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Drawing on real accounts of the Ebola outbreak that devastated West Africa, this poignant, timely fable reflects on both the strength and the fragility of life and humanity’s place in the world.
Two boys venture from their village to hunt in a nearby forest, where they shoot down bats with glee, and cook their prey over an open fire. Within a month, they are dead, bodies ravaged by an insidious disease that neither the local healer’s potions nor the medical team’s treatments could cure. Compounding the family’s grief, experts warn against touching the sick. But this caution comes too late: the virus spreads rapidly, and the boys’ father is barely able to send his eldest daughter away for a chance at survival.
In a series of moving snapshots, Véronique Tadjo illustrates the terrible extent of the Ebola epidemic, through the eyes of those affected in myriad ways: the doctor who tirelessly treats patients day after day in a sweltering tent, protected from the virus only by a plastic suit; the student who volunteers to work as a gravedigger while universities are closed, helping the teams overwhelmed by the sheer number of bodies; the grandmother who agrees to take in an orphaned boy cast out of his village for fear of infection. And watching over them all is the ancient and wise Baobab tree, mourning the dire state of the earth yet providing a sense of hope for the future.
Acutely relevant to our times in light of the coronavirus pandemic, In the Company of Men explores critical questions about how we cope with a global crisis and how we can combat fear and prejudice.
|Other Press, LLC
|5.10(w) x 7.60(h) x 0.50(d)
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Go on, get out now. Go to the capital, go to your aunt. The village is cursed. Don’t ever come back here.”
She stuffed some clothes into a bag and took the money he was holding out to her. She knew it was all he had left. “When the bus gets in at the main station, there will be people everywhere. But don’t worry, your aunt will be there, waiting for you.
Don’t tell her anything. Above all, don’t tell her we’re dying here. That would terrify her. Don’t tell her your mother and your two younger brothers are very sick. She wouldn’t understand. Say as little as possible, just watch and do whatever she asks you to do. This is your chance.” He gave her a quick hug and walked away without looking back.
Two mischievous young boys from a village on the edge of the forest went out hunting. Their village was a cluster of small houses and large circular mud huts with conical roofs and tiered layers of thatch rising all the way up to the sky. The nearby forest was an imposing presence, at once protective and nurturing, a realm inhabited by mysterious forces invisible to the naked eye. The villagers lived amid great natural beauty and utter destitution. That morning, before the sweltering, humid sun made its appearance, the entire area was bathed in mist. Armed with slings, the boys shot at everything that moved. Then they looked up and spotted a colony of sleeping bats, hanging upside down from the branches of a tall tree with rough bark. The cool, shady foliage formed a screen against the rays of the sun. One child took aim and hit one of the animals. As it fell, several other bats flew off with piercing shrieks. The boy aimed again. A muffled sound came from the carpet of dead leaves. The other boy took his turn, and he too hit his target. A third bat thudded onto the ground at his feet and started crawling feebly. The young hunters collected their prey and proudly walked back to the village. There, they built a log fire, skewered the bushmeat, and seasoned it with pepper and other spices pilfered from their mother’s kitchen. Then they grilled it over the flames, though there wasn’t very much to eat: a few chewy bones and a bit of flesh with a gamy flavor.
But it was their very own booty.
Less than a month later, the two boys lay at death’s door. Blood was flowing out of every orifice in their bodies.
When the nurse was notified, he rushed to the house but stopped short on the bedroom threshold and gazed at the two boys, who were writhing on their beds. He saw the stains of blood and mucus on the dirt floor, smelled the stench in the air. He said to the father: “Whatever you do, stay away from your children. Don’t touch them, don’t dry their tears.
Don’t take them in your arms. Keep your distance from them. You’re in serious danger. I’ll call in my team.” He scribbled a brief report in his notebook and hurried away to alert his superiors. But the mother didn’t budge from her children’s bedside. She wept as she caressed their faces and gave them sips of water to drink.
Huddled side by side in a red clay house with a tin roof, the two frail little bodies endured their suffering. Nobody knew about it. The nursing team took a long time to come. The mother couldn’t just sit there and do nothing anymore. She visited the local healer to get plants for treating the sick. The man declared, “There are so many deaths, too many—this isn’t normal. This sickness is not from here. Someone is out to get us. He’s cast an evil spell on us that I don’t know how to break. We must cleanse the village and carry out purification rites.”
But in the end, he took pity on her and gave her some potions for her children. The father, waiting for the medical team to arrive, hadn’t moved from the front door. He let the mother do what she wanted and watched attentively as the villagers went about their daily chores. The farmers, their hoes slung across their shoulders, walked in single file on their way to the fields. Some women with tubs of water on their heads came back from the river. Kids trotted along behind the women, clinging to their skirts, their bare feet covered with dust. Some young goats rummaged around in a pile of garbage, while chickens scraped and scratched the soil in search of earthworms. The father looked up at the yellow sun, at the rain-laden clouds, and decided that bad luck had crept into their lives.
The medical team arrived. The men got out their equipment and began to douse the ground with chlorine solution. The father stepped aside. The team ordered the mother to come out, but she refused.
They erected a cordon sanitaire all around the house, and then neighbors thronged the scene, their faces still crumpled from sleep, their wrappers knotted around their chests.
