejected. But it was worth it. What
an adventure!
Zambezi Bridge connecting Zambia on one side to
Zimbabwe on the other. I visited both countries this trip
started out at 8:20 am, when I was picked up. The accommodations here are
fabulous–peaceful and the food is excellent. Choongo was to be our guide and
he brought me to the hut where everyone congregated. Joining me would be a young guy named Mark from England, and a couple named Lisa and Collin, also from England.
We got on the bus, and before we knew it were at the descent towards the
river. Down into the jungle, then balancing on some very slippery and sharp basalt rocks, into the gorge formed by the river and ending in magnificent Victoria Falls. We were to raft 27 kilometers this day! Over 25 rapids. And a few that “didn’t
count,” as Choongo said. Choongo is about my age, with a body hardened from ten
years guiding the rafts. With us was Gordon, a soft-spoken, 25-year-old  Zambian with deep eyes.
When we reached the water, the view
was spectacular! Above us towered the famous Zambezi bridge with the
bungee-jump cords neatly tucked up. We watched one raft crash into the rocks on
the left; crazy. One couple descended in separate, single-person kayaks; we learned later that
after only one or two rapids, the girl left, crying. She had had enough.
I did read this on line before I went: White Water Rafting on the Zambezi River in Victoria Falls has been classified by the British Canoe Union as Grade 5 – “extremely difficult, long and violent rapids, steep gradients, big drops and pressure areas.” This is a high volume, pool-drop river with little exposed rock either in the rapids or in the pools below the rapids. Oh yeah, bring it on!

Gulliver’s Travels….
Class V rapids action!
I’m ejected!

first rapid “Morning Glory: was an eye opener. This was going to be awesome.
Huge waves, roaring water, foaming and warm. We were blasted, soaked and wanted
more! By the fourth rapid, “Gulliver’s Travels,” the waves were crushing and
flipped the boat straight up and then to the right, where Lisa and I were seated. We
both were ejected quickly. It was quite frightening. The water was churning and sucking
me down. I felt as though someone had their hand on my head and wouldn’t let me
up. I came up once, but was pulled right into another rapid, underwater.
Somehow I grasped the whole time onto my paddle. I couldn’t breathe, and
couldn’t seem to get to the surface. It must have only been seconds, but enough
time to try to strategize about how to get loose, and also, is this the
end, really? I could see how people could drown in a circumstance like that. It felt like you were put into a washing machine without a way to get out. When I finally came up—and stayed up—I had a hard time breathing because I had
ingested so much water. It had gone up my nose, into my sinuses. My airway was contracted and burning, leaving me gasping. Steve, the team member in the kayak, an athletic, older and solemn man, came to me as fast as possible and I held on
tightly, bobbing in the churning waves. He brought me back to the raft. I gasped, “Steve, I’m going to name my first child after you Wait, my first grandchild! Even if it’s a girl!” He sort of smiled. Lisa was quite shaken
and didn’t seem to enjoy the rest of her half-day trip after that. I recovered fast and
thought, that was so awesome!

