life and death on the borderline
24 November 2021: South Africa reports a new variant of the Sars-Covid 2 virus. The WHO designate it as omicron, inexplicably skipping both nu and xi in the normal alphabetic sequence.
12 October 2021: IMF figures show that US citizens earn an average of $68,000 per year. In Britain it’s around $46,000. Monaco residents are said to get £190,000. If that makes you chuckle mirthlessly and feel left behind, then spare a thought for the people of South Sudan whose annual wages average out at $315. In other words: by the time the average Monagasque is wondering what to have for lunch, they have earned more than most South Sudanese get in a year. But that, of course, understates the case. People who are simply surviving are not really in the money business.
9 July 2021: South Sudan celebrates its first decade as an independent country. It remains one of the poorest countries on earth although rich in natural and human resources. Reliable statistics are impossible to find. The UN's own list of figures show a merchant fleet of ships disappearing (95,000 tonnes of ships in 2015, zero in 2020). South Sudan has no coast.
September 2016: The WHO declare that measles has been eradicated in the Americas.
In 1985 I was in the Sudanese province of Western Equatoria, living in Yambio close to the border with what was then called Zaïre. South Sudan was still part of Sudan, but the independence war was intensifying.
Bullen had come to see me as soon as I arrived in Yambio. He had been friends with a previous English teacher at the secondary school and was hoping that we might get on. He was right. When someone comes along in your life who is cheerful, funny and interesting, it's good to hang on to them. We started doing bike rides together at weekends, heading off through the bush deep into Zaïre or along the border ridge that divides the Nile and Congo river basins. We visited remote markets where he could buy honey to bring back to Yambio and sell at a profit. We never went north, deeper into Sudan. There was a war going on and that could be dangerous. Yambio itself was untouched, except to be regularly cut off from the outside world for extended periods.
Despite never going to school, Bullen was well-educated. He spoke seven languages and had taught himself to trade, grasping that he did not have to follow the custom of his tribe, the Azande. They traditionally passed their time as subsistence farmers, clearing a space in the forest, then growing crops of peanuts, cassava and sweet potato. If they had a surplus, they went to a market and sold it in small piles: three potatoes, an old tin can of peanuts, a tiny cone of cassava flour. When they got a few coins, they bought soap, sugar and tea. A lot of time was spent sitting around smoky fires underneath stilted grain stores and telling stories. There were no villages, just a loose network of footpaths connecting distant homesteads through an open forest where black and white colobus monkeys played. No one touched the colobus: the meat, they said, could give you leprosy.
When they had news to pass on, they used drums. The Pazande language is hugely rhythmic and melodic which Bullen claimed was easily translated into messages sent on a huge wooden drum that had to be sat on while playing. When I had a go, they all collapsed laughing. Apparently I had said something extremely rude to everyone within a three mile radius, but no one would tell me what it was. Weeks later, on a path somewhere in Zaïre, I asked Bullen to tell me, but he fell off his bike laughing at the memory of it.
Bullen introduced me to his neighbour John, a young subsistence farmer. He wanted work so I gave him a job, fetching water and keeping the yard around my hut clear of grass. If you let the grass grow, snakes would follow. John had also never been to school, but unlike Bullen he had spent most of his life in the bush. One day I found an old copy of a Sunday Times magazine in the bottom of my rucksack and handed it to him.
He sat down on a stool and turned the magazine around and around, sighing with pleasure as he felt the shiny paper under his fingertips. It was only after some time that I realised I would have to show him how to turn a page and look inside. When he did, he let out gasps of astonishment at each image. He had never really seen photographs before. In the market there were tins of milk powder with baby faces on them and sheets of newspaper used to wrap things, but there was nothing like this. Especially not like the portrait in the centre.
This was the mid 80s and Michelle Pfeiffer was rising towards superstardom after appearing in the film Scarface. In the photograph she was wearing nothing but a skimpy mini dress and spangled stilleto shoes. She was standing with one knee slightly forward across the other, a finger up on her lips as if surprised. It was sexy and a bit kooky, the kind of image teenage boys used to pin to their bedroom wall. John stared for a long time without speaking. The women he knew were not like Michelle Pfeiffer. They went barefoot and wore ragged clothes. Every compound always rang to the incessant beat of a woman pounding cassava in a giant wooden mortar. That glorious youthful time when your body blossoms with vitality and vigour, did not last long. Girls got pregnant and their workload heavier. A fortunate soul would make it past forty.
Eventually John tapped the photo thoughtfully. "That one," he said, touching Michelle's stilleto shoes, "That one is no good for the rainy season."
