Further back in the archives: three stories from 1979, 1996 & 2001

For a year from the end of 1978 I lived in Belfast in Northern Ireland where I was involved in youth and community work with a non-governmental organization: “Service Civil International”, a movement founded in order to provide opportunities for alternatives to military service. My job (my first) required regular contact with young people from both sides of the “sectarian divide” who joined volunteer teams doing good works like conservation for weekends or during the holidays. It was a far cry from studies at Oxford.

From the outset I had to get to know the geography of the city, a task complicated by both physical and invisible barriers between the areas where either Catholic or Protestant kids lived or “felt able to go to.” It’s worth mentioning that I abandoned Northern Ireland with some relief in early 1980, as the bizarre consequences of sectarianism drove me fairly crazy. I didn’t really care if someone was a Catholic or a Protestant, but in Northern Ireland the distinction became of fundamental importance in everyday life.

One evening I visited a family living in the Republican (Catholic) heartland of West Belfast, in a district called Turf Lodge. It was dark when I drove past the fortified police station on the Falls Road and the brightly illuminated, heavily protected army barracks on the hillside heading towards my destination; a block of gloomy flats in the ugly “township.” Leaving the car by the dustbins, I searched for the right address in a poorly lit corridor and pressed the doorbell. But just at the same moment I realized that a British army unit was taking up a defensive position in the same corridor during a night patrol. I was very scared, as there could easily be hostilities in various forms, with a shooting exchange as the worst scenario or with shouting protests and throwing of bottles as another. I had to get away from the group of soldiers.

As I was trying to figure out what to do, the door opened and the father of the family I was intending to visit stood waiting for me to say something. My voice froze as I knew that my southern English accent would surprise both the family and the nearest soldiers. I wished I could be silent, but I had to speak. Immediately, one of the soldiers asked what I was doing, surprised to hear my accent in the potentially hostile surroundings. I mumbled a clumsy explanation about working for a youth organization, desperate to find a way of increasing my distance from the helmeted unit waving their rifles in my direction, while at the same time avoiding a misunderstanding with the family who might suspect that I was some kind of military or police operative in plain clothes. The soldiers were about my age (22) or younger. I was saved by the family’s teenagers who came to the door, recognized me and invited me inside.

In Northern Ireland I lost my sense of belonging to the United Kingdom. I hated the tribalism and narrow minded distrust that results from sectarianism. In those days both the armed struggle by the Republican and Unionist paramilitaries as well as repressive responses by the British government, the army and the Ulster police seemed to be on a road to nowhere. I had already been infected by internationalism and by the desire to see many sides of the great oceans. The bitter ugliness of “the troubles” – played out against some of the most beautiful landscapes and enchanting musical sounds in Europe – was profoundly disturbing and I soon wanted to get away! However, I still try to keep abreast of the news from the six counties and like many others I was moved and amused in 2012 when Queen Elizabeth shook hands with Martin McGuinness – one of the notorious “men of terror” responsible for the bloody mayhem of the 1970s who became a respected politician in the wake of the peace agreements at the end of the 1990s – during her official visit to the province and to the Northern Irish Assembly at Stormont.

The second story in this collection concerns health and hospitalization. For two years from January 1996 we lived in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, where I was employed as a research coordinator, working together with Danish and West African teams on studies of natural resource management and farming systems in the Sahel. During the summer vacation we decided to take our kids to the coast of the Gulf of Guinea. Our plan was to stay for a week in Lomé, the capital of Togo, then hire a car to travel west to Ghana, where we wanted to see the famous colonial castles as well as enjoy a few beaches. But the plan went astray after a couple of days in Lomé when I realized that I was sick.

As a pain in my stomach got worse, I decided that it was necessary to get medical advice. The doctors at the clinic were not sure of the diagnosis but the symptoms looked like appendicitis. Various consultations with my insurance company ensued and it was concluded that I would have to undergo an operation at the “Polyclinique Saint Joseph”, a private hospital in Lomé, in order to prevent an infection from what was probably a burst appendix threatening my internal organs. I was too ill to be moved elsewhere.

