Sunday Walk in Embu (final part)

Muthigiiri is an interesting place, but no one in Embu has ever heard of it.


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Unsuspecting sheep, grazing where they are likely to end up


I set off south, towards the forest, past more ramshackle shops, selling petrol, chips, offering repairs and finally, the slaughterhouse. The road was a series of muddy ponds, and to avoid these I had to walk through peoples’ gardens. There were fewer motorbikes on this stretch. One had “Pathfinder” written on the rear mudflap. I followed him, through fields of head-high maize.


I saw a bird of prey perched on the branch of a tree ahead. I managed to get some great photos with my fancy zoom lens of the African Hawk Eagle. After it flew off I realised two men had been staring at me, wondering what I was doing. They were sharing out a bushel of fresh tomatoes. They warned me that there were many monkeys in the forest. I thought I’d better eat my last apple in case it attracted them. The lads wanted me to swap the apple for tomatoes, but I refused.


As I entered the forest, I had a nagging thought, “What if there were other animals in the forest which could do me harm?” But I dismissed it and concentrated on trying to visualise the half dozen birds that were tweeting away around me.


In the shade, the air was cool, but at open glades where there was no tree cover, the air was thick, humid and hot. There was no breeze to stir it all up. It was rather magical. There was a fragrant smell from conifers, which were the bulk of the trees. I scanned the curtain of greenery, searching for monkeys, but found none.

A trio of men was talking furtively in low voices as I approached. I heard one say “Muzungu” so I knew I’d been spotted. I greeted them all and asked what they were doing. “Digging for medicinal herbs and roots,” said their leader, showing me a clutch of thin, orange rhizomes. “Is this good medicine?” I asked. “It gives men back their power,” he replied. I thought of asking what kind of power but he then gave a gesture which confirmed my suspicion. He asked me if I needed it, but I said I’d be in touch if the Viagra stopped working.


To the east of the track, I could see some farm buildings and Archbishop Gitari Boarding School. The path had turned into a rivulet, snaking from side to side. I tried to make a dam and divert the flow into the verge but thought that there might be a reason why it was flowing like this. So I stopped being a little boy and walked on.

I saw several trees which had coffin-shaped boxed hanging from high branches. I thought that they could be beehives, but I couldn’t see bees flying in. Mysterious. What do you think?


I reached a graded murram road and left the forest behind. Motorcycles were swarming around me, asking where I was going. I decided to wave at all of them, and this seemed to ease their curiosity somewhat. A church service was just ending across the road and a man with an impressive rooster came out of the gate. He held it up for me to see, clutching it at the base of both wings, and offered to sell it to me for £5. I must be getting more Africanised because for a moment, I considered buying it. Not as a pet, but to eat, of course.

The shops were more sophisticated here. The Gilead Lifestyle Center (the balm of Gilead was a powerful ointment, “to make the wounded whole”) offered an impressive array of services, including “Complete health and Restoration”.


I looked up the strange choice of Jeremiah 46:11 when I got home and it was therapeutic nihilism:

Go up into Gilead, and take balm, O virgin, the daughter of Egypt: in vain shalt thou use many medicines; for thou shalt not be cured.

The list of diseases treated included diabetes, cancer, fibroids, asthma, haemorrhoid (sic), high blood pressure, kidney problems, ulcers, asthma, stroke and no doubt several others. This overlaps with the management of chronic, non-communicable diseases which is the focus of my work in rural health centres in Kenya. I might have an open mind, but I doubt we will be collaborating with this healer.

I was exhausted when I reached the tarmac road, the Embu-Nairobi Highway. I had no choice but to walk at the side of the road. Speed bumps extended to the edge of the road (to avoid motorcycles cutting inside to avoid them). I was tired and I kept tripping up over the bumps. Some boys on a hill across the road thought this was hilarious. I crossed the Rupingazi River using the pedestrian bridge. It was even more uneven than the road.

Consulting Google maps, I saw a shortcut, up a muddy slope into Embu Town. I struggled past the Daniel Arap Moi Stadium (where they play more sevens rugby than football) and bought another litre of water at the supermarket. I was sitting on a wall, guzzling the tepid water when I noticed a familiar smell, that of spirit alcohol. Someone had dropped a bag containing a bottle of cane spirit as they had left the supermarket. A lady was cleaning up the broken glass, but the security guard gave me a stern look as he came to investigate. “Not me, guv, I’m innocent, a teetotaller in Kenya,” I said.

