Eyewitness To 1984

Chapter Three: Odetta

 A well formed young woman, her long dark hair framed an attractive Slavic face even devoid of make-up. She spoke English and Italian very well. However, she was a doctor first and foremost, as she reminded me when we were introduced. To my bantering question: ”You are a doctor? You are a good doctor?” She replied, a bit of color suffusing her face, “Sir, I doctor. I am a very good doctor”. With that she turned up her nose and stalked away in a haughty manner. The ugly American strikes again, I thought. I decided that discretion would be preferable to brashness in dealing with that lady. So I avoided her for a while. But the doctor proved herself to be a good sport and soon we were joshing each other like old friends.

As I found out she was the only daughter of an intellectual couple: her mother was a math teacher and her father a biology professor. She insisted and I mean insisted that we stay at her house during our stay. The family home was in a city called Shkodra, the second largest in Albania, just south of the Yugoslav border. Neither parent spoke English, but we all got along well. When in 1945 after the Abanian and Yugoslav partisans had expelled the Italians and the Germans and the communists had seized power with all the concomitant “trappings” described previously, the doctor’s family home was divided in half and that second section given to a deserving second party (read: communist party official).

The Shkodra post office contained the only telephone exchange in the city, a five piece antiquated network almost impossible to use because of the demand. Once I had to call my son in Italy and I was ushered to the front of the line. I was naturally embarrassed, but since I was a foreigner no one protested. That’s one reason for my liking those people. There was a university in the city: even pure communism requires educated administrators.

The three days passed swiftly. We were very busy with installing new wiring, ripping out old electrical lines, hooking up copper tubing for the washing machine, the shower, the water heater, installing ceiling lights.

There were two casualties among the troops. As I was trying to pound my way through a resisting concrete wall, I gave my thumb a good solid whack with the hammer. My cry of pain mixed with a few Americanisms brought the lady doctor running to my help. She quickly soaked my injured member in some kind of native liquid solution while muttering something in her language. The inflection in her voice made the meaning obvious. I agreed with her much to the delight of herself and a few onlookers. After we had installed the flush tank above the floor toilet, the Major gave the chain a good pull.

Of course some dummy was standing in front and got a good soaking as he hopped up and down trying not to drown. I have never quite understood why those things happen to me!

One day the Major, the doctor and the missionaries entered into negotiations with a local building contractor. Now I know what the terms Byzantine, convoluted, Gordian knot really means. The idea was to get someone to dig a well. In America one calls up a well digger, asks the price per foot and then either accepts or rejects the offer. It does not quite happen that way there. Following a prolonged explanation by the Major that the idea of digging a well near the hospital was to offer some kind of protection since the holding tank would be located inside the building, the negotiations began.

After much haggling among all parties, the contractor finally signed a contract. But no one had ever bothered to tell him that a contract had to be honored once signed. Therefore, he was back that same afternoon with a demand for more money the missionaries agreed. Lo and behold the very next morning the man was back again with more demands. So, the paper was reworded and the deal sweetened once more, but with an admonition of finality to extra demands. The saga of the well, which was to serve also as the village water supply, will be told at a later time.

But our stay was not all pain and sweat. Odetta’s family treated us like royalty. Her mother was a great cook; the quality and quantity of her dishes hid the fact of their meager financial resources. All of them were hungry for news from the west. Odetta was especially interested in the world wide woman’s movement. Those were pleasant evenings.

One night Odetta and I stayed up after the others had gone off to bed. By that time she and I had become friendly and I guess I bad gained her confidence. In any case she began to tell me about her aspirations concerning her professional life and her hopes of fulfillment as a woman. I listened attentively realizing that this was no time for some dumb flippant remarks. “My life here is hopeless,” she said in a low bitter tone, “there’s no future for a woman or a professional person; my expectations and dreams will never be fulfilled in this poor, backward country.” She became more and more astringent, more and more dolorous, more and more melancholy as the words poured out of her in a soft voice. The doctor soliloquized on the grief and misery of the late national imprisonment.

She called the land an accursed land, one that God had completely and irrevocably forgotten. I listened quietly. There were few marriageable men in this society, she declared. She was probably right about that. Professional women as a general rule seldom marry below their station: they seek out professional equals. There were few of them in her world. In any event, she declared, she had already eschewed all desires to marry, had rejected the idea of motherhood because she did not want to bring children into this rotten world. I dared not tell her that love seeks us out and not the other way around and that for her to enter into a loveless marriage would be the worse kind of imbroglio imaginable.

