Tag Archives: Covid-19

In the Company of Men by Véronique Tadjo

We all remember those other worldly images of people in Hazmat suits treating victims of Ebola in West Africa between 2014 and 2016. There were also images of people waiting in compounds; others stricken with grief but unable to touch their dead; and teams with sprays, and hastily created burial grounds with bodies wrapped in plastic. It was terrible, but how relieved we were that it was happening in West Africa, far away from us. 

And perhaps we now wish we had taken more notice, for some of the worst hit areas by our current pandemic seem to be as chaotic and dreadful as those. We should have heeded the warnings of experts and history: pandemics happen. There was the Spanish flu of 1918, HIV/Aids, SARs, MERs and Ebola. 

In the Company of Men was the choice for February of the Asymptote Book Club.

In the Company of Men

Ebola began when infected bushmeat was consumed in the forests of West Africa. The Ebola virus spread quickly through contact, helped by ignorance. And also by lack of knowledge and resources to confront the rapid spread of infections. The illness seemed excruciatingly disgusting, melting the internal organs of the infected body. 

Véronique Tadjo explores the sense to be made of the outbreak. The figures seem low to us, now faced with Covid-19: 28,646 cases and 11,323 dead. But it caused mayhem, destroying lives, beliefs, economies and confidence. The author uses the possibilities of the novel to look at the impacts and experiences of many of its victims, including the Ebola virus itself.

 So each of the short chapters are related by people or other living creatures affected by the outbreak. There are the medical teams who had so little to fight with and could only ease a patient through the illness to recoveryor death by hydrating them, providing painkillers and trying to alleviate anxiety. Stuffed inside their protective gear, sweating in the African heat, dealing with victims who were often terrified, their working conditions were terrible.

There are the survivors, still viewed with suspicion; the foster carer for an Ebola orphan; the volunteers who built the Ebola centres; the other staff whose job it was to bury the dead in conditions that transgressed against the cultural customs of their families; and the outreach teams who had to go into villages to ensure restrictions and behaviours were in accordance with preventative measures, but against all customs. 

A leader of an outreach team explains some of the difficulties.

The outreach team have to exercise patience. They need to find the right words. Because when people are afraid, they will act irrationally. The contradictory claims and rumors going around about Ebola create a lot of uncertainty in peoples’ minds. The rate at which it spreads, its virulence, that’s all too much to grasp, and very hard to accept. Sometimes it’s just easier to lie to yourself. It’s easier simply to disbelieve the evidence before your eyes, in your own village, in your own neighborhood. Despite the public notices, many prefer to hide the sick, or even, if the threat becomes real, to die with them. What’s the point, they say, it was a losing game right from the start. The most vulnerable members of society, women and children, have to bow to the decrees of the elders. They’re excluded from the discussions, and thus have no inkling of the dangers waiting for them. (80-81)

She writes from the perspective of the virus, and from the bat that had been its host. The bat suggests that humans are not facing up to the situation, instead pursuing their empty dream of purity and perfection, in the Ebola epidemic to find a scientific solution to its eradication. The bat suggests that this dream of perfection is not the way forward, because it is aggressive and destructive.

[Humans say] ‘We save more lives than we kill. We discover medicines that cure and vaccines that protect. Our advanced technologies will provide solutions for our problems and innovations will alleviate global hunger and warfare.’ … 
But I know none of this will actually happen unless they learn to share with one another, and with us, and with every creature yet to be born. …
Humans need to recognize that they’re part of the world, that there’s a close bond between them and all other living creatures, great and small. Instead of trying to rise above their earthly origins. Instead of wanting to conceal the presence of death by dint of ever-more-sophisticated invention.(132-3)

The use of multiple voices by Véronique Tadjo extends to quoting from songs and poems that circulated at the time or were already well-known in the countries affected.

So the reader finishes this short novel with the sense that we need to see the Ebola outbreak not as an aberration, but absorb its history and how to confront it into our understanding of the world. The bat has already said that, the virus is more critical of human capacity to destroy, but the Baobab tree echoes the more positive note.

These ancient and revered trees are often the meeting place for a village and are seen as trees that hold knowledge and understanding of the world. ‘I am Baobab, the first tree, the everlasting tree, the totem tree.’ When the outbreak is finally over, the tree welcomes back the activity of humans. It has the final word:

And the destiny of Man will become one with ours. (141)

Everything that I read in In the Company of Men applies to Covid-19. The scale is larger, but the ability of literature to show us the familiar in new ways is reflected in this book.

Véronique Tadjo

Véronique Tadjo is a poet, novelist academic and artist from Côte d’Ivoire with an interest in many African countries.

In the Company of Men by Véronique Tadjo first published in French in 2017, and the English translation by Other Press in 2021. Translated from the French by the author in collaboration with John Cullen. 147pp

Related Posts

Reviewed on Heavenali’s blog in April

Asymptote Book Club

Picture credit

Véronique Tadjo at the Salon du Livre 2011 in Geneva by Rama: through Wiki Commons

Baobab Tree by Rod Waddington on Visualhunt.com

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Missing my writing group

I miss my writing group. We have not met in person since March, six months ago. The Coronavirus pandemic has postponed or cancelled some of the good things planned for this year, including an away day to work together on writing.