I took the shortcut back to our house along shady unmade roads, where there are more birds. I saw a spectacled weave in a tree and stopped. Two drunken young men staggered past and asked what I was doing. I pointed out the bird and he said, “No, that’s an avocado tree.” Actually, it was a mango tree.

It was 3:45pm when I reached home, totally shattered. I’d only walked about 20km but Embu is at 1,350m above sea level. This was altitude training, not a gentle stroll.

I stripped off, showered and collapsed on my bed to recover with a cup of tea. I thought, what lessons had I learned today?

Although Google Maps are good, they are not infallible. Local Kenyan villagers can’t read maps. Why should they need to? They live here and know their way about. One thought the line demarcating Embu and Kirinyaga counties was a road. There was a gap shown down the middle of the forest which no one could explain. Everyone was very confident about giving directions and advice, despite it being wrong at least half the time.

But Kenya remains a fascinating and beautiful place.


Sunday Walk in Embu (part 2)


Rupingazi River overflowing its banks


I crossed the torrent of the Rupingazi River on a road bridge and saw two well-dressed ladies in their Sunday best, leave the road and climb into the forest. I speeded up and called to them. “Was this a shortcut to the forest road?” They reassured me that it was. I asked them if they could show me the way and they concurred.

One of the ladies was wearing red, high-heeled shoes. Not very appropriate for walking down a muddy path, through partially cultivated bush and coffee plantations. When I pointed this out, they just laughed and said this was a good path, easy to walk. They reached their church and told me to turn south.


After a few hundred yards I came across Camp Ndunda Falls. “Keep your negative thoughts away from this refuge,” proclaimed a sign. Two ladies were sitting in the shade outside a wooden building. A sign said, “No WiFi, so stop looking at your phone and talk to each other.” I asked what happened at the Camp and they said there was a £2.50 admission charge, for a picnic area, a nature trail,  a visit to the waterfall and a take-your-life-in-your-hands zip line. I asked if they had a map or a brochure, but the office door was locked. They looked at each other and didn’t know what to do.

“How do I get to the forest?” I asked. I showed them the map on my phone, but they hadn’t a clue.

“You should go back the way you came.”

Really? Eventually, probably to shut me up, one of the ladies pointed me to a track outside the fence leading westwards.


Never trust a woman who wears a dress which looks like it ought to be seen with 3D spectacles


“This will get me to the road?”


“Are you sure?”


I asked about how to cross a stream which was shown on the map, but she said, “You just cross.”

I walked about half a mile through beautiful countryside on the edge of the forest until I came to a fast flowing stream. I would have tried to ford it, but there was no path on the other side. My path turned north but was partly flooded by the stream, so I abseiled horizontally, hanging off a barbed wire fence, to reach the path as it reappeared.


OK, it doesn’t look much here, but it was more impressive in real life



This is a coffee bush, showing green and red berries


It was pleasant walking through dappled sunlight beside a coffee plantation, even though I was going the wrong way. Up ahead, I heard voices. Three men and a dog were sitting around the remains of a fire. They were making charcoal. A long thin sack would sell for £200 in Nairobi, they said. I wondered if they were doing this legally, so I didn’t linger.


“Is there a bridge across the stream?” “No, you must go to the road.”

“The path to the road?” “Just go straight.”

After a hundred yards, there was a T junction. I chose to turn right, up the hill away from the stream. At the top of the hill, there was a small homestead with a cow in a byre, a small boy with a large rake trying to do some gardening and his mother, who was washing clothes in a tin tub. The mother stopped scrubbing, greeted me warmly and offered to show me the real path to the road. Her son stared, open-mouthed. I wondered if he had ever seen a muzungu before.

She led me to another house where an old lady was cutting greens using a knife with no handle. Without thinking, she thrust out her knife-holding hand to shake mine. I pretended to be frightened and she burst into gales of laughter. Part of her left nostril had disappeared. People don’t have nose rings here, so I thought her nostril must have been damaged in an accident or by infection.

When I reached the road, there was a thin, old man in a suit with a trilby hat, looking down at his shoes. I immediately thought that he was wondering what to do about his wet shoes after fording the river. As I approached, he awoke from his reverie, saw me and set off up the hill at a pace.


