Have you already had your Ebola dream? I had mine about a month or two ago. I was wearing a mask and walking towards trucks that were carrying endless amounts of people. It was hot, humid and dusty. People seemed to be escaping something while I seemed to be walking toward that something. The scene looked like refugees escaping an invisible war zone, a mass exodus, but the dream didn’t transcend fear. Nobody died and I woke up without sweat.
The dream has stayed in my mind, and not only because of the ongoing global Ebola scare. It has brought my mind to something that happened in Zanzibar, Tanzania, in 2000 (the same project that inspired me to write Making friends over the Indian Ocean).
Dar Es Salaam was my base for months and it was a very pleasant African city to work in. There were great restaurants serving grilled jumbo prawn and the beach was never too far away. National parks were easily reachable. When I was not working or on safari, I hopped on a ferry to visit Zanzibar, this mystical island culturally so different form the mainland Tanzania. Sometimes I even had to go to Zanzibar for meetings, but most of the time it was out of pure pleasure.
During one of my last visits to Zanzibar I was diving with a local dive master somewhere off the eastern coast. We had finished turtle watching, I was back at my hotel and had just had a shower when I heard a knock on the door. The dive master excused himself but quickly continued that we are not too far away from his native village and there is a problem. The village needs my car. It appeared that a child had died and needed to be transported from his father’s village to the mother’s village, and the only person the dive master was comfortable with asking a favor for was me. Would I come with him and help him to transport a young dead boy to where he needed to be –with his mother?
A few minutes later we hit the road. Needless to say, it was pitch black. The road was tiny and we were certainly very far from any place a normal tourist goes to. I had no idea where we were. I now hope I had a bottle of water and a torch but I am not sure. We must have driven a hundred kilometers that night. Eventually we collected the tiny corpse, which meant that the father placed his son at the back of my car, taking a seat to it. In silence we continued driving. I followed the instructions and the road certainly didn’t get any wider. I guess I asked what the boy had died of and I think the answer was the usual malaria.
Our arrival at the mother’s village was quite something. There were dozens and dozens of women in a circle, welcoming us, and as soon as I opened the car door, they started The Cry. In fact I can still hear The Cry of these women but I still don’t know how to describe it. It was the most haunting cry I have ever heard, so loud that it must have been heard all the way in the mainland Tanzania. It was not a cry one hears at western funerals. It was something more planned and integral, something that culturally separated me from them. It would be too narrow-minded to say it was a scream from a horror film. For these women it was a way of welcoming this little boy with respect and doing what had to be done. For me, all I wanted was to put hands over my ears. The fact that there was no light brought additional disturbance.
I drove back to the hotel in silence with my dive master who by the way was just a child himself. Well, a young teenager. He thanked me and left. I remember thinking that he probably didn’t know either what to do or say –how to comfort a westerner who is so shocked by something so natural. I also remember that I did what most westerners do when they get confused and disturbed in Africa –I had a gin and tonic before heading to the bed.
Now, let’s play a mind game. Fast forward this event to 2014. Remember that I am today fourteen years older than I was in 2000, and supposedly wiser (one must believe in progress, right?). Remember that today’s world is shaken: Ebola kills 70% of those infected. With Internet, news travel faster. There is no way that in 2014 I would be in the dark. In fact, I would know exactly that carrying a dead body of someone who just died of high fever would automatically put me in risk. But what would I do today should a similar opportunity arrive in front me? Would I still today be as “naive” as I was in 2000 and without any hesitation take the car keys and leave? But in the first place, is it justified to say that I had acted out of naivete? I could continue these questions forever.
If my dream was any indication of my possible behavior, I think I would do the same. Or is it only something that I would like to see myself doing? After all, what do we really know about ourselves before the opportunity or the test presents itself to us? Not much.
What are your thoughts?
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