Magic plastic numbers

March 17, 2010

Smoosh a boat full of Westerners into a country of West Africans, and you find that many cultural differences are irksome or complicated or both. Some differences, though, just make me grin:

Before being scheduled for eye surgery, each patient provides Lauren with personal information such as name, cell phone number, tribe, language, etc. Most queries receive fairly straight forward answers, but the one sticking point is age. You and I list our birthdate as a trio of day, month and year. Not so in Togo, where the important information is not any of those bits. What is important is the day of the week on which you were born. In fact, many people are named after their birth day. If you were born on Saturday, your name is Komi. On Tuesday, you are Komlan. So the average patient can certainly tell you that he was birthed on a Thursday. But ask whether that was 50, 55, or 70 years ago, and all you get is a shrug–only God knows. The sort of thing that drives our statisticians mad.

To encourage order when bringing people from outside to inside a clinic, I always distribute small cards stamped with sequential numbers. Otherwise, moving people inside is a bit like turning a medicine bottle upside down and hoping that only two or three pills fall out. I can point to ten people I want to follow me, but then I turn around at the doors and a swell of fifty has gathered behind me. At the end of the day I reorder my numbers, but each day a few go missing. Apparently, patients sometimes keep the “lucky” numbers. This means forsaking a coveted spot in line, since you must have a number to come inside, but I suppose the hope attached to that card outweighs the hope of medical intervention. 137 ran away last week, and I haven’t seen 59 since our first day out. I’m hoping that once the bandits abandon faith in their laminated yellow squares, they will trod back to the clinic, line up, be examined by the docs, and return their numbers. It would be nice to have a complete set again.

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4 Responses to “Magic plastic numbers”

  1. Yana said

    Hi Alana. I was fascinated to read this – I never really considered how endemic counting one’s years is to Western culture. I wonder how this cultural difference impacts on how we think about the future, make plans, evaluate our lives so far, etc., all of which at least in our way of thinking have a huge temporal component and are usually measured in terms of age. Thanks for sharing this tidbit, and please continue to inform with your poignant and engaging posts!

  2. Jon said

    Hmm…I wonder what the significance of the lucky numbers are. If you get to keep the magic plastic numbers, can I have the number 3?

    Or number awesome. Really, either one.

  3. Whistler said

    save 7, 12, or 97 for me 🙂

  4. Tatum said

    Psst….. I have laminator access…..

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