I didn’t have to ford the river as there was a bridge with a weir. Some lads were washing the mud off their motorbikes and they waved in greeting. I ate an apple and they gestured that they wanted one, too. I politely declined and strode up the next hill towards the boundary between Embu and Kirinyaga counties.

A matatu stopped beside me as I consulted my phone map. “Where are you going? Why are you walking?” asked the driver. I told him I was going to Muthigiiri and he said I was on the right road. He said he wasn’t fooled by my amazing cartographic skills. “I know you have GPS.”

Another lad caught me up and settled in to walk beside me for a while. He said he had recently finished a degree in management and was now looking for a job. People often think muzungus can help them with employment. He told me that his family was poor, and his older siblings didn’t have jobs either. I commiserated. He said he had left his wallet in the house and needed to retrieve it. We joked about whether it would be empty when he found it.

In Muthigiiri, half a dozen men were sitting in the shade at the roadside. Despite being packed full, a matatu was waiting for more passengers before departing. There was a goat tethered at the side. It couldn’t go onto the roof – that was already packed with luggage. But where there’s a will, there’s a way.

Children here were much more frightened of me than in Embu. They kept on coming closer and then running away when I reacted. The church service was playing some funky music, so I gave the children a treat by doing a “dad dance”. They laughed.  I decided to extend my repertoire and started to throw some Kenyan dance shapes. Even though I have learned some fancy moves from the twenty-seven religious channels on our TV, the children became more concerned and ran off.

Obviously, I am crazy and to be avoided at all costs.


Sunday Walk in Embu (part 1)

The clear, bright, blue sky was a welcome change to the ominous, dark, cloud-filled skies of the past few weeks. The rainy season has been unusually prolonged. Some say el nino, some say la nina. I was just glad to be able to go on a long walk without being drenched.

I packed my rucksack with apples, a litre plastic bottle of boiled and filtered water, my sunglasses and the brilliant Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM lens fitted to my 6D camera body. This would be ideal for capturing photographs of birds. For close up and “street photography” I would rely on my OnePlus3 smartphone.

The first church services of the day were ending when I tramped up the muddy road from our house to the main highway. Families dressed in their Sunday best and clutching their Bibles were walking home. I crossed the highway by the Anglican Cathedral and headed north down into the valley.


Boda-boda motorcycle taxis swished past me when their riders had cut the engine and were freewheeling down the slope. Those with empty pillions beckoned me to come aboard. Those already loaded with passengers would wave and shout greetings, lost on the slipstream. I discovered recently that there was no import tax on motorcycles of less than 250cc, so they were popular and more affordable.

Motorbikes coming towards me would have coasted down the opposing slope of the valley. As they bled off speed, their drivers would press the electric starter, but sometimes this didn’t work, and they would stop and have to kick start the motor. Going over speed bumps can be tricky while you are messing about with the starter.

Everyone at the side of the road, gardeners, motorcycle washers, people coming and going to church, would all catch my eye and greet me.

“Where are you going?”

“To the forest,” I would reply.

“Oooooh. Why?”

“Because I want to walk.”

Some of them expressed surprise that a muzungu (white man) would be walking at all. They think we are all from the WaBenzi tribe (the people who are driven around in Mercedes Benzes).

Up ahead was the Sunmoon Lodge, a local hotel. There was a half moon in the sky, but I couldn’t frame a photograph to show both. I walked up the hill and past a few dilapidated dukas (shops). The Njukiri Forest was to my left, but there were no clearly marked paths in that direction according to Google Maps. (I have a love/hate relationship with this app. It can be lifesaving at times and infuriatingly wrong at others.)

There was a sign pointing to the County Show Grounds, laid out on the fringes of the forest. I can just imagine the scene 70 years ago, with the white farmers proudly displaying their produce, their wives entering bakery and flower arranging competitions, with prize beasts being judged by men in white lab coats. It looked sad and dejected now.

At Njukiri Shopping Centre, a vivacious middle-aged lady wanted to walk with me. She hooked her arm through my elbow but I declined. I didn’t want to spend the next mile explaining to her why I didn’t want an African wife. She laughed and went back to her crowd of friends. I wondered what on earth had been in the priest’s sermon.

