It all started innocently enough. On Thursday evening the whole team had a lavish dinner at one of Dar es Salaam’s fanciest hotels. I’d never seen that much food in my life. And everything was a delight. I filled my plate with rainbow-coloured vegetables and stir fried seafood. Unable to decide, I went for it all in the drinks section: coconut juice, freshly squeezed sugar cane juice and white wine. I’m not proud of this (as a vegetarian), but I even had a bite of excellent succulent lamb from the barbecue. And then I sampled at least five kinds of different desserts. I wasn’t alone in this, all my colleagues enjoyed a similar feast. We all went to sleep full and content.
The following morning my Tanzanian colleague Y. was looking a bit off colour and was complaining of an intense headache. In the afternoon he decided to go back to his hotel room and lie down. I put his symptoms down to exhaustion and dehydration, as he was fasting – the Ramadan was just nearing its end.
That evening Y. didn’t show up for dinner. We thought he was resting and went without him. On our return, the panicked hotel manager told us he had to call a doctor in, and when he checked again later, Y. wasn’t picking up the phone or answering the door. We made a collective decision to go in.
The room is boiling hot. Y. is in bed, shivering under two layers of blankets. We wake him up, but he barely responds. Without hesitation, we wake up our driver and rush to the hospital.
It is already almost midnight when we reach the Aga Khan hospital of Dar es Salaam, founded (and funded) by the well-known philanthropist the clinic is named after. Thinking of what a London accidents and emergencies (A&E) department would be like on a Friday night, I brace myself for hours of waiting among drunks with self-inflicted head injuries. And of course, given it’s Africa, I’m expecting to see poor facilities, lack of staff, and inadequate medical supplies. Well, I was wrong on all fronts.
We walk into the hospital and of course nobody is drunk. After all, it is Ramadan in a primarily Muslim country.
Secondly, the building is modern, spotless clean and swarming with doctors and nurses in sparkling white uniforms and masks. Emergency rooms are lining both sides of the long corridor which doubles as a waiting area. I can hear beeping of high-tech equipment from each of them.
And thirdly, Y. is seen within minutes of our arrival. He is attended to by a doctor and a nurse, who takes his pulse, draws a blood sample to be checked for malaria, and puts him on a drip.
While all this is happening, my other colleague from London and I are sitting outside Y.’s room, watching new patients being admitted. Clearly, it is a busy night. Casualties are being brought in from a car accident nearby. People covered in blood. Through a half open door opposite I can see a patient bleeding so much that the sheets are soaked red, and there is a large paddle forming on the floor. Nurses and doctors are swarming around him and within minutes the bleeding has been stopped, he is wheeled to a surgery theatre, and cleaning staff have wiped off the blood and disinfected the room.
We wait, while a Tanzanian colleague is sorting out the paperwork. Since this is not a government hospital, there is a charge, but it is modest. You need to carry the blood samples to the lab yourself though, and you need to purchase the medication upfront from the hospital pharmacy. Still, the total bill is so low that pretty much every Tanzanian can afford it.
Shortly before we leave, less than two hours after we arrived, something happens that reminds me we’re in Africa after all. A man is brought in with a bloody mess of a head. Someone says he is running for a political position and has been macheted by his opponents. Armed guards are placed at the hospital door to guarantee his safety.
Y. is released the following morning, still weak but improving quickly. Luckily, he doesn’t have malaria. It is in fact severe bacterial food poisoning. He is on antibiotics and will make a full recovery.
As for myself, I’m left with an important lesson: there is more to five star hotels and African hospitals than meets the eye.