I was very uneasy as I accepted the offer and prepared for an anesthetic. Lene and the kids were equally upset. They had to extend the stay at our hotel on the Lomé seafront and make their way around an unfamiliar and politically troubled city with many roadblocks and undercurrents of unrest.

The operation was inconclusive – but successful in medical terms – and I had to spend a week regaining strength before being flown back to Denmark for further checks. I have very distinct memories of the clinic in a dusty back street and of my silent room where I spent many hours lying in bed reflecting on the fragility of life, on fear and illness. It transpired that there were three possible diagnoses: a burst appendix, a cancerous tumour or the first symptoms of Crones disease (an unpleasant intestinal condition). When I did return to Denmark the final diagnosis was the same as the original suspicion: a burst appendix which my body had dealt with “on its own devices” by combating the infection.

I was lucky; many people living close to the poverty threshold in Ouagadougou or Lomé would easily succumb to “simple” diseases, but with my insurance policy I was able to get excellent treatment at the private clinic and was even evacuated for further assessment and recuperation. However, the twist in this story concerned the approach taken by the insurance company, whose doctor arranged for me to be admitted to a private hospital in Copenhagen which they owned and where I was told that a section of my intestines would be removed in order to eliminate any further infection. This was announced a few hours after a cursory examination following the arduous flight from Lomé via Paris; I was debilitated and exhausted, Lene was trying to figure out how she and our children would be accommodated during our unexpected return to Denmark. In the end, before the unnecessary operation was scheduled, I was helped by a medical friend who insisted that I be transferred to the national hospital for thorough checks and tests to determine what was wrong, but where it transpired that the insurance company would have to cover any additional costs, which they preferred to avoid. I guess the main lesson I learnt from this process was the importance of second opinions, particularly in matters pertaining to health conditions and the body!

The third incident in my mini-series was perhaps the most frightening. I was en route to Managua in Central America in 2001 and was travelling with the airline Lufthansa via Frankfurt am Main and Miami. The plane from Frankfurt was a jumbo jet, a Boeing 747. I sat in one of the middle rows and half closed my eyes as the giant machine rumbled down the runway. As the wheels left the ground there was a loud bang and a violent shudder that caused some of the baggage bin doors above the seats to fall open. The plane seemed to have stopped moving upwards, an impression confirmed by a glance at the data screens tracking speed, altitude and position which showed that the plane was moving relatively slowly and little height was being gained. There was tense silence as hundreds of passengers wondered if their last moments had arrived.

”Wir haben ein technische problem!” We have a technical problem, announced the captain after a minute or two had gone by. Apparently there had been a minor explosion in one of the plane’s engines at take-off, which caused the jolt and the noise. Some of those seated at the back had seen flames. The crew was impressively calm and we sat waiting for further information as the plane slowly ascended. Finally it was announced that we would have to circle in the air above southern Germany for an hour while the fuel tanks were emptied; a Boeing 747 at take off on a transatlantic flight has so much fuel that landing would be dangerous and probably cause the wheels to collapse under the weight. So we sat, mostly in silence, until the plane was light enough to attempt a landing at Frankfurt airport again. I particularly remember an odd combination of cold fear and hope that the skills of the crew would be adequate…

I didn’t lose my nerve about flying, somewhat to my surprise as I had been a very tense passenger for many years before I began regular inter-continental journeys. Some months after the emergency landing, I flew again in a Lufthansa Boeing 747, from Johannesburg to Frankfurt. Late in the night I asked the purser if it would be possible to talk to the crew on the flight deck, explaining that I was regaining confidence after the unpleasant incident en route to Central America. Thus ensued a magical hour sitting behind the captain as he explained the various controls of the plane and showed me the manuals used when accidents happen, such as the engine blow out that I had experienced. As we cruised in starlight at 10,000 meters above the Congo, I was introduced to the power of airplane technology by the friendly captain and co-pilot.

Such a session has become impossible. After the hijackings of airplanes on 9/11, access to flight decks is restricted and another of the old pleasures of flying – the occasional invitation by the crew to get the best views in the world and a summary of flying techniques – has disappeared. Nowadays passengers are viewed as suspects, potential terrorists, as we know from the endless queuing at security in airports.

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