The prolonged rainy season had painted the countryside bright green. It is very fertile, with people planting stands of maize, interlaced with beans, sugar cane, potatoes (English and sweet) and arrowroot everywhere. The lakes and dams were full. I took a long look at one stretch of water to see if there was any birdlife. Two lads in fashionable Western clothes and American baseball caps asked me if I wanted to swim. I told them that I’d left my swimming trunks behind, unfortunately, and they laughed.


On the other side of the road, there was a ruckus. A man was trying to control a massive bull as it rumbled through the undergrowth onto the tarmac road. The bull continued to be rather frisky on the road, and motorbikes had to swerve to avoid it. I greeted the man and asked him what he was doing. Surely they would not be slaughtering on the Sabbath? No, he was taking the bull to cover some cows. “He knows, that’s why he’s impatient,” said the cowherd.


From one of the many churches at the side of the road, I saw a man with a massive box on a wheelbarrow. We chatted and he told me he had to move the loudspeaker from one church to another for the next service.

A boda-boda driver stalled his engine going over a speed bump and couldn’t get it restarted. I offered to help but he didn’t think much of my expertise. He pushed the bike up the hill, where there was a shack offering boda-boda repairs.


I’d been walking for two hours now and the sun was beating down. I stopped to rest and look down at a garden in a flooded valley. It looked charming, so I got out my camera. Out of nowhere, two men came to ask me what I was doing. “I am photographing this attractive scene. Your country is very beautiful.” They seemed unconvinced. “Why is this beautiful?” I rambled on about the verdant pasture, the different crops, the flooded stream, the people working in the distance. They were still suspicious. “What are you doing here?” I told them I just wanted a pleasant walk to see the countryside. “Why are you in Kenya?” When I said I was Daktari, their manner completely changed. From being a suspected spy, I had become a most welcome guest.


Kenya Medical


I caused an accident last week.

A saloon car driving up Embu’s Main Street (Nairobi – Meru Highway) decided to turn right into a side street. Coming down the hill, a motorcycle taxi (“boda-boda“) driver spotted me walking on the opposite side of the road and was distracted. Even though I’m not the only muzungu in the village (there is a blond, young, Danish man working with us), I still can attract rapt attention. The car driver cut the corner, probably expecting the motorcyclist to slow down or take evasive action, as they usually do.

It’s live and let live here, rather than obsessively obeying the Highway Code.

It was too late for the motorcyclist to react, so he laid the bike down and slid into the front of the car. The pillion passenger and the driver of the boda-boda were not injured. The bike sustained some damage from scraping down the tarmac. There was also some minor damage to the radiator grille, front bumper and number plate of the car.

I didn’t need to intervene medically, though I do have access to a magnificent emergency backpack at the office. It is huge, bright red with yellow reflectors and two extra panniers on each side. It weighs about 25kg so I don’t relish having to yomp a long distance to attend an incident. There is so much equipment inside that I could probably perform major surgery.

As well as doing the “day job” supporting Kenyan health workers in providing high-quality care to people in rural areas suffering from chronic diseases (such as asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, diabetes, epilepsy, and hypertension), we have to be on the alert for other medical calamities which could occur in our locality. My predecessor picked two of the most likely outbreaks (cholera and methanol poisoning) to prepare for and stocked up on specific equipment and appropriate medication. But even if we are called upon to help in these situations, I don’t think I will be lugging the massive red rucksack.

Post Script: Methanol poisoning is caused by drinking illicitly distilled liquor. Ethanol – ethyl alcohol – in beer, wines, and spirits, is metabolised in the liver to acetaldehyde (which wakes up you a few hours after overindulging, making you feel unwell) and finally acetate. But methanol – methyl alcohol – is metabolised to formaldehyde and formic acid, which can be fatal. It might seem odd to non-medics, but the treatment for methanol poisoning is to give the patient ethanol.

So perhaps I ought to have a wee dram in a hip flask attached to the emergency backpack?


This man is at risk of methanol poisoning




International Labour Day

The office was closed today, 1st May, in commemoration of Workers’ Day in Kenya. I decided to go to the Sports Ground in Embu to witness the celebrations. The show was supposed to start at 10am, but in my experience, time is more flexible in Africa. I lay in bed listening to the birds tweeting outside my window and didn’t get up till 9:30.

