My first Malaria & visiting my project… 1995

After a couple of months, life started to take shape at our new house in Cotonou, and as we finished all the renovation, I was getting restless to find something to do.  An opportunity came at the same organisation where my husband was working, it was a temporary coordinator position for a food security project.   A few people had held that post before me, all left early unable to manage the project which was financed by a multilateral organization based in Washington DC.  The project was full of bureaucratic requirements, in a way incomprehensible and incompatible for people working in small non-profit organisations on remote areas.  As my last job in Washington DC had been at one of those international organizations, I had a good understanding what I was up to.

The director had told my husband to let me know I should come to see him, I still remember going to meet him in flip flops, as everyone wore flip flops… in that heat.  His office was air conditioned, he always looked sharp and wore cologne, something we did not do during our stay there to avoid attracting mosquitos.  I sat with him for what could be described as an interview, they were seriously struggling to manage the  project, but one thing was true, I was willing to learn and figure it out…and I did.   I came out of the interview with a part time job, and a big smile.

My project had two locations in Benin, Kalale close to 600 km north of Cotonou, and Karimama about 750 km north bordering with Niger, both remote villages. At each location, we had a European agricultural expert managing the project together with a local expert.  They lived in a small oasis, created by the organisation…they had a water well, solar energy, an electric generator, and a short-wave radio.  The locations were so remote that without those things, life would have been too precarious.  And even then, life there was basic, quiet, and magic… as I discovered when I finally got the chance to visit them.  My colleagues working in Kalale a single man (Klaus) and Karimama a couple (Jannette & Michael), they would come to the Cotonou once a month to buy groceries and to re-charge their own batteries, back then… it all seemed so obvious and normal.  When I try to imagine it now, life in the villages was full of challenges, and it took special characters to do the job they did… and they did it with such passion.

Reality did not change much…

Researching again to write my blog, it made me so sad, to discover that the population has now increase from six (6) to eleven (11) million since the time we were there in 1995, and obviously resources not enough to sustain that growth.  Living conditions in Kalale and Karimama have not improved significantly and looking at the information and images that I found, the challenges today seem to be the same as when we were working there.  Water being one of the main scarcities. Here a picture story about daily water collection… many hours are spent daily just to collect water.   Our project was food security, and in a nutshell, we were trying to increase and improve food supply by giving them technical assistance in crop cultivation.  It also had a health component, which tried to improve child and women health and decrease mortality.   When I first went to the sites, I remember looking at the floor, it was dry season, the floor was cracked, it was so dry… In silence I questioned myself –how are we going to plant anything here? –

We are the only ones capable of self destruction…

In my research found many food security projects that preceded ours, and the struggle seems to continue… climatic conditions are extreme.  I found one in particular that seems to be having a sensible approach Solar Electric Light Fund incorporating food security with solar energy.  I also found a short video shot in Kalale from the same organisation, great to see images from the village.  What we don’t seem to realise is that the planet will somehow survive, and regenerate.  At the end… we are the only ones capable of self-distruction.  One of my questions having experience life as an expat, linked to international development, is the investment impact of those enormous international bilateral and multilateral organizations on the ground. If we measure the input cost against the output results… not sure if it measures up.  Imported knowledge and strategies are often applied.  Sustainable solutions are not well thought together with the local population, making use of local knowledge, and available resources, like the sun!!!   A cruel reality as well, is the lack of cooperation and coordination among organisations working in the same regions. More than ten years later when we returned to live in another African country and the approached was unfortunately similar.

Finally visiting my project…

So, the day finally came to visit my project… my husband tagged alone for the trip.  As we left, I remember having a strong headache (one of the first signs of malaria).  I remember taking paracetamol… looking back I had no intention to let this headache get in the way of me finally visiting the sites.   The occasion was a large gathering in Karimama for all local and international NGO’s working in the north of Benin.  We packed our car, with some goodies for my colleagues, food, water and gasoline canisters.  Water and gasoline were essential as we never knew if we would find any at our destination.  In our years there, we learned to fill up the gas tank every time we saw a gas station on the road.   We did not dare to tank along the road, where gasoline was offered by the bottle.  But one thing I must mention, no matter how remote the village… we always managed to buy a bottle of cold Coca Cola… somehow Coca Cola has succeeded in bringing an electric generator and a small fridge to the most remote locations…