Odetta commented during her catharsis that once she had placed first in a test for a prestigious position in the country’s top rated hospital. But the post had gone to the son of a high party official. Now why was I not surprised to hear that? Welcome to the club, what else is new, I muttered sotto-voce. She continued her lament, saying that she never smiled or joked with anyone. Then she apologized for taking affront at my first wise crack. A hell of a way to live, I reflected. I am no doctor, but I could see that the good lady was chasing a gigantic nervous breakdown.

Her chances for advancement were non existent due to the isolation which had precluded any chance of the local medical community from interfacing with international organizations to develop modern techniques, update teaching curricula, import medical journals, revamp the doctor-patient relationship, educate the people in modern hygienic practices. There was no hospital construction and thus no openings for young, dedicated, ambitious professionals like herself, Her salary was the equivalent of eleven American dollars: that, in effect, prevented her from having her own home where she could have privacy and a chance to continue her studies.

At that point her reserve broke down. She began crying, deep, heart breaking sobbing. I let her cry, not wanting to stop her. I felt that anything I said or did would be cavalier behavior on my part. She wept for some time. As I looked and listened, I could not help but reflect upon all the pain, misery and wretchedness inflicted upon the world by self-centered rulers and our acceptance of their behavior. Not only are we consistently and universally governed by political opportunists, cruel, incompetent tyrants and self-servers, we actually, sometimes willingly place those leaders in positions of power. What is more unpardonable and incomprehensible we support them with all the energy and fervor at our disposal and more grotesquely we venerate them by building monuments to their vile memory.

The doctor’s plight was not unique.

There are Odettas everywhere in the world, even in America. Dedicated, intelligent, selfless people are denied recognition, material benefits and professional advancement because of race, religion, sexual orientation and political beliefs. Silently, I cursed all the enemies of the people: corrupt politicians, power brokers, bigoted demagogues and preachers of hate of all colors, race and political leanings. I damned them all too ever lasting hell.

After a while Odetta stopped, cleared her throat, looked at me sheepishly and apologized. I told her: “There is no need to apologize. It was good for you to speak of your troubles. Do not be ashamed. I have also cried” It was not the time to blurt out platitudes about the possibility of a better future for herself or her country. As I think back on that episode, I wonder if there was anything else that I could have said or done. But I had listened and that had to count for something. Long after I went to bed I could still hear in my mind her sobs and bitter words.

Saturday was our last full day at the hospital and we still had much to do. We had to return to Durazzo the following day to catch the ferry back to Italy so we stepped up the pace. The Major had planned for a stay of ten days back in May. However, the ferryboat company changed the schedule in June to one sailing per week and that only on Sunday from Albania. Subsequently, we could not finish every project. We left surplus hardware with the custodian and instructed him on the finer points of wiring the washing machine and the heater. By that time only the Major and myself were left from the original group along with his wife and another lady. He literally did the job of two men: he gave me instructions in plumbing and electrical work, as well as doing his own work.

Our farewell evening with our hosts was a subdued one. The lady of the house had outdone herself at serving us a sumptuous dinner. Odetta was more animated than any previous night, laughing at our jokes and becoming downright hysterical when once again I made a fool of myself with the local firewater. I noticed with much satisfaction and joy that the doctor smiled more frequently, even cracked some native jokes and stories, the meaning of which were vague to us. I marveled at the change in the doctor’s demeanor. Perhaps, I thought, our visit had done her some good after all.

Our parting the next morning was not an entirely happy one. We were quiet as we packed our belongings, tools and equipment and loaded up the van. Odetta asked me if I could stay longer. I declined as graciously as possible, but I told her I would be back in August. That prospect seemed to cheer her up a bit. There was the usual photo taking session. There were also tears as we kissed each other goodbye. On the trip to the port city, I reflected on the unusual week we had spent among proud, friendly, newly independent people. I wondered how they would adjust to the novel idea of thinking for themselves as they embark on the rough and dangerous road to democracy. Would the western countries understand the situation and be patient with the Albanians? More importantly, to me anyway, would or could the lady doctor realize her dreams and aspirations?

These questions troubled me as I stood at the boat’s railing and watched the disappearing shoreline. I wondered if I would ever get some answers. Only time would tell. Meanwhile, I reflected on the great job that the Major and his wife had done, proving once again bow great hearts can overcome great obstacles. They are to be commended.

“The most potent weapon in the hands of the oppressor
is the mind of the oppressed.”

Statement as Witness

Steve Biko, May 3,1976

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