rapids followed. But in between briefly, I was able to take in the stunning scenery.
David Livingstone said of Victoria Falls, “Scenes so lovely like these must have
been gazed upon by angels in their flight.” It is a primordial, enchanting
place. Black as charcoal basalt rock is piled up like some giant infant’s
building blocks.  I am
mesmerized by the sight of them because I am so rock-crazy. Plucky trees grow straight out of the sheer
cliffs, their yellowish roots cascading down in tangles, like Rapunzel’s hair.
It is a scene of wonder, and every chance I get I find my eyes drifting at the
rocks and cliffs in awe. Gordon pointed up to the sky and overhead, it seemed there was a brilliant halo around the sun. “Those are called… those are called…what do you call that?” he asked. “Sun dogs,” I replied, squinting at the phenomenon, though I had never seen them before, only in pictures. Sun dogs, chasing their tails around the sun, cavorting while we plunge ahead. 
Young boys by the river
Half way through the day, we stopped for lunch, allowed Lisa and Collin to disembark, and picked up Victoria and Rodrigo, an adorable young Brazilian couple on their honeymoon. Gordon also left, and we acquired Leonard, a lanky youth with a flashing white grin, and a cheeky sense of humor! Young boys who had been bathing and playing on the rocks in a little natural basin stopped to come and ogle us. They lined up on the basalt ledges, their skin as charcoal-black as the rocks behind and beneath them. They seem to blend right in.
Lunch on the river
Off we went, back into the river. Mark
and I were just seared by the sun, like two fish in a frying pan. No amount of
sunscreen seemed to work, and we were doused so many times, it didn’t matter.
At Class IV rapid 13, “The Mother,” we hit a massive rebound wave and the entire raft
capsized. Again I was choking with water but this time it wasn’t so bad. I
grabbed immediately onto the raft, but the big metal frame in back threatened
to hit me. The current is incredibly strong and swift. First it pulls one way, then
another, then sucks you from underneath.
guides are amazing; within seconds Leonard hopped onto the upside-down raft, pulling Choongo on with him. I was already hanging on. But we were scattered
everywhere. Little by little we gathered, then both guides used a red rope attached to one side of the raft, leaned back, and flipped the raft over
and themselves back into the racing river. They scrambled in, nimble as river
otters, and helped each of us climb back in. We gasped and sputtered but loved
it all!
“Scenes so beautiful…”
Swimming in the warm Zambezi
Victoria and Leonard clowning
at rapid 17, the “Washing Machine,” I believe, we crashed again, capsized and
everyone went in again. The waves were massive and they kept coming. This time I
drifted a bit and while everyone else got in. I drifted into an eddy; these are
very tricky. As hard as you kick and swim, the current pulls you back into the
eddy, which flows opposite the river! I had to really kick to get back to the
raft, and was tired! Then later on, the rapids got more spread out, and were
only class 2, still fun. We all jumped into the warm Zambezi several times,
just to flow with the river. You can’t help but beam; it’s exhilarating!
it was finally over, we pulled to the shore, walked a short way and hopped a rickety cable car to the top of the steep gorge. We drove quite a while to get back to the hotel. We had
ice cold Cokes, and waved to the children in the rural villages we passed.
These villages were so meticulously made, it looked almost like a Disney production for
Epcot. The red soil was clean, the thatched roofs and mud walls, all
coordinated the same.
Red as “lobstas”! Mark and Laurie
just doesn’t get better than this. For me, the essence of life is personal development, direct and
adventurous experiences, and contributing back to the world as much as possible to improve the quality of life for those with hemophilia. I felt I hit all that on this amazing trip to Africa! And I can’t wait to continue in 2013.

Pioneers in Zambia

It’s hard to believe that just one week ago I was riding an elephant in Zambia!
Maurice Muchinda, new president of
Haemophilia Foundation of Zambia
But let’s go back a few days; Thursday, December 5. I had flown in the night before from Zimbabwe, and met that evening Maurice Muchinda, an elegant man whose son David had hemophilia, and Charity Chipimo-Pikiti, chair of the Zambian Childhood Cancer Foundation, whose child has sickle cell anemia. Together Maurice and Charity are spearheading the new Haemophilia Foundation of Zambia (HFZ). 
Not an easy task. In a country of 14 million, where there should be about 800-1,400 with hemophilia (take into account the average life span here is 52), there are only about 10 known patients with hemophilia. One patient was David, Maurice’s 19-year-old son, who sadly died September 2011 from a bleed. I had thought Maurice would naturally want to give up forming his foundation, but he surprised us all by bravely agreeing to continue. And so he has become the key player in an unexplored country.
Charity, Laurie, MoH Dr. Kasonde, Maurice

And it’s new and unexplored for all of us. I am the first person in the international hemophilia community to visit Zambia. Why me? First, the world is a big place. Even the WFH cannot be everywhere at all times. And it’s up to countries themselves to mobilize and ask for help. Often this is difficult. It usually takes one person, like Maurice, asking for help for his own son, to then be asked (in his case I asked him after we made a donation of NovoSeven) or to decide on their own to start a hemophilia nonprofit. And it’s a hard task: there’s no pay, long hours and a huge, multiyear, uphill climb. I love it but then, I get to go home eventually. All I can offer is some factor, strategic ideas, connections, commitment and eventually, success.

this meeting, we head for the Ministry of Health. Like in Zimbabwe, we have to mount
six flights of stairs. We are ushered in to meet Minister of Health Dr.
Kasonde, a warm
man. He listens to us share our thoughts about
hemophilia, admitting “We have not paid attention to hemophilia. We’ll need to
find out how many are diagnosed.” We have a thoughtful discussion, exchange cards and I present him with my book on VWD.