I walked up the muddy path towards the main Nairobi – Meru Highway and encountered the coffin makers. The headquarters of Golden Funeral is conveniently close to the Hospital Morgue. Two joiners were constructing caskets outside a tin shack. I asked them why they were working on Workers’ Day and one replied that death doesn’t stop for public holidays. True.





From a distance, the wood of the coffin had a look of quality, but when I got closer, the “grain” of the wood was fake. The appearance was produced by wood stain painted on and fashioned to look more expensive than pallet wood. There were some gaps in the planks in the floor of the coffin, which could be embarrassing. The cheap tin alloy handles looked so fragile that I thought they must be for show only; if you tried lifting a loaded coffin using the handles, they would snap off.

The chief coffin maker insisted I take his photograph and to include a shot of his new hearse/van. “I need all the publicity I can get,” he said.


Yellow-bellied sunbird


I used my phone to take the pictures as using my Canon 6D fitted with a zoom 100-400 lens seemed like overkill (sorry). Anyway, it was packed away in my rucksack. I intended to photograph some birds on the way to the Sports Ground. I took several shots of a sunbird and was surrounded by a group of children, wondering what I was doing. I had to take their photograph of course. A middle-aged lady joined me on the path and we chatted as we walked down the hill to the town centre.


People want to know your marital status in Africa. It helps them place you. This lady said she was a widow. Her elderly husband died in 2012. “I married young, at 18, so I was never able to complete my education. My parents didn’t think it was important.” I asked her if the marriage was arranged or whether it was a love match. “I picked an older man because he was grown up, not like the boys my age I knew. He was less likely to go off with other women.”

She told me that she had four children, three grown up and one at school. The salary of a civil servant was enough to pay for living expenses and boarding school fees

“Do you want to marry again?” I asked her.

“No! African men are bad. They just want to use you as a servant. And a man will not accept another man’s son as his own.”

When I told her my age, she complimented me. “In Africa, you would be retired for a long time now. But it is good that you are still working, helping people. Here, when men retire, they take to drinking beer and then they die soon.”

I asked her about the best places to eat in town but she said that she always cooked her own food and avoided restaurants. She went into the butchers and I walked down the road to the Sports Ground.


The event had finished. There were no bands, no speeches, no cheering crowds, no music. Just overgrown grass and patches of mud. There was no evidence that it actually happened.

I walked back up the hill and called in on N. We sat on the veranda and I took some photographs to show off my camera equipment.


Red-winged Starling


On the way back to my house in Spring Valley Road, I saw a knife grinder called Henry. He was using a Heath-Robinson apparatus to sharpen knives. I chatted with him for a few moments before he made a sales pitch. “Do you have any knives I can sharpen? Good price.” I declined, but he persisted.




“Do you have any work tools, machetes, pangas, axes which are blunt?”

“I am a Daktari. I don’t need my stethoscope sharpening.” He laughed.

But actually, I think my hearing could be a bit sharper. My ears need syringing.


Embu Market

After four days of intensive briefings, my head was bursting with data. And more questions. I needed some time for the information to bed in. I needed to put some flesh on the bones. I needed to get to know Embu. And the best way to understand a place is to visit the market.

Early on Saturday morning, four of us jammed into a taxi and drove down the hill to the market area. There are four markets in the centre of town. The first is the fringe of the matatu (bush taxi) bus station. There are shops –  butchers, hairdressing salons, restaurants, general stores – and stalls selling snack food, huge hands of green bananas and leafy vegetables.IMG_2731.jpg

We worked our way through the tangled mass of matatus, already jammed full with people and produce but waiting for just one or two more passengers to maximise profits. “Never trust a man with a smile,” proclaimed the logo on one taxi. Maybe that would be good advice for buyers at the market.IMG_2732.jpg

In the centre of the matatu parking area, there stands a massive billboard advertising cane spirit. This is potent stuff, but costs just a bit more than a bottle of Tusker beer. There is a big demand for spirits in Kenya. On the television news this morning, Diageo / East African Breweries announced it was stepping up production. Meanwhile, illicit stills produce cheap rotgut which occasionally causes methanol poisoning.IMG_2726.jpg


At the corner of the parking area, there is a small muddy snicket leading to the covered market area. A first glance, this looks like a sea of jumbled produce and people. There may be an underlying logic to the arrangement, but it was lost on me. Sellers pile their tomatoes, aubergines, potatoes, avocados, bananas and whatever else they have, on their stalls. There appears to be no demarcation between one stall and the next. Indeed, some stalls don’t have scales, so they pass baskets of food to their next door neighbour to be weighed. And if they don’t have the correct change, they will “bum a few bob” from an old lady across the aisle.