600 Km in two days…

I was impress with the road conditions, they were paved two lane roads and besides the more than occasional hole, main roads were fairly good. Secondary roads were not as good, and for the most part dust roads.  We planned to pick up Klaus in Kalale and then continue to Karimama to Michael and Jannette.  The drive to Kalale was close to 600 km, which had to be done in two days, as we were not allowed to drive at night to avoid unnecessary risks… roads were deserted for the most part, and towns far from one another.  Our first stop was Parakou, about 400 km on a paved road from Cotonou, a good 6-hour drive.  It had about 150.000 habitants and with a basic infrastructure of restaurants, and markets.  We spent the night with colleagues working there, and left early in the morning.  Finding good food in larger villages in Benin was never a problem, as they had been a French colony, their culinary culture was impressive, and also there was always the occasional crazy expat that had decided to open a restaurant in the middle of nowhere…always a pleasant surprise.

Klaus living alone in a village out of a National Geographic picture…

I kept taking paracetamol for my headache, that would not go away, and started to feel a bit sick to my stomach… something not unusual since we landed in Benin.  We arrived in Kalale and spent another night there with Klaus.  He was a character, so enthusiastic and funny… full of life, I guess the only way to survive living alone in an African village out of a National Geographic picture.  That evening, we participated in a local dance, where locals gathered in a community centre, a small hall made out of mud with a tin roof, small windows, and drawings on the outside walls.  As we walked in, many were dancing to drums, singing, and hand claps from onlookers… the floor was made out of earth, and the taping from their feet on the ground lifted a mist of dust that clouded our view.   We were invited to join the dance, and we did… only to leave very soon, as we could no longer breath… the dust was too thick… It did not seem to bother anyone but us.  We walked with Klaus through the village, looking at the sky. I remember listening to the music and clapping  in the background as we walked… and the clear sky during dry season just looked wonderful.  I would love to get together again with my old colleagues, to remember and to fill the memory gaps I now feel.  We left early in the morning to Karimama, a good four (4) hour drive.

Arriving to the northern border of Benin…

Jannette and Michael were waiting for us at their small piece of paradise, a house standing alone on the outskirts of the village. Even though it must have been close to 40 degrees Celsius (104 Fahrenheit) it was dryer, it did not feel as hot as Cotonou, where temperatures did not reach that high but the humidity was sometimes close to 90%, which made it unbearable.  We arrived early and decided to go to visit the river Niger!!!  It was so dry, children were fishing in the middle of the river with the water up to their knees, water was not flowing much and it was rather muddy.  They were catching small fish… they could fit in one hand.  At the house, they gave us a choice to sleep inside or outside… we were surprised by the question, and soon learned that they had a bed with a mosquito net outside to sleep during the hottest days when staying inside the house was intolerable.  The trade-off was that sleeping outside meant sleeping close to the animals, specially very close to a donkey that made some noice at night… we were warned though!!  Klaus slept inside.

The next morning, I left with my local and German colleagues to the event that had been organized at the local village hall. The hall was full, and the majority were local organizations working with funds from various international and religious organizations. We were very few white people.  There were language interpreters, for a few local languages, and French, as many of the people attending spoke only their local languages.  It is estimated that Benin has more than 50 local languages.  The main objective of this gathering was to bring everyone together, as communication was close to impossible for us, the hope was that locals shared their experiences with one another.  Lunch was offered, and it was chicken with “fufu” cooked yam made into a thick sticky puree.  Of course, I ate lunch, it wouldn’t have been well seen if we would have not eaten with them.  I think my colleagues were very surprised I ate.  At this point, after eating lunch, I had serious stomach problems… I had to find a toilet… and what a task it was.  At the end, I was directed to a latrine, and not to scare my readers… I am going to leave out the description of what that latrine looked like, even though I remember the experience vividly.

Malaria was a part of living in Benin… le Palu!!!