The villagers watched from a distance, standing in silent groups under the trees. The father and mother looked like ghosts already, their neighbors thought. One more family gone. In the past, every new death was announced with a great deal of commotion. Cries would spread the news through the village. The women would wail and roll in the dust, tearing their hair. But now, this time, there was nothing of the sort, absolutely nothing. Everything unfolded in silence, a thick, threatening silence, auguring even more harrowing days to come. The deaths of the two boys triggered a sinister premonition that petrified the whole village.
The mother got into the ambulance with her children; it was the last time the father would see any of them alive. He barely had enough time to send his eldest daughter away. Not a single tear was shed. He was already fighting for his life.
The Whispering Tree
We, the trees. Our roots run all the way down to the heart of the earth, and we can feel the beat of her pulse. We inhale her breath. We taste her flesh. We live and die in the exact same spot, never moving from the land we occupy. Both prisoners and conquerors of time, we stand riveted to the ground yet soaring upward, reaching for the clouds. We adapt to all weathers, rain or shine, hurricanes or the dry harmattan winds. Our crowns merge with the sky’s cotton-wool dreams. We are the link between Man and his past, his present, and his unpredictable future.
We exhale the fresh breath of morning. Our sap is vital force, our souls hundreds of years old. We see everything. We feel everything. Our memory is intact. Our consciousness dwells beyond space and time. We have listened to stories both happy and heartrending, and we shall witness new life cycles in the future, for such is the passage of time.
We were here to last. We were here to spread our shade over the remotest lands. We were here so that our foliage would murmur the secrets of the four corners of the world. But human beings have destroyed our hopes. No matter where in the world they are, they wage war on the forest. Our trunks crash to the ground with a sound like thunder. Our naked roots mourn the end of our dreams. You cannot destroy the forest without spilling blood.
Humans today think they can do whatever they like. They fancy themselves as masters, as architects of nature. They think they alone are the legitimate inhabitants of the planet, whereas millions of other species have populated it since time immemorial.
Blind to the suffering they cause, they are mute when faced with their own indifference. Their voracity is boundless; it seems impossible to stop them. The more they have—and they already have everything—the more they devour. And when they are finally sated, they turn to other cravings: commodities, money, flashy trifles. They waste what they have and grab one another’s natural resources. They dig deep into the belly of the earth. They dive into the seas. They’ll go on until there is nothing left.
Ah, if only they could feel the weight of our suffering! Our energy is running out, our strength is gone. We, the trees, give shelter to a world of creatures, a world that is itself its own rainbow: birds and insects, climbing plants, flowers, mosses, and lichens come and seek refuge in our arms or along the length of our bark, be it smooth or rough. Other living beings may rest in our branches, or hunt there, or eat there: shoots and buds, fruits and tender leaves. With our breath, we replenish the air and slake its thirst for oxygen.
I am Baobab, the first tree, the everlasting tree, the totem tree. My crown touches the heavens and offers the world below refreshing shade. I yearn toward soft, life-sustaining light, that it may brighten humanity, illuminate darkness, and soothe fear.
Alas, all too many of us have gone, only to be replaced by flimsy shrubs, barely able to take root. When we go, flowers and other plants lose their finery. Animals no longer find refuge. Men turn our branches into firewood and bleed our trunks. To reach and exploit an area where trees of great age and wisdom stand, men ruthlessly cut down everything in their path. They see in us nothing but marketable goods. Just look at our soil, how parched it is, how devoid of nutrients! Rich, fragrant humus turns to dust, leaving nothing but hard, impenetrable rock. I have watched animals starve to death, depriving us of their friendship.
And yet, did you know that no other terrain shelters as many living creatures as the forest does? Were you aware of that? Our roots go searching for water. Our leaves call the rain. Not torrential rain that brings devastation, but gentle, caressing showers that enfold plants and animals in their embrace.
Without us, avalanches, landslides, and mudflows wreak havoc, laying waste to vast swaths of land.
We, the trees, like to believe ourselves the custodians of rivers, streams, and seas. Even far inland from a river’s mouth, we make its bed and prevent it from overflowing its banks and drowning people. We dare to think we can talk to the water—the flowing water, the dancing water, the singing water. If only Man were more clear-sighted! If only he could foresee his own decline, the depletion, the degradation. Maybe he would finally understand that he depends on us, and that in this century beset by so many disasters, hundreds of forest-dwelling communities have disappeared, along with their languages, their knowledge, and their beautiful traditions. If only Man could realize how misguided he is, he would surely end the violence and lay down his axes and machetes. He would silence his chainsaws, stop his bulldozers, and lock away his heavy trucks, those gigantic iron monsters that haul timber and death. None of that brings him anything good or makes him happy. Men fight over our bodies. Men oppose those among them who want to keep living near us, with us.
We cannot go higher than the sky, since it is not possible for us to live up there. Should we go too far underground, we would hit molten magma, the core of the earth, where our survival would be just as impossible. If the temperature of the air we breathe gets too hot too fast, we all die, every single one of us. The places where we can thrive are limited. The icy North Pole is not for us, nor are the dunes of the desert. For us, life in all its richness and beauty is found only in the forest. We must hold on to what remains of the planet, so that we can keep living on land hospitable to us.