The Writing Group

I have been in this writing group since it started 7 years ago. The librarian called together some local writers and we formed our group. We have retained the library connection because we want people to be able to join in, as freely as they visit a library. It’s open to all. We only have one rule: don’t put yourself or your writing down. (None of this ‘it’s very rough really and I think you’ll hate it,’ or ‘I’m not sure about this, I’m not as experienced as the rest of you,’ and so on. It’s surprising how hard it is to wean people off this way of introducing their writing.)

Over the years we have achieved some rewarding things. We produced an anthology of our writing called Gallimaufry. We sold it to the public for £5 a copy, using the marketing ploy that it was an excellent Christmas present. We put our oldest and whitest haired members to the front and stood in the library entrance and sold them. 

It was a good experience. We learned a fair bit about producing a book and although it did not raise any funds for the group we were proud of our efforts.

Then there was the evening when brave members performed their work. We celebrated our 4th birthday with a brilliant bookish cake. We were not quite brave enough to open this to the public, but the event was attended by tolerant and appreciative friends and relations. 

Emboldened by all this, and wanting to try new aspects of sharing our work in the community, we decided to host a one day writing festival. None of us had realised what a step up that would be. It tested our organisational skills and rather got in the way of writing for the committee members. 

But in September 2019 we hosted about 100 local people to attend 12 workshops, some readings, a school’s writing display, a sale of books, and a poetry slam. It was a great success 

The feedback was positive. No we wouldn’t be doing this annually. We might repeat some of the activities. We needed to recover. We got ourselves sorted to use our funds for various activities, all aimed to support writing by people in the community and –

Covid-19 locked us down.

Writing in a pandemic

It’s been hard, writing in this pandemic, or rather not writing. Like many people I wrote a lockdown diary. I stopped after 4 months because I felt that my life was being prescribed by the virus. I began to feel that I should make my life be about more than Covid-19, that I would take account of the pandemic of course, but not be more defined by it than necessary. 

I have continued with my Morning Pages. I follow a modified version of the recommendation in The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. I start every day with Morning Pages. It helps me reflect on my writing and my reading and other activities important for my mental health. 

And I have continued to post on this blog every 5 days. Bookword was launched in December 2012, and I have since posted 613 times. Most of those posts are about books, but a fair number are about writing and publishing. I have no plans to stop soon.

Recently I felt frustrated by my lack of writing. I stopped wondering why I wasn’t getting on with my short story. They always take me a long time, but this one was largely conceived in November 2019. I have written perhaps two thousand words, some of it very poor and written just to get something down. So I decided that I would write 500 words a day. That’s roughly two handwritten sides of A4. I have been doing that since the beginning of September and enjoyed it. Some of it is memoir. Some of it is comment on what’s happening. Some is more like an exercise, a description or a response to a prompt.

And I have decided to take advantage of some on-line writing courses. I love writing courses, although I did feel at one point that I was a course junky and that attending courses was replacing or displacing my writing activities.

And in the last two or three months the writing group has been meeting on zoom. Or rather a few of us have been meeting on zoom. Usually one of us volunteers to offer a prompt and then we write together and read the results of our efforts. There is always laughter and always lots of praise and encouragement. We were just thinking that we might meet in person in a suitably distanced way when the rule about meeting in groups of six as a maximum was introduced. 

We are at the point of thinking about some variations in the way we use the zoom facility to share our work on the chat or screen share facility, using the audio and visual possibilities and so on.

So now I know

So now I know that my writing group, in person, round a table, with people who I know only as writers (often nothing more about them, their families, jobs, where they live etc etc) is important for my writing and that I will want us to operate again as we did when this is over.

What I like about the group is the stimulus, the laughter, the audience, the critique and above all the community.

Tell us what do you need from a writing group?

Related posts

Gallimaufry or why my writing group is cock-o-hoop (January 2016)

A Writing Festival – why would you organise one?

A Birthday for Our Writing Group

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What I did during Lockdown

One thing I have been doing in the Lockdown is keeping a daily diary, a journal of my experience of avoiding Covid-19. I have written something every day since Sunday 15th March, when I decided to isolate myself. At the time of writing I have done nearly 100 days.

So what is this diary for? 

Why did I start it? 

Why haven’t I stopped writing it? 

What does it contain? 

What have I learned from it?

My Covid Diary – thank you Sarah

What is this diary for? 

Here’s how it starts.

Sunday 15th March (Day 1)
Today the rumours began that people over 70 would soon be forced into self-isolation for 4 months.I find myself trembling with fear. It seems that there is some truth to these stories. And I wonder – with loneliness known to be the biggest killer of older people – how can this be contemplated.

Later that day I record that there were NO plans to ask over-70s to completely isolate themselves, only to reduce social contact. And I decide to limit my contacts from that day.

