Ebola is a viral infection which causes haemorrhagic fever. Though rare, it has been devastating in west, central and sub-Saharan Africa. The virus gives sufferers a temperature, head and muscle aches, a sore throat or a stomach upset. This can lead to bleeding and organ failure. Transmission is by close contact with fluids from a symptomatic person. It is also possible to catch Ebola from animals, including fruit bats.
The virus contains single-stranded ribonucleic acid (RNA), as do the common cold and SARS-CoV-2. RNA is a string of genetic code that implants into the host’s cells, reproducing itself and killing the cells. There is no vaccine or cure for Ebola, and it is often fatal, with a death rate estimated at 40-60 percent.
Sudanese author and doctor, Amir Tag Elsir, wrote Ebola ’76 in 2012. Three years later, amid the 2014-2016 Ebola crisis, this prescient novel was translated from Arabic to English. In it, as the title suggests, Elsir looks back at one of the first known outbreaks of Ebola. The disease struck the Democratic Republic of the Congo (then called Zaire) from August 1976 onwards.
It was subsequently named for the country’s Ebola River. However, the virus was thought to have been brought to the Congo by a labourer from the region of Nzara in South Sudan. In an article on this Ebola outbreak for the Journal of Infectious Diseases, Joel Bremen et al note that “persons afflicted in Nzara worked in a cotton factory in which many bats were hanging from the rafters.”
This origin story affords Elsir the opportunity to imagine one textiles worker and super-spreader, whom he names Lewis Nawa. In the unhealthy environment of a cotton factory, Lewis sweats for a former rebel called James Riyyak. Riyyak had emerged from jungle insurgency years earlier to transmute into a ruthless entrepreneur. Facing this crisis for health and the economy, he pivots to disaster capitalism and the production of face masks. In order to appeal to the locals’ superstitions, he even claims these “Riyyak Masks” have talismanic properties.
The epidemic is portrayed as part of the poor’s inescapable lot. Not for them is hope of rescue, which is reserved for foreign others: “Helicopters landed with decorum in an expatriate’s back garden, there on a so-called humanitarian mission to extricate all those far from their home country, the people who had never in any way been Ebola’s victims. The intrepid explorers clambered on board, thinking how their little run-in with a Third World epidemic was all part of the adventure.”
Unlike these protected outsiders, Lewis has no means to be lifted out of danger. He falls ill with the disease. Like all the stricken, he has a “deathbed awakening”, in which he spews dirty secrets. Lewis’s confession is that he has committed adultery with two women.
Embarrassingly, he goes on to recover. This does not stay awkward for long, though, as he soon loses both wife and girlfriend to the virus. The Congolese sex worker he frequented also dies, murdered by a client in Kinshasa before the Ebola in her bloodstream can get to her.
Sexual and physical violence against women is laconically described, and is clearly commonplace. Moreover, both men and women confront abject poverty, exploitation and reactionary customs. Ebola is personified as an evil sorcerer laughing gleefully as it enters its hapless victims’ bodies.
Ivorian author Véronique Tadjo, too, uses personification in her hallucinatory book of ‘Ebola tales’. As with Elsir’s novel, Tadjo’s equally prophetic text was written before the Covid-19 pandemic: in 2017. In light of the torment and quarantines the world is going through, HopeRoad does well to publish the resonant English-language version at this time. In the Company of Men was translated from French by Tadjo and John Cullen in 2021.
In the book, Ebola is a character whose “chilling voice ... rings out in the early morning.” Unlike Elsir’s cackling wizard, Tadjo’s virus is horrifying not for its malevolence, but its indifference. The virus declares: “I’m neither good nor bad. Such judgements are useless. I’m like a plant that grows, like a spider that devours its prey.”
The virus’s amoral monologue is offset by a more compassionate soliloquy from a baobab tree. This African Yggdrasil, inhabited and held sacred by the ancestors, speaks in praise of a symbiotic coexistence, arguing that “the human race ought to sign a covenant of mutual understanding with Nature.” Indeed, Tadjo champions a spiritually-inflected ecofeminism. As well as the tree, she also gives voice to a bat, which inadvertently spread the zoonotic disease of Ebola to humans.
Focalisers include young girls and boys who fall ill. Further adult narrators are a Hazmat-suited doctor and a nurse fighting to help the sick and dying. The nurse observes that, in the West Africa Ebola epidemic, women were most affected. She speculates that this could be because of their carer responsibilities or a reticence around finding treatment. The guardian of an Ebola orphan, meanwhile, observes that the virus “is particularly virulent in children.” By contrast, the novel coronavirus has disproportionately affected men and the aged.
This is no longer what Elsir calls “the time of Ebola.” (That said, the last outbreak was as recently as November 2020, in the Congo’s Équateur province.) Yet, reading these books in the time of corona is instructive and sobering. From the mid-1970s when Elsir’s novel was set, to 2021 as Tadjo’s volume is published, we have seen a scaling up of the frequency and extent of disease outbreaks.
Globalisation has made the world more interconnected. Capitalism’s simultaneous destruction of the environment, frenetic travel and insanitary working conditions create hothouses for disease, which threaten to tear us apart. Such systems are in need of radical collective rethinking.
Viruses such as Ebola and Covid-19 effortlessly cross national borders. So, too, must our response. That is not to advocate a return to the before times of frequent air travel. Given the climate emergency, Tadjo writes: “I would clip humanity’s wings to prevent them from flying.” Instead, disease should be tackled through joined-up and equitable global vaccination programmes.
And, to redeploy a slogan from Elsir’s novel, we should fight fear and the misinfodemic with research and art. These luminous works of fiction by African authors are a good place to start. Wisdom and solace reside in Elsir’s black humour and Tadjo’s mystical notes of optimism.
The columnist is Professor of Global Literature at the University of York, and author of three books, including Rivers of Ink: Selected Essays
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, February 7th, 2021