Malaria, Community Culture, and Love

Well, I got malaria last week. I spoke too soon about having a small cough in my last post I guess. On Tuesday, I came home and took a nap. When I woke up I felt warm, checked my temperature and saw that it was 99 F. Things happened pretty fast after that. I decided to sleep again but I knew already I didn’t have much time. When I get home from school I normally greet my family and neighbors, play with the kids and eat a little. They knew I had a cold but would not excuse me not eating. Finally my host mother came in my room yelling in Yoruba. I checked my temperature again for her and it was up to 101 F. She told me “Je ka lo sile iwosan” – we should go to the hospital. I protested but soon my neighbor and resident director and family were all in my room: the car was outside, we were going.

Now, the trip to the hospital was exciting. While I was asleep I hadn’t noticed that it had started to rain outside. This was the largest storm I’ve ever seen in my life. Huge amounts of hard rain, lightening, thunder, trees scattered in the streets, etc. We drove in my resident director’s car with the windows rolled down for my fever as lightning and thunder shook the sky.

The hospital was dark and empty with an atrium in the middle that water crashed down into and onto the open floors around the hospital as we sat in the waiting room. A couple workers passed us and as always gave me strange looks and murmured “Oyinbo” in questions. We waited for an hour, as it is Nigeria after all before being escorted to an office by a giddy assistant who interrogated my happily in Yoruba laughing hard each time I answered. As we passed people who could hear me, even with a fever, they stopped me with “O gbo Yoruba? Ki ni?!” To one man I said “nigba ti mo ni ailera, n ko le gbo ede Yoruba dara dara” (when I am sick I cannot hear Yoruba very well) to which he smiled broadly and said “I had heard of them! Oyinbos hearing Yoruba! But I’ve never seen one for myself!” proud of his grand discovery.

I ducked into the office where the doctor took my symptoms in Yoruba-English and started to smile. “Oyinbo ni malaria” he said – I had malaria. I’ve heard a lot about malaria from friends who’ve gotten it, in books I’ve read, and in the catastrophic effects it has had on Africa in the number of deaths. For me, it would be easily treatable. For most, medicine is not an option. He looked at me, maybe I looked a little scared, or just feverish, and said “do you believe in God?” This is not uncommon at all. Everyone asks me this, even doctors as part of medical examinations. Tentatively I said “yeah.” He said “Do you believe in Jesus Christ?” This is always the next question. I have a hard time lying about this and as always I paused unable to answer and he laughed and said “it’s okay.” He gave me a prescription but couldn’t help me or give me medicine until the next day. I went home, didn’t sleep, had more of the symptoms of malaria – fever, chills, tiredness, aching, and disorientation until the next day.

People describe malaria as having ups and downs, getting surprisingly better only to get worse. I found this true on the second night after having taken medicine and felt better all day, then having a fever of 104 F. We went to the hospital for yet a third time. I was getting popular with the late night staff as I heard the familiar calls of “bawo ni Ayodele?” This doctor told me I had to have a blood test and the following morning I had the experience of having blood drawn in a Nigerian clinic. Actually, they did it better than anyone in the US has (I have small veins?) They came back reporting the malaria was in remission due to the medicine but I still had a small infection and put me on yet another medicine (making it at this point six prescriptions – a lot of drugs).

After a few days of rest, delirium, and loud singing prayers from my host mother, I have survived malaria and am back at school. I even hiked on Saturday. I honestly don’t remember a lot of it. I was in bed and felt like death, but what I do remember is something I will take away for the rest of my life and that is the overpowering love of community culture in a distinctly Yoruba way.

Oluwa seun! Thank God! A dupe! Community, ebi, family, aburo, egbon, mama, baba. People rely on each other here, on family, not on the government. It is crucial to remember though that this is not to say the government as a form is absolutely opposed to people relying on each other – in many cases the government takes the form of this care apparatus, just not in Nigeria. It’s culture. In Yoruba, there are no words for “cousin” or “aunt” or “uncle” only “mama” “baba” and younger and older sibling. This is because anyone adopted into this big family is a sibling or a mother or a father. There is no distinction for space between.

When I was sick, I could have waited a while and “toughed it out” or dealt with it in my own way and taken care of myself. I probably would have ended up in the hospital days later with a much higher fever and much sicker. But within hours my family had me at the hospital just because I wouldn’t eat that night. Throughout the whole experience the children in my house helped me with hugs, encouragement, and getting me water. My resident director checked in on me almost every hour, even calling at one in the morning to remind me to take my medicine.

Community culture is paramount and while it means giving up privacy, individualism, and your own value system for the group, it also comes with a strong compassion and love that is woven throughout the base nature of community cooperation. It was amazing to witness happen for me, a stranger and an Oyinbo, even by the hospital staff who didn’t know me. Overall, I knew that if I got malaria or sick that it could have either ended with me in emotional distress or finding strength in a new community I have barely known for a month. I’m happy to report that it was the latter.

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