Words By Bruna Dessena
Excerpt from "Tales from my Stethoscope."
It’s a typical day in Tanzania – sweltering heat, sounds of birds in the trees, humming of insects – and I’m relaxing in the clinic on a gold mine. Suddenly I’m rudely interrupted by a piercing alarm. I peer out of the window and notice that all hell has broken loose – the people on site are racing around frantically. I wonder if there’s a major catastrophe on its way. Intrigued, I watch more closely to see where they’re actually running to – it’s the smelt house! No-one is calling me on the radio and this intrigues me even more. It’s then that I notice men in military-type uniforms emerging from everywhere. I’m certain this must be a coup and no-one has informed the medic – how inconsiderate!
I watch as people jump into vehicles amidst much yelling, whistling, screeching of tyres and that male bonding ritual of revving the hell out of the engines. I am torn away from my safe vantage point by a vehicle pulling up just outside the clinic, hooting for me! Rushing outside I notice someone in my land cruiser, dressed for Armageddon, yelling at me to “Get in!!!”. Since he’s the one with the rifle, I don’t argue.
I notice that my vehicle is part of a convoy making its way to the landing strip. Trying to ignore my companion’s wreckless driving, I ask what is going on. “This is the gold run,” he says matter-of-factly. “The what?” I ask. “You know, the gold run …” he says. “No, I don’t know the gold run!” I retort, somewhat impatient at not getting a proper answer and feeling I deserved one since I was now clearly a part of all this. “Why am I going to the gold run?” I try again, and this is when the driver drops the little gem, “Because they won’t shoot the medic.”
Apparently once a week, on a designated day known only to the financial manager and the mine manager, the gold run happens. The tiniest plane lands on our landing strip, but not before all the uniformed and heavily armed soldiers are strategically placed alongside the runway, hiding in the bushes with guns trained on the plane and runway. Then someone climbs out of the plane – today’s ‘mule’ happens to be very scrawny. He is carrying two haversacks, one in front of him and one on his back. He is here to collect the gold bars from our smelt house.
Walking towards us, he proceeds to climb into my vehicle! For an operation that is clearly dangerous and kept hush-hush until the last minute, I find this more than disconcerting. With a huge paramedic symbol on the door telling everyone exactly where he is, we scream off to the smelt house.
Everyone is tense; much shouting is going on by men with more guns and shiny epaulettes. We get to the smelt house and I notice no-one is around except the soldiers; everyone else has vanished! So this is not a coup, but it feels just as dangerous. I try thinking back: I’m sure I never read anything about this in the handover notes. Funny that the medic before me forgot this small detail! It’s even more interesting that my employers failed to mention this exciting weekly escapade.
I sit in the vehicle with two soldiers waiting for Scrawny to come out of the smelt house with the gold. Still very tense, no-one speaks, no-one lights cigarettes, no-one makes jokes, no-one discusses the lotto. We just sit in silence, no aircon, doors open, sweating. Even the birds are quiet. The doors of the smelt house finally burst open and out he comes, walking very slowly under the weight of the bars. I’m later told he has four bars in his bags.
Then, as if some invisible operator is pressing a replay button, it all starts again – shouting, yelling, revving of engines, and we’re off to the landing strip. This time when we get there, it’s even more tense. Scrawny is surrounded by four armed men and accompanied to the airplane steps. If anyone watching had any doubt about where the gold was, they’d only have to look at the little procession hurrying to the plane; very obvious, it’s the only one there.
Finally, he’s back in the plane, doors close, and everyone stands with bated breath – this is a crucial moment. The engines start and I am in my vehicle driving away from the airstrip. To anyone watching: Please notice that the medic is going back to the clinic so don’t fire at her!