The Angel of Death

by Geoffrey Clarfield (September 2010)

When primary rain forest covered Africa, the mosquito had no need to adapt to urban environments, and thus city dwellers were more protected from the disease. However in the post colonial era, as hardwood logging and population growth have attained critical mass, with bush replacing forest and concrete replacing bush, the malaria-bearing mosquito did not die off, but evolved. It can now thrive anywhere, especially since the forest’s destruction led to soil erosion and subsequent flooding, which further encouraged the mosquito’s proliferation.

The Ends of the Earth-A Journey at the Dawn of the 21st Century

I lay in my clean, but spartan hospital bed, a legacy of British imperialism, where I suppose comfort in a hospital would have then been considered a luxury by the crisply attired and no nonsense nurses of yesteryear. However, this was the beginning of a new century and the fact that this was still the only fully functional modern hospital in the entire East African region explained a certain accidental, cultural continuity.

Turkana are warriors and nomads. The men are tall and thin, with colored mud packs on their heads where they place colored feathers. These feathers signify the generation set of the wearer. Those who are called mountains, and who were born within a similar period, wear feathers of one color. Those who are called leopards, and who are classified as belonging to the next generation, wear a feather of a contrasting color. Thus all Turkana males are classified as either fathers or sons. Each group knows what kind of respect, decorum and most important, what kind of military cooperation is owed to the tribe in different circumstances.

The Turkana always reminded me of one of those imaginary communities described by the novelist Edgar Rice Burroughs (not surprisingly, the creator of Tarzan) who populated Mars and Venus with exotic ethnic groups who fought against each other with archaic weapons across the dusty plains of those red and white planets. Turkanaland has a red hue to its desert soil. Apart from the few towns on the main road there is no sign of civilization as we know it and one could imagine that this is how Mars will look, if ever terraformed and given an atmosphere. It will not resemble the Garden of Eden.

During my years living among the Turkana, NASA sent satellite photographs of the Martian landscape to the National Museums of Kenya where I worked. The pictures were startlingly beautiful-stark, desert like, landscapes of different hues with enormous undulating plains that showed no signs of vegetation. When I showed some of these pictures that had been reproduced in a glossy American popular scientific magazine to a Turkana elder, he looked at them, shrugged and said, “Turkanaland before the rains.”

I had been in a remote area of Turkanaland for a few days spending evenings in the homesteads of a family that I had befriended. I had just documented an initiation ceremony, whose ritual stages have the initiate act out a symbolic rebirth, where he is stripped naked, covered in mud, cleansed and then dressed as an elder, symbolizing his transformation from youth to a member of a fighting age set.

An eccentric Scottish doctor friend of mine, who had worked in Lodwar for years, confidentially told me that, on the average, certain Turkana bones were thicker than the norm (could it be possible that a few centuries of natural selection, of kill or be killed, had caused this ?) I was reminded of the comment by a British colonial administrator in the nineteen twenties, and who had participated in the violent and heavily resisted pacification of Turkanaland during the pre-independence period.

I finally resolved to drive to the town of El Doret, five hours to the south in the highlands and ask an English friend to take me to the local Asian doctor who ran a clean, Nairobi style clinic. I thought I had a bad case of the flu and considered that I might have needed a round of antibiotics.
The drive south from Lodwar is dreamlike. The Turkana plains extend for as far as the eye can see. To the West are steep, gray green hills, the Loima, on the border with Uganda, evoking the time when the Turkana came down from these hills to occupy the plains, armed only with clubs, spears and rhinoceros hide shields. Why they had succeeded where other tribes had failed, why they had conquered and displaced the previous nomadic inhabitants who in those days were no more or less numerous than they were, and who were no more or less technologically advanced (one step behind the iron age of the ancient Near East) is a mystery that anthropologists do not like to consider.

In the morning after breakfast, it dawned on me that I felt like I was slipping down an embankment. I was losing control over my physical movements and my thoughts were becoming disengaged from one another. I told Peter that I thought I may have malaria and I asked him to drive me home to Nairobi since he was going in the same direction that day. I suddenly realized that I couldn’t have kept my hands on the wheel of my jeep for more than a few seconds without collapsing.

By the time we reached Lake Naivasha, just north of Nairobi, I lay on my side in the back seat of the car burning up with fever and barely able to stand. When we finally reached Nairobi my wife took one look at me and rushed me to the hospital. Within an hour I was lying on my hospital cot, taking in as much quinine as I could, intravenously.

When I look back at the experience I conclude that I had been mildly, but effectively imprinted with the simple religious faith of my grandparents. Yet, I do believe that there was some sort of real struggle going on inside of me for the possession of my soul.
I cannot claim to have the arrogance of a follower of Ayn Rand, or of a student of Nietzche, in order to say that I alone, willed myself back to health. I would have liked that to be the case. It would be consistent with my daily prejudices when I am awake, well fed, not in pain and healthy. The mood that I was in was much closer in feeling and spirit to a Fellini film, or to that memorable scene in the Bergman film, The Seventh Seal, when Max Von Sydow plays chess with the Devil for the sake of his soul.
There was a battle going on. It was simple and elemental. It was the battle between life and death. I very much wanted to live and looked forward to the future and whatever it may bring. And, I suppose that on the hospital cot I made my covenant with God, or some equivalent higher power, then and there, that I wanted to live and that I would put my heart and soul into getting better.
Seven days and seven nights later I was taken off my intravenous and allowed to go home while continuing to take oral medicines to reduce any secondary infection and any possible residual malaria. A killer bug had bitten me, the one that causes cerebral malaria, the most violent strain.

Later, she told me that she had also been visiting a woman across the hall, actually two women, a mother and her daughter. The patient was a young English girl who had gone to school with our eldest son. As I sat struggling to regain my consciousness, the girl had lain on a bed across the hall from me in a coma, after having hit her head falling from a horse in a freak riding accident.

Geoffrey Clarfield is an Anthropologist at large.

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