Monday 16th March (Day 2)
The Finnish PM – a woman- says we should not speak of social distancing/isolation but of physical distance/isolation. We must insure that social connections are kept.
New cases 330 Deaths 35

It is a record, a historical record. I hope we are not in for repeated lockdowns, although I fear that is a possibility. But this is our first and many things are strange and unusual. I planned to record some of them.

I note the announcement of the Lockdown.

Tuesday 24th March (Day 10)
New restrictions announced last night – for 3 weeks at least. Everyone to stay at home, only go out for exercise and with one member of your household. Cases 6650 Deaths 335

As it goes on I note what I observe about things closing, (GPs’ surgeries, schools, pubs, gyms, and so on) and how Michel Barnier, EU chief Brexit negotiator, had the virus, two news stories collide. I note too that it gets hard to remember what day it is, the need to keep exercising, the figures rising, how I long for a haircut and the UN’s 4 key qualities: being kind, generous, empathetic and sharing solidarity.

I make a note of bad nights, the events being cancelled, and the friends with whom I talk on the phone. At first it feels as if we are in some kind of hiatus, life suspended, frozen in time.

From the first day I record the figures of cases and deaths (once a researcher, always a researcher), although we now know that the totals were much higher because statistics we were given were only from those people who had been tested. 

As  historian I know that looking back at something has a different flavour from a record of reactions at the time, before one knows the outcomes. For example, war diaries are interesting, because they do not have hindsight, they were written before the outcome of hostilities was known.

I recorded many of the contradictions and tensions in the situation

Monday 30th March (Day 16)
Contradictions:Reassurances – it’s not that bad for 4 out of 5 people but terrible for those who suffer.The virus is global – we live locally and in very restricted waysWe are all in it together – but we must stay 2m apart. Cases 22,141 Deaths 1408

We are isolated physically but better connected than ever. (Day 43)

We are all in this together but some of the established fault-lines are visible: gender (men appear to die more than women), age (older people are 60% of the victims, ethnicity (BAME people are suffering more deaths). I expect there are class differences as it is harder to observe lockdown in a small overcrowded flat with children and no garden (Day 44)

And I had an obscure idea that if I was going to find the lockdown as difficult as I feared, then writing would be helpful in avoiding depression. It may have helped, it may still help. 

Sunday 12th April (Day 28)
Something must change. I don’t want to mope about anymore. More contact. More writing. First rule of lockdown life – be nice to yourself – food, activities, and above all no running yourself down.2nd rule – find and enjoy the small things. Cases 78,991 Deaths, 9895

A change of mood comes when I speak with friends. An important change came on Day 42. I decided that I needed to stop seeing Lockdown as a hiatus, and accept that this is life now and it still needs to be lived.

Friday 1st May (Day 47)
Are we nearly there yet? Cases 177,454 Deaths 27,510

I noted all the things we currently count: deaths, deaths of the over 60s, deaths of men vs women, cases, tests, days in lockdown. And that my friends were making fewer phone calls. And that Kier Starmer was asking – how has it come to this? VE Day, the new slogan Stay Alert replacing Stay Home, WHO warning that Covid-19 may never go away, the horror of the care home infections and deaths.

Sunday 17th May (Day 63 – 9 weeks)
I am a little haunted by two things. Is death by Covid-19 horrible? I imagine a kind of drowning as lungs fail, or suffocation as oxygen doesn’t reach the parts that need it. No-one has said.And what will the ‘new normal’ be like? For a start I imagine it will not be new, just emergent from what we have now. And normal – hardly. I look at my 8 friends on the Writers Group [zoom] meeting, and I wonder if we will ever be in the same room again, whether we can ever be together as we used to be. Cases 233,151 Deaths 34,636

And a few days later I note that the over 70s are being condescended to again, patronised, and that the advances since the late C20th against ageism are being rolled back and an intensification of ageism is emerging.

And then the mood everywhere changed with the Cummings debacle and then again with Black Lives Matter.

Monday 8th June (Day 85)
Shocking news that many people died at home, alone, often not found for 2 weeks. Possibly 700 in London. Cases 287,399 Deaths 40,599 No deaths in London or Scotland todsay

What have I learned from my diary?

One thing I learn is that reality is not the same as fears. I still think it is crazy to refer to social rather than physical distancing, but rarely make that point now. The purpose, to reduce contact, is most important. 

I learned that once I knew I would not run short of food, or even toilet paper, I could manage. I also needed contact with key people in my life, preferably when I can see them. But I still have bad nights.

I am horrified by the failures of the government in so many things, and that they spin their record to claim pride in it. They deny faults and hide the truth.

And some fairly random things: I prefer doing Pilates in the morning; I don’t have a good recipe for banana bread; I can live a boring life and survive; there are more adders around this year; too many government contracts have gone to private companies without due process; some grapes are pretty tasteless and not the first symptoms of the virus.

I’ll continue with my diary until I stop physically distancing myself. I don’t expect much to be ‘normal’ again, whatever that was.

How was your lockdown?

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