With Hon. Chomba and Hon. Kazunga

After we leave,
we head to a shiny, big mall and have some tea. We laugh at
the slow service at Wimpy’s, despite the lack of customers, because the tall
young waiter is quite taken with the pretty young waitresses, and apparently not with us. After tea we head
to the Ministry of Community Development, Mother & Child Health. These are the people in the forefront of grassroots education and outreach, something I am really intrigued with, because in Africa, we need to start empowering people at the home level. Most of them live just too far away from the hospitals. The
Honorable Dorothy Kazunga welcomes us, and we’re later joined by Professor Elwyn
Chomba, Permanent Secretary. The ladies are warm, friendly, passionate. We speak
about outreach, and how to identify more patients with hemophilia in Zambia. These ladies rightly know too that much of health care falls to the mother, and
so empowering women is the key to success in Africa.

this stop, we head to the Missionary Oblate, which has offered an office free
of charge to the new Haemophilia Foundation of Zambia. It’s clean, functional
and ready for business. We wait for lunch with two mothers and their children.
They are shy, reserved, and ask no questions. One boy, Charles, very handsome,
has the beginnings of joint damage already. The other boy, whose name sadly
escapes me, is just a wild man! He can’t sit still, like all good boys, and is
climbing, curious and active. As we wait, a monkey scoots along the stone wall
top, but Maurice notes it is lame. “It has hemophilia, too,” I comment, and
everyone smiles.
Mom with active son
with hemophilia

lunch is prepared, and some more volunteers arrive. These are trustees of the
new organization. Lunch is delicious—chicken, sausage, rice and vegetables—and we
speak a little. Still, the parents are extremely shy and reserved, so we don’t
get to share much. Afterwards, a photo session to capture our names and faces,
and then we depart. Everything is so new to the patients. I hope that in a few
years’ time, they will be the experienced parents coaching the new ones.

With Zambian hemophilia families

happy face I meet is Fynn Machona, a handsome young man with hemophilia from
Zimbabwe, who is now living with his sister in Lusaka. I met Fynn five years
ago in Zimbabwe and am happy to say he looks great. He had hoped to come to
Zambia to attend college, but this is not working out. He dreams of being a
hematologist and working with hemophilia patients. For now, we’re glad to have
him in Lusaka as he can help with the new hemophilia organization.

With Fynn

The new HFZ has what is takes. Maurice is dedicated and a professional. He’s
also retired, and has some time to devote to this new mission. Charity is also
professional, motivated by helping children, and knows how to put together a
nonprofit. The rest of the team are also professionals, and all are impacted personally
by blood disorders.
leave the next morning after a breakfast wrap up on next steps, confident that
this nascent group is going to progress quickly. I take a short one hour flight
to Livingstone, Zambia, former capital, named after the famed Scottish
explorer, doctor and missionary, David Livingstone. As I sit that night on the
banks of the Zambezi River, reading a book about Livingstone’s adventures, I think
about how brave he was—how much he sacrificed (he buried his own wife Mary along
the banks of the Zambezi after she contracted malaria), suffered and persevered,
for years seeking to reach his final goal, to discover the source of the Nile.  I think it’s still brave to start a new
journey—a hemophilia organization— in a country like Zambia, in the midst of suffering, budget shortages,
with many dependent on you and looking for leadership and guidance. Even when
the Royal Geographic Society covered backed Livingstone, it was still only him
out in the middle of the unknown continent he so loved. Maurice and his team
stand also in the middle of Africa, pioneering medical help and aid to families
with hemophilia; we can back them too, but we can also travel with them on their journey, so they will achieve their mission. 

Great Book I Just Read

Into Africa by Martin Dugard

One of my favorite books.
This gripping tale recounts like a novel the story of the search for the source
of the Nile, considered in the mid-1800s to be the last great geological find.
The book picks up after Sir Richard Burton and John Hanning Speke return,
without definite proof. To put the question to rest, and to secure a financial
future for his motherless children, David Livingstone sets off one last time to
Africa in 1870 to search for it. Now in his 50s, Livingstone suffers mightily
on this journey, with infectious disease, tribal warfare, monsoons. The book is
full of suffering. Eventually, he cannot continue, and near death, awaits in a
village. Meanwhile, Henry Morton Stanley, a journalist working for the
tabloid The Herald, is secretly commissioned by owner, bad
boy James Gordon Bennett, Jr., to find Livingstone, get the scoop of the
century, and bring him home, thus shaming even the British. The story is
riveting as the character study on what made each man tick, but especially
Stanley, an utter failure in life until this commission. He later became one of
Africa’s greatest explorers… and most reviled leader. Five/five stars.

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