Never buy what you see at first is a good maxim. Take your time and cruise the market, looking for the best quality produce. Avoid the temptation is to buy lots of stuff at one stall, spread your shillings around the community of producers.

There is another covered area, past the fishmongers, perhaps selling better quality goods. Up the hill, there is an open area selling massive cabbages, maize and bulky items.IMG_20180428_093833.jpg

I am always a bit wary when the price of items on a stall is always 100 shillings (equivalent to a US dollar). If I want to buy something there, I will try to bargain a discount or get a few extra items added to my shopping bag for free.

What did I buy? Courgettes, avocados, black and green, papaya, butternut squash, potatoes, sweet purple onions, green beans, carrots, tomatoes, oranges, tangerines, watermelon, pineapple and passion fruit. The stallholder explained that the green passion fruits are good for indigestion. It transpired that they are sweeter and less acidic than the darker variant, so they don’t provoke indigestion so easily.

Plastic bags were outlawed in Kenya last year, so I brought cloth carrier bags with me. We lugged our purchases back to the taxi so they could be dropped off at the house with two team members, while I explored more of the town with N.


Road trip

“What goodies shall I bring to the project?” I asked Dr E. She said, “The staff like sweets.” I thought that this was not such good advice because my new mission deals with chronic diseases, such as diabetes and hypertension. Sugar is the enemy! But I found I was wrong when I had my briefing in the office.

“What we want is Quality Street! Not Celebrations. As children we found out where my father hid the Quality Street and we ate them,” she said.

“Even the green ones?” I asked.

“No, they were our least favourite. We liked the red and yellow ones.”

“What about the purple ones with the soft toffee and the brazil nut?”

“We liked them too. When he discovered what we had done and he asked us if he was the father of thieves!”

My departure to the field was delayed by an enormous traffic jam caused by a lorry and trailer jack-knifing on the Mombasa Road. It had been loaded with cement, which was tipped over two carriageways of the highway. It had been raining since midnight, so the cement must have been setting. In my mind’s eye, I could envision workers chipping away at the hardening cement of the road surface, trying to clear the way.

We set off and joined the traffic jam. Some roads were raging torrents of orange water. Our twin cab Toyota Pickup truck ploughed through the flood, creating a bow wave. A truck passed us on the inside lane and drenched my side of the vehicle with a tsunami of muddy water. Unfortunately, I had left a crack of window open to prevent the glass from steaming up with condensation…

As we left the city en route to Embu, the rain stopped and we were able to make good progress. I sat back in the passenger seat and drank in the atmosphere. I made some notes:

Most locals use minibuses called matatus. Some matatus were named after Manchester United. Another was called, “Addicted to Jesus”. The message on a truck’s mudflap was “Almighty Leader”.

The side of a bus was painted with the Nike swoosh and the slogan, “Jesus did it.”

Motorbike taxi riders wore yellow tabards, advertising their sponsors. Some bore the name of the President. To shield passengers from the rain, a few motorbikes sported elongated umbrellas which must have limited their speed. But not as much as one man with a two-seater sofa balanced across the pillion seat.

About halfway to Embu, there is a village which is famous for its catfish. I spotted saloon cars with fish hanging from their wing mirrors, presumably to keep cool.

The countryside was verdant and sparkling after the rain. Villagers were slashing the vegetation at the side of the road, to keep the verges clear. Some workers had tucked their trousers into their long socks, which gave them a “plus four” appearance. The privet hedging around some of the petrol stations’ forecourts had been clipped in a more careful manner, with topiary which would not be out of place in the Home Counties.

Some of the roadside hotels had great names. “Beach Hotel” and “Red Soil Hotel” were two that stayed in my memory. We arrived in Embu just before lunch. Across the road from the office is the “Kryptonite Hotel”. The sign above the entrance glows green. It’s fortunate that I am not “Superdoc”.