We the viruses, have succeeded in conquering the planet. We’re in the sea, we’re in the air. We’re everywhere. We reinvent ourselves by mutating and multiplying with increasing speed. Man can’t figure us out. The antibiotics he’s so proud of have absolutely no effect on us. We cross borders and continents with will. To our credit, we kill germs and bacteria by the thousands. And yet no one would dream of thanking us for our assistance, so what’s the point?
Viruses are all we seem to be thinking about these days. Of course, they can’t speak to us, but if they did, perhaps the words Véronique Tadjo imagines for them would strike us as true. Tadjo is a poet, novelist, academic, and artist from Côte d’Ivoire, and her books have won awards and been translated into several languages. She’s a master storyteller. In the Company of Men is a wonder, lyrical and beautifully written. That she’s writing about an outbreak that caused so much suffering and death speaks to her talents. At a time when the last thing we want to read about are viruses, her novel is hard to put down.
She gives voice to the many people affected by the Ebola crisis that struck parts of Africa from 2014 to 2016. There are individuals who contracted the disease, others who watched loved ones die horrible deaths, and the medical professionals who risked their lives to save others. A few, lucky enough to recover, became like lepers, shunned by neighbors who feared the disease. A sizable number were children whose immune systems were strong, but left them without homes or families.
We also hear from a bat, a creature “midway between a mammal and a bird,” blamed for spreading viruses to humans. “It has happened entirely against my will,” the bat says. “I wish no one harm.” But the book opens with a specific example showing how the virus is transmitted. Two boys, armed with sling shots, happen upon a colony of sleeping bats. Three bats are hit and fall to the ground. The boys walk back to their village, prepare the meat, grill the pieces over a fire and consume the meal. Less than a month later, both boys are near death. “Blood was flowing out of every orifice of their bodies.” Although warned not to touch the boys, the mother does just that. The disease spreads.
In the end, Baobab, “the first tree, the everlasting tree, the totem tree,” whose crown touches the heavens and offers the world below refreshing shade,” celebrates the end of the Ebola epidemic. “In the bars, beer is flowing freely and the music’s deafening,” the tree proclaims. “Life has started up again, even in the most far-flung corners of the country.”
The Ebola outbreak infected 28,646 people and claimed 11,323 lives, Tadjo says at the end of her book. Countries affected included Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone. A vaccine has been found to be effective against the Zaire ebolavirus only, she says, although several other vaccines are now being tested. She concludes: “The response to the Covid-19 pandemic in West Africa has been strengthened by the lessons learned during the Ebola epidemic.”
In the Company of Men