The Old Fever: A Memoir of Kenya by Rick Gray
About the Author  |
 Yellow Moon
 Somali Women 
 The Notebooks
 Somehow Peeling
 In the Darkness 
Checking into the Pig 
 The Curse

Checking into the Pig

It wasn’t long after Meru when a student raised his hand in class and asked me if I had a fever. The entire class nodded, and urged me to seek help. I thought it may be another prank, and so ignored them and continued my grammar lesson until the bell rang. When I walked back to my space and looked in my dusty mirror, I saw what looked like a psychotic clown staring back at me, with dark purple circles painted around his eyes. Grabbing my pack, I ran down to the road to catch the bus to Nairobi. I had to sit down in the grass before the bus arrived, and by the time we pulled into the city three hours later I thought I was going to die.

The Peace Corps medical office took a blood sample and confirmed it was malaria, then put me up at the Hotel Pigale, known among volunteers as The Pig. It was here where you came back into contact with the people you knew from training, and where the effects of Kenya were most clearly observed. You learned at The Pig that it wasn’t the longer, greasier hair, the lost fifty pounds, or the sun-damaged skin that were the most striking changes. The transformations came from deeper within.

There was the volunteer from San Francisco, a pitch-perfect Bay Area hipster when he arrived at training, with the slow, stoned-sounding way he had of making everything he said sound like a sarcastic question. Now, seated at the downstairs bar, you could see his cool had been deeply shaken. His eyes looked startled behind the ravaged lenses of his ironic nerd glasses. I sat down slowly beside him at the bar. He turned to me and stared into my eyes.

“So?” I asked, when it started turning weird, “what’s up, Dave?”

He had dropped out of the Peace Corps, he informed me, after he had been hired by the World Food Program. He had just returned from southern Sudan. His job there was to take the hands of those refugees who had received food rations and press their index fingers into a purple liquid, to mark them, so they wouldn’t return and horde supplies. As he narrated his story, he kept reenacting the dipping of the fingers, and the others in the bar slowly gathered around him to listen. He described how some of the recipient’s would try to cheat the system, scraping skin off their hands, in order to return for more food. At one point his job was to put babies on hanging scales, like butcher’s meat, to check on their weight. “The flies,” his voice trailed off, “there were so many flies…..” He waved the smoky air around him, as if waving away the clouds of flies away from the starving, hanging babies. This was not the same person I had known from training, but for all his tics and trauma, I preferred this version to the one I knew before. My generation’s cheap mask of irony had shriveled in him under the Sudanese sun.

And there were others who appeared at The Pig with stories of the harsher Africa beyond Kenya. There were the three travelling women volunteers from Mauritania who almost started crying when the waiter brought us complimentary glasses of water. I can still see their hands shaking as they clutched the glasses and moved them closer to their hearts, as if protecting their own babies. The Weird Sisters, they were nicknamed by the other volunteers during their stay in Kenya. Whenever I tried to gather information about Mauritania they went quiet and quickly peeked at each other like abused siblings keeping a family secret. It was not until I visited Mauritania, over a decade later, that I finally understood their silence. Mauritania remains the strangest place I have ever been. Even today, when the subject of Mauritania comes up, I am struck silent in much the same way as these women at The Pig.

Many of the people I saw in The Pig had already begun to resemble nineteenth-century versions of their former selves, tougher and bonier and more in tune with their ethnicity. The quality of their storytelling reflected this as well. We lived with no TV, no Internet, no cell phones, and not even a steady supply of good books (though these were traded like smuggled diamonds behind closed doors of the shabby rooms upstairs). The audience of volunteers, for the most part still malarial and under the influence of highly toxic drugs, sat captivated and nodding in recognition and delight as the stories unfolded, sometimes even bursting into applause. No one ever listened to the Peace Corps nurse, who urged us stay out of the bar until we were fully recovered. We knew our stories were as necessary as the medicine, and were treating ourselves in the Pig to much more than mere survival.

One night during my recovery I saw a beaten Triumph motorcycle roar up to the Pig’s doorway. After the machine had come to a heaving rest, a couple rose together from a cloud of dust and exhaust and, yanking away their helmets, peered wide-eyed into the bar. Sweaty hair stood straight off their heads as if they were being electrocuted by their sudden contact with civilization.