I let him keep the magazine, but I wondered if I had done the right thing. What effect would the introduction of this alien object have on him and his wife? Was I infecting them with ideas and desires that could only make them unhappy? Or was I bringing a bit of life and colour into the drudgery of daily subsistence?
Sometimes I would cycle the miles out to John's homestead: three mud-walled thatched huts grouped around a grain store on stilts under which a fire was always smouldering. His wife was young and too shy to talk to me. She had never even visited the market in Yambio, never seen a scary pale-skinned stranger like me. She watched from a distance, the naked baby on her hip tugging at her sagging breasts. Her feet were dusty and cracked, never having worn shoes. She had one brown dress. John didn't know how old she was. She could have passed for thirty, but was probably about eighteen.
At the end of the school year in Yambio, I was wondering how I would depart. I knew that I would never see Bullen and John again unless I returned, which was unlikely as the independence struggle was intensifying. Neither of them had any kind of official existence: they had no documents or an address. I decided that I would give John my bicycle and some new clothes, then he could join Bullen on honey-trading trips and learn how to make an income. Bullen could have my mosquito net and furniture. (My only other possession of value was a short-wave radio, but that is another story for another day.)
Getting out of Yambio was not a simple matter. For weeks the road to Juba had been closed by rebel activity. I waited. One day John did not come to work. I went myself to the waterhole, a spring that dribbled out from under a giant kapok tree. A few days passed and neither John nor Bullen had appeared. What did arrive was a light aircraft. It came one morning and buzzed the abandoned airstrip near the school. No one had seen a plane for years, but they knew what to do. People ran out and started cutting down the head-high elephant grass, making a runway. The plane returned next day and landed. I was there to greet the pilot. He was a missionary, sent to pick up a government official who had got stranded in the town. There was room for me, he said, but I had to be ready next morning.
I went straight to look for Bullen and John, not an easy task as the fresh elephant grass had transformed everything. The twisting narrow footpaths to their homesteads were much harder to find. Out there in the bush it was rare to bump into anyone who spoke English and my Pazande had never got over that mispronunciation on the drums.
When I finally found John's compound I instantly knew something was wrong. The fire under the grainstore was out. The talking drum had fallen over, the cassava mortar was silent and the Sunday Times magazine was discarded on the ground. I put the bicycle on its stand and shouted a greeting: "Sene! Sene foro!"
Someone groaned inside one of the huts, then a figure appeared in a doorway. It was John, but he was unrecognisable: stooped like an old man, his face horribly swollen and crusty with scabs over which flies were crawling. His eyes were closed up, but he could speak. "My daughter died."
I didn't need a medical textbook to recognise the illness. I had suffered it myself as a child. In Britain it was a childhood thing: everyone had it and soon recovered. Better to have it when you're small, they said. It was measles.
Before the vaccine was invented, measles killed up to 50% of children in some places in Africa. When the conquistadores arrived in the Americas it was one of several viruses that spread rapidly, killing millions of indigenous people who had no resistance. In the century following the conquest of Mexico in 1518, the population fell from around 20 million to 1.8, almost entirely due to diseases brought in by the Spaniards. The first attempts at finding a measles vaccine started in Nigeria in 1960 when an expatriate British doctor, David Morley, inoculated all the children in a small village, including his own. Results were encouraging, but the vaccine did not seriously dent the disease until the MMR vaccine became widely available in 1999.
John told me what had happened: how his daughter became sick first. His wife then accused a neighbour of sorcery. A shaman was called and he said that everyone from the area must assemble. When they were all present and seated on stools, he used the drum to summon a snake from the bush. The snake toured the frightened crowd, weaving between stools until finally selecting one woman to coil around. It was the neighbour that John's wife had accused. She then confessed to cursing the baby girl from jealousy. She wanted a baby, but hadn't been able to get pregnant. The confession, however, had come too late. The baby had died.
I could not begin to imagine how this account could be true, but John clearly believed it. I gave him the gifts I'd promised, plus some money, and told him where I would leave the bicycle. Then I went to see Bullen. His homestead was also stricken, but at least the fire was lit and he was sitting under the grainstore as usual. We managed to share some memories of trips, like the time we came across a market deep in the Zairean jungle where people wore only bark cloth and were selling chimpanzee meat. I asked him one last time what I had said on the drum and he laughed for a full minute before saying. "Don't make me laugh, it hurts." That set him off again. I laughed along with him. Laughter, like viruses, is infectious.
Next day I climbed into the Cessna and flew out. I never saw either Bullen or John again. Part of me does not want to know what happened. I like to think of them sitting under the grainstore, roasting palm nuts and sweet potatoes in the fire, then sitting back with a a huge grins on their faces before banging out something rude on the talking drum.
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