In the Company of Men – The Ebola Tales by Véronqiue Tadjo is a beautifully written and translated, stark collection of concise narratives about the Ebola epidemic of 2014. A short but unforgettable novel, it offers a poetic vision of sustained horror, fear, and excruciating pain. It questions the blindness of humanity in the face of potential catastrophic collapse as rampant greed, willful ignorance and avoidable self-destruction threaten to decimate planet earth.
Originally published in France in 2017, there is something prophetic about these tales in light of today’s coronavirus pandemic, and the grim topicality of potential or ongoing infectious disease threats.
“Humans think they alone are the legitimate inhabitants of the planet, whereas millions of other species have populated it since time immemorial” (page 10)
The first Ebola outbreak was declared in Guinea after a baby boy from a small village was allegedly infected by bats. The virus spread from isolated, rural areas to densely populated towns and cities, crossing the border to Liberia and Sierra Leone, and throughout West Africa. The epidemic was not brought under control until 2016.
Frontline Ebola Warriors
A doctor in his stifling plastic suit, goggles, gloves and mask, asks: “What are we doing here on earth? Why have we been put here if our existence is nothing but suffering?” Personal attachment is a no-no, barrier gestures are recommended, and the sick are isolated. A nurse battles daily with death in a hospital run on a shoestring budget, doing her duty on the front line against the odds, despite the realization that “everything is a sham”. Chlorine solution is the best friend of a gravedigger over and beyond his protective suit: he may be wary of contamination from corpses leaking toxic fluids out of body bags as they are buried, but he fears ghosts more than anything, “they’re lost souls reluctant to leave the earth, hoping we’ll help them to return.” The chlorine sprayer tasked with disinfecting the homes of families who have died, conjures the resurrection of Jesus ushering in the Kingdom of God, as a mother’s spirit leaves her body and the ambulance siren wails. A young man mourns the death of his loved one through poetry.
“Africa became the cradle of untold suffering, the place where the future of all mankind was at stake” (page 22)
Men and women unite against the lethal Ebola virus which ravages the population, and extend a hand of solidarity, while others close eyes and ears to the horror of it all. And of course there are the profiteers.
Politicians make laws which they themselves do not follow, and behave in ways that for most ordinary people would lead to getting fired or arrested. Government officials generally do not walk their talk, but do exactly what they like, and indulge in shame and blame when caught out. Power, corruption and lies dehumanize society as people feel abandoned, lose faith in authority, and disengage.
Man Against Nature
The conflict between infection control practices and prevailing cultural and traditional practices contributes to the spread of the virus. Ebola itself describes why humans should be more scared of themselves than “a virus thousands of years old”.
“I am Baobab, the first tree, the everlasting tree, the totem tree” (page 11)
The overarching storyteller and witness is the ancient Baobab tree – “once a symbol for the close link between Nature and Man.” The Baobab tells the story of the world, and is its collective conscience, linking people with the past, the present, and an uncertain future given their relentless consumption of natural resources, ruinous impact on the physical environment, and mindless destruction of forests. The question remains: did deforestation cause the Ebola outbreak?
According to Peter Wohlleben, author of The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate, scientific evidence shows that forest trees live in co-operative, interdependent relationships similar to insect colonies. “The trees in every forest that is not too damaged are connected to each other through underground fungal networks. Trees share water and nutrients through the networks, and also use them to communicate. They send distress signals about drought and disease, for example, or insect attacks, and other trees alter their behavior when they receive these messages.”
Although based on actual events and stories, In the Company of Men is a perfect piece of universal literature which looks at the bigger picture and asks whether we are able to collectively rise above ourselves, or will we go on as before once a pandemic has passed? We may not have created the killer virus, but we are responsible for how we respond to it and for our actions. Can we truly take in the reality of the precariousness of the human condition, be it our own or that of others, and the absurdity of the hubris and humbug that are so appalingly prevalent?
Crimes against Humanity were a hallmark of the twentieth century; those of the twenty-first are set to be Crimes against Nature unless solidarity is regained, and harmony between Nature and humankind is restored.
Véronqiue Tadjo is a major, innovative Francophone African writer who deserves to be much more widely read and appreciated here in the UK. Born in Paris she was raised in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire, attended the Sorbonne and Howard University in Washington D.C., and later moved to the University of Abidjan, where she was a lecturer in the English department. She has written short stories, poetry, novels and children’s literature. Also a painter, she often illustrates her children’s books (her mother was a sculptor and painter). She received the Grand Prix Littéraire de l’Afrique Noire in 2005 for Reine Pokou, a novel about Queen Pokou who founded the Baoulé kingdom in West Africa, now the Ivory Coast.
Tadjo’s novel, Le voyage de Yao, is an excellent narrative example of the initiatory hero’s journey. Yao travels hundreds of kilometres away from his home village to meet his idol at a book signing event in Dakar. It was made into a film starring Omar Sy who is best known in the UK for the Netflix-produced show Lupin, and is heart-warming veiwing imbued with hope.
In the Company of Men – The Ebola Tales by Véronqiue Tadjo | Translated by the author and John Cullen | 136 pages April 2021 ISBN 978 1913109790 | HopeRoad Publishing
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