They were holding hands as they staggered inside, ducking their heads in the doorway as if stepping through the entrance of another woven hut. They were British, I soon discovered, and had no connection to the Peace Corps, or any other organization, and had ridden the motorcycle across Africa. They began their journey in Cameroon, but had little to say of West Africa, stuttering and finally falling silent when they tried to describe it. But when their story reached Zaire, as the Congo was still called at this time, their eyes narrowed and the hint of wicked grins appeared on their faces.

The Ituru Forest, located deep within the jungle of Africa’s heart, and home of the pygmies, has occupied a place in my imagination almost as far back as the lions of Born Free. To hear tales from those who had stood beneath its ancient trees was a thrill that burned straight through my malaria. The pygmies, as amazed at this British couple’s appearance in their forest home as I was by their arrival at The Pig, would set up an area for them every night after their dinner around a fire. There they were offered joints of the most powerful marijuana they had ever smoked. It’s possible the joints were spiked with Ibogaine, a hallucinogen found in areas of West Africa and used in initiation ceremonies, or another less known plant used locally. Whatever the case, the couple could only laugh till tears came and, as they tried to explain to us seated in the bar, “wrestle with all the beautiful colors.” The pygmies, now satisfied with their hospitality, and the comfort of their happy alien guests, would then pepper them with questions. Their answers were then translated by a tribe member who had travelled beyond the edges of the forest and had picked up some English from aid workers in Kisangani.

It would go on for hours and hours around the fire, every night for the five days they spent in the village. The Ituru forest listeners never ran out of questions, and never tired of listening to another stoned description of London. As the English couple’s words were translated, they gasped with surprise and sometimes even broke into chants, clapping along with sophisticated polyrhythms and offering more of their mysterious pot.

“Sometimes we would just make shit up,” the Englishman said, “just to keep it going. Best time I ever had in my bloody life. I think I’ll always see London now in the way I told it to the pygmies. It’ll be my curse.” Lots of nods from the audience. This wasn’t a joke, we now understood, and it was a relief to hear the word from someone outside our diseased circle.

The Peace Corps nurse came to my room later that night at the Pig to check on me. A tall redhead, she had lived for years in Africa and had worked for the Flying Doctors, bringing emergency medical aid to the most remote areas of the continent. For her first appearance, she strode into our Swahili language training hut and scanned her eyes over us like a bird of prey. She then crossed her ankles with the elegance of a desert nomad and folded her long, freckled arms, hooped with Maasai jewelry, over her braless breasts. Any questions, she asked. Even her khaki dress looked glamorous. She had a keen understanding of the level of sexual frustration in the hut, and toyed with it in her answers, practically winking at the clued-in listeners. “I always sleep under a mosquito net,” she purred, brushing her swirling red hair away from her sparkling green eyes, “and I’ve slept in many kinds of beds.” I wanted to whistle.

Now she was knocking on my hotel room door. To hell with malaria, I thought, and threw off the sweaty sheet and lifted myself out of bed. I still had on the khakis I was teaching with when I left Ol Kalou, and was shirtless. In my state, I thought this might look dashing, and so remained bare-chested as I cracked open the door.

“Just checking on you,” she cooed, peering in from the dark hallway, only inches from my dried lips. She was wearing the khaki dress again. Still addled with medication, this felt like a scene in a spy drama, the secret rendezvous at the safe house.

“Would you like to come in?” I asked, opening the door further. She smiled again, but remained still in the hallway. I interpreted this at the time as her struggle to remain professional, despite a burning desire to make love to me, and considered reaching out and taking her hand. “Are you married,” I asked instead, whispering the famous British line into the dark hallway, “or do you live in Kenya?”

She looked concerned, rather than charmed, by my question. I felt another wave of nausea move through me and gripped the doorknob for balance. The nurse urged me to get some rest, and to stay out of the bar, before she disappeared down the dark hallway. The bitterness that followed tasted even worse than the Aralen I was taking. I fell back onto my bed.

I knew I had to get back to Ol Kalou. As comforting as the companionship at The Pig was, its charms began to fade under the effects of modern medicine. I missed the cool highland air. I missed my rice gruel and the drone of the BBC cricket scores on the shortwave. I missed the midnight chats with Mr. Maina. I missed the students. I missed elephants and lions. I even missed the invisible leopards. And so I slipped away from the Pig one morning at dawn, not yet fully recovered, and with a tingling in the blood that felt something like the gladness of going home.


© 2012, Rick Gray

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