Friday, November 18, 2005

Hallelujah, WORK!

Dear all,

My, hasn’t it been a long time since we talked? About a week, in fact - a week since I have slept for 8 or more hours, woken up after sunrise, run or strolled leisurely, eaten a hot meal, played with my home-stay sisters, or been idle/bored/frustrated/underutilized (feelings I had strongly associated with work here). This malaria conference has been my LIFE! Although I’m learning very little about malaria nets or insecticide treatments, and I have no idea if the host or parasite genome is a better subject of vaccine research…there is no time to sit and listen to a scientific session…my education in conferences, event organization, and crowd behavior is really taking off.

Work before this week was, at the best, reasonably interesting. Lab research moved slowly and always seemed to face the most basic but disruptive impediments: when we enjoyed a blessed day of uninterrupted electrical power, the taps ran dry; when we successfully excavated ice-encrusted reagents from the bottoms of old freezers, there were no machines with which to analyze the products. It was very frustrating. I found it equally difficult to get involved, satisfyingly, in conference planning. With no file folders (not a single file cabinet in the whole center!) or computer networking, data was difficult to access unless you recorded it yourself. My assigned tasks were generally short-term and specific, which I completed without gaining any greater familiarity with the conference organization or laying claim to a future responsibility in the upcoming events. Sure - I discouraged my Swiss net company from exploding fireworks from the roof of the Palais des Congres (PdC) center, and I did a stellar job of responding to participant emails regarding Yaounde weather and proper conference attire - but somehow, despite all that fabulous work, I felt replaceable and unchallenged.

But hallelujah, things have changed! So my rejoicing does confirm that I am an incurable workaholic - but so be it. I am. I love that I am productive and effective here - and for the first time, it feels like my coworkers understand all that I’ve been trying to do. I used to plead for work, saying “Collins, what can I do? Lana, let me be at your service! Palmer, I am free fro the next 2 hours. If any of you has work for me to do, please say so - I would love to do something!!!” But I don’t plead for work anymore - for better of for worse, the involvement of crowds makes it clear what things need to get done and when systems need to be improved, and I can see that they get done on my own initiative. I may not have answers to every question, but I know where to find them - and showing that confidence with a smile, even when ministers are giving unexpected speeches that severely disrupt presentation programs, or there are no projectors in any presentation rooms 5 minutes before session beginnings, is as important and necessary as the eventual answer itself.

Besides all of the managing/organizational/bull-shitting skills that I’m honing, I have met some really cool people. Shuffling through the badges the night before the conference, putting 1 500 names into alphabetical order, I stayed interested by telling myself one thing: literally, I’m holding the world in my hands! It was really cool to see the names representing 64 countries that would be coming together here in Cameroon, and with whom I could get to interact. Not only did I enjoy the 5-part last names from Germany (van der Gees van Naters) and the creative combinations from Denmark (Edgewatt Dorcas), but I looked forward to meeting some of them in person. I did, and now have business cards from around the world, where people doing really interesting and varied work on malaria, in case I want to travel again for the sme kind of research...

Palais des Congres is a little wacky, as far as national convention centers go... Caterers serve (and people drink) beer with breakfast, lunch, and dinner; Guinness bottles but not tea/coffee cups are allowed into the scientific sessions; participants stroll the halls with cigarettes and leave smoke trails among posters and sponsor tents; the Ministry of Tourism displays ivory carvings at its booth; and we have one phone-one fax machine-one copier-two printers with which to run the entire conference. But our scientific program is riveting, our conference bags our high quality and sharp-looking, we all are still smiling at each impossible question, ...and I think that this conference will be something to be proud of.



You should all check out the press releases on the conference - I know that the BBC and NYT wrote articles recently, and there have been tons of reports and interviews on the news's weird to think that I'm relaxing at home, after a long day's work, and then hear my boss's voice booming from the television set. Ahhh! But do some searches online, which I haven't had time to do, and see what there is. It will be under the Multilateral Initiative on Malaria Conference, or else mis-named the Roll Back Malaria Conference, 13-18 November.


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