by Bob Baker
Malaria was like having a pain X-ray of all your bones, but after a fever bout, shaking chills diverted attention from your aching bones. I had taken all the anti-malaria pills but had evidently bumped into a new strain upcountry in Mali, West Africa. Catching bugs was also easy in Liberia, and Congo.
All night, I intermittently came to, out of my fever and watched the big overhead fan lazily swirl around and around. Then chills came so hard, I feebly pulled the blanket over me again but could not stop shaking and hurting. Night dragged on and on in our big barn of a house in Bamako, Mali, 1968.
At last, streams of brilliant white broke through thin openings in the scarlet bedroom curtains. Then the chills came back, so I pulled the blankets over me again. Then came the sweats, off with blankets, but no relief from the bone aches. The attack lasted a couple days but lots of chloroquine finally stopped the “blossoming” of the malaria bugs in my blood. The symptoms declined, then finally went away.
A month or so later, the same attacks began but again went away after a couple days with chloroquine treatment. The Peace Corps Director in my previous post, Kampala, Uganda, had to be evacuated home with brain malaria and almost died. Malaria never quite dies out totally in your body, but luckily, I’ve not had another outbreak.
Instead, years later, I got another bug in Africa. I dutifully poured a glass of water from the shiny clean, bronze colored plastic jug on the washbasin at the Monrovia Hilton in Liberia, West Africa. I was there on an inspection trip in 1981 when I was Policy Officer for Africa in the U.S. Information Agency.
A shiny little brass plaque screwed into the wall over the sink said Do Not Drink Water from The Faucet, Drink Water Only from the Jug Provided. Many African politicians had grabbed money from the municipal sinking funds that were meant to pay for new pipes after the old ones became rusty or began to leak. No new pipes for a half century meant sewage pipes leaked into water pipes: “Do Not Drink Water From the Faucet!”.
I obeyed and did not drink the water from the faucet. I did, however, continue to breathe the air in my room, careless of me. A thick yellow shag carpet, two luxurious inches deep, covered my bedroom floor. Monrovia often has 95% humidity with 90F weather for months on end. My room stank of mildew as did the hallways laden with the same mildew world carpet. After my week’s work in Monrovia, I flew back to my job as Policy Officer for Africa in Washington, D.C., very sick in the stomach. The State Department doctor gave me pills which did little good until he completed lab work on my case. Then he gave me huge pills that worked after a week. I had a fungus growing in my intestinal tract from the luxurious carpets.
The Congo gave me my next medical treat. My three day working visit to Leopoldville, (now called Kinshasa) the Congo, ended with a real African meal at a real African eatery sought out at my request. I was on a tour from my job as Policy Officer to a dozen African U.S. Information Agency posts. My job was to inspect post operations and to write efficiency reports on the American staff after I was back in D.C.
My host, the Public Affairs Officer for Congo, had been around Africa for decades and knew exactly where to go when I asked him to make my final meal one at a genuine African place. He drove me an hour into the bush on the badly rutted roads until we parked at an open-air Congolese restaurant. Bright flames from a stone grill illuminated the center of an open space. A dozen little tables under canopies of grass roofs and open on all sides surrounded the fireplace.
A dozen Congolese journalists, writers and even a poet were the other supper guests invited by my host. Lots of beer bottles came to us before the three foot round metal platter of hot fried chicken hove into view. The cook carrying the platter dropped hunks of delicious charcoal grilled chicken breasts onto our plates with her bare hands. I noticed a black rim under her fingernails as she passed out the chicken, but I already had a couple warm beers and was already was deep in talk in my then fluent French with one newspaper guy. He was super bright, spoke excellent French and was deeply depressed by the utterly corrupt, incompetent rule of the long-time dictator, “President for Life”, Mobutu.
The U.S. had helped install Mobutu decades before when he was a Congo Army Colonel, but he had long since kicked off our traces during his climb to total power. Back at the beginning, he had received brown paper bags of dollars over lunch from one of our spooks. Our cash initially bought him political power and frustrated the breakup of the country and Soviet penetration.
Sadly, we continued to back him and the elected President, Kasavubu, even though the charismatic and bright Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba had asked President Kennedy to send American troops to support his government.
Kennedy turned him down, so Lumumba turned to the USSR for help and got a little. That was enough to enrage Belgian interests and turned Americans away from him. That led to his murder by Belgian troops not long after. Mobutu rose to absolute power, robbed the Congo treasury blatantly for decades and let the country infrastructure and social services collapse. Even the road out of the capital was potholed and falling apart.
I kept talking that night, drank more beer and ate the delicious chicken. The evening ended after the moon had gone down and I had a very good introduction to the atmosphere of fear and corruption in President Mobutu’s dictatorship. It was a very saddening impression from the dozen youngish reporters and intellectuals at the supper.
On my flight to Johannesburg, South Africa, the next morning, I felt sick. By time we landed, I was very sick. Arrived in my hotel room very woozy, I threw my bag onto the floor and rushed into the bathroom to throw up. I woke up on the bathroom floor a bit later with a bump on my head from my fall onto the marble floor when I had passed out .
I had to work the next morning despite being deadly sick as a major Embassy event for dozens of African leaders had been timed so I could attend it. I did my job, talking with them and the American organizers until at last the work day ended.
Back at the hotel I asked the front desk to get me a doctor. He was a white South African who came within an hour. He gave me an excellent injection against nausea, took blood samples, etc. Two days later I went to see him. He told me I had caught salmonella. Excellent chicken. Never trust finger nails with black rims, no matter how good the talk, the beer or the chicken.
I was lucky. Our Ambassador in Mali got skin cancer from the brilliant sun and later got a mold on his lungs. Riding tens of thousands of miles on Mali’s washboard roads damaged the Embassy doctor’s kidneys as he oversaw a national vaccination program. Frenchmen caught bilharzias in the Niger River (a snail harbors the eggs which float in the water; the eggs bore into your skin and then clog you up when they become multitudinous thin, thread-like worms).
I forced myself one time in the desert out of essential politeness to shake the fingerless hands of village elders who were lepers, but happily, I never caught leprosy.
By boiling all the water used at home for fifteen minutes and adding chlorine pills we stayed ok as a family in Africa. Briefly, we had local lettuce for a month in Bamako. We soaked and washed that in chlorine water and enjoyed it until the Embassy doctor told us it was grown on the local hospital grounds with old, used hospital bandages as fertilizer.
All that said, local mangoes were delicious and safe, ditto excellent fish, frog legs, bananas, etc. and the people were wonderfully kind and cheerful. I never felt uneasy even as the only white in crowds of hundreds of Africans. That made up for a lot, but I avoided further postings to Africa.