We had planned some working sessions during my time there, so we sat and talked… and often I had to leave the room to the toilet… feeling increasingly ill… and at that point feeling my temperature rising.  We carried a first aid kid, and I started taking some medicine for my stomach and paracetamol, I also took some malaria medicine not certain on the dosage I was supposed to take…or if it was even the right one to begin with.  Living in a malaria endemic area, malaria symptoms become common knowledge, and at that point, it was clear that I had a classic case of malaria, or the local slam “palu” (short for paludisme) .  When we first arrived in Benin, we had a three-year perspective, we decided not to take prophylaxis, as it meant taking liver damaging medicine every day.

Health services were scarce…

We left Karimama next day with Klaus, now looking for a heath facility, as in Karimama there were no health services to get a malaria test or a pharmacy.  Our aim was to get to Parakou, a larger village where we knew we could find medical treatment, a good 5-hour direct drive, plus the detour to take Klaus back to his village, we had a good 7-hour drive ahead of us.  I stayed on the back seat of our pick-up truck, lying on the seat, at that point dehydrated, drinking sips of some sweet hydrating solution we had in our first aid kid, and it was unpleasantly warm. We did frequent stops… as I could not hold anything in my stomach anymore.

We found a small health care facility on the main road, “Centre de santé Saint Jean de Dieu” we decided to stop to see if I could get a blood test to confirm if indeed I had malaria.  Often white people were given priority, so we were quickly taken to the lab… a precarious room with some old fashion microscopes, and a couple of lab operators wearing white aproans .  At least we knew that malaria was something they knew well… and a drop of blood taken from one’s finger is enough to diagnose it.   We waited for the results, sitting on some wooden benches outside the laboratory, as expected, it was positive, very positive!!!  We could not buy any medicine at that village.  Now,  I can only imagine the stress and the responsibility my husband felt, as I just laid on the back of the pick-up truck… the trip seemed eternal.

Instant chicken soup and Coke without gas…

We left Klaus, and we continued to Parakou, went straight to the hospital where we got proper malaria medicine and antibiotics, as I also had a stomach infection.  We spent that night at our colleague’s house, a German woman married to an African man, they had two kids.  They went out with my husband to get something to eat while I stayed in bed.  At that point, I had such a high fever I was hallucinating… I was shaking, freezing cold… and I remember that the short time they were gone felt like an eternity.  When they came back, they gave me a bowl of instant chicken noodle soup, and coke without gas… the ultimate supply of salt and sugar I needed to regain my strength… not to forget the cold wet towel on my forehead, that my husband kept changing.

Benin has the deadliest strain of Malaria…

For luck the strain of malaria in Benin was a parasite that does not stay in the liver like other strains in other parts of Africa,  but it was the deadliest.  Totally curable… unfortunately medicine is not always available. With those other strains; malaria can return with flu like symptoms, as the parasite lives indefinitely in the liver…

We made it…

We made it home next day, and I provably slept non-stop for the next week… as the side effects of malaria medicine are almost as bad as malaria itself… it is a 3-day dose, and after that, a few weeks to regain strength.  The parasite that causes malaria, attacks red blood cells, so in the process to kill the parasite, red cells are killed as well…leaving you quite pale and often anaemic.   Some of my friends will remember reading about this story, as I wrote a long letter about the adventure and photocopied it and sent it around… at a time when email was no yet in common use.  I ended up having malaria three times,  but not as severe as the first one, we all had it… my husband and latter our son…  Taking into account that we lived there for three years, that was well under the average.

Last week, I reconnected Michael and Jannette again, we did have contact after we returned from Benin.  I sent them the link to my last story about Benin… we were both so happy to be in touch again, to catch up on each other’s life… and mostly to remember our time in Benin.  I lost contact with Klaus… but I will never forget about him.   He took a picture of me lying sick looking awful on the back seat of our pickup truck…he printed it, and later he sent it to me as a post card, in memory of our shared adventure… loved it.   I remember saving it, I have seen it along the years arranging my memory box, and now I can’t find it… 😦


One Comment Add yours

  1. giocka says:

    Wow, what an incredible experience you had in Benin!! Love to see those photos!

    Liked by 1 person

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