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 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
Reviewed on Heavenali’s blog in April
Véronique Tadjo at the Salon du Livre 2011 in Geneva by Rama: through Wiki Commons