Originally published as In the company of men, the work was translated by the author in collaboration with John Cullen. Tadjo’s novel includes a series of moving snapshots presented through the eyes of those affected by the Ebola outbreak: the doctor who tirelessly treats patients day after day in a sweltering tent, protected only by a plastic suit; the student who volunteers to work as a gravedigger while universities are closed; the grandmother who agrees to take in an orphan boy driven out of her village for fear of infection.
In the company of men is one of two recent African novels in translation to receive recognition: Rwandan Scholastique Mukasonga Our Lady of the Nile has been shortlisted for the Republic of Conscience award, the winner of which will be announced shortly. This counts as a welcome trend that will encourage further translation of African works.
Read an excerpt from Véronique Tadjo In the company of men.
‘Go ahead, get out now. Go to the capital, go to your aunt. The village is cursed. Never come back here.
She stuffed some clothes into a bag and took the money her father handed her. She knew that was all she had left.
“When the bus arrives at the main station, there will be people everywhere. But don’t worry, your aunt will be there waiting for you. Don’t tell him anything. Above all, don’t tell him we’re dying here. It would terrify her. Don’t tell him that your mother and your two younger brothers are very sick. She wouldn’t understand. Say as little as possible, watch and do whatever she asks you to do. This is your chance.
He hugged her quickly and walked away without looking back.
Two mischievous young boys from a village on the edge of the forest have gone hunting. Their village was a cluster of small houses and large circular mud huts with conical roofs and stepped layers of thatch rising skyward. The nearby forest was an imposing presence, both protective and nurturing, a realm inhabited by mysterious forces invisible to the naked eye. The villagers lived amidst great natural beauty and utter destitution.
That morning, before the sweltering, humid sun came out, the whole area was shrouded in mist. Armed with slingshots, the two brothers shot at anything that moved. Then they looked up and spotted a colony of sleeping bats hanging upside down from the branches of a tall, rough-barked tree. The cool, shady foliage formed a screen against the sun’s rays. A child aimed and hit one of the animals. As it fell, several other bats flew off with screeching. The boy aimed again. A dull sound came from the carpet of dead leaves.
The second boy took his turn, and he too hit his target. A third bat hit the ground at his feet and began to crawl feebly. The young hunters recovered their prey and returned proudly to the village. There they lit a wood fire, threaded the bushmeat and seasoned it with pepper and other spices stolen from their mother’s kitchen. Then they grilled it over the fire, although there wasn’t much to eat: a few soft bones and some meat that tasted like game. But it was their own loot.
Less than a month later, both boys were on the verge of death. Blood flowed from all the orifices of their bodies.
When the nurse was notified, he rushed home but stopped short in the bedroom doorway and watched the two boys 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 are in grave danger. I’ll call my team. He scribbled a brief report in his notebook and rushed to alert his superiors. But the mother did not move from her children’s bedside. She wept as she stroked their faces and gave them sips of water to drink.
Huddled side by side in a red earth house with a tin roof, the two frail little bodies endure their suffering. Nobody knew. The medical team took a long time to come. The mother could not sit still and do nothing. She visited the local healer to get plants to cure the sick.
The man said: “There are so many deaths, too many deaths, it’s not normal. This disease is not from here. Someone is there to catch us. He cast a curse on us that I don’t know how to break. We have to clean the village and perform purification rites. But in the end, he took pity on her and gave her potions for her children.
The father, waiting for the arrival of the medical team, had not moved from the front door. He let the mother do as she pleased and watched the villagers intently go about their daily business. The farmers, their hoes slung over their shoulders, walked in single file toward the fields. Women with buckets of water on their heads came back from the river. Kids trotted behind the women, clinging to their skirts, bare feet covered in dust. A few kids rummaged through a pile of garbage, while hens scraped and scratched the ground looking for worms. The father looked up at the yellow sun, at the rain-laden clouds, and decided bad luck had crept into their lives.
The medical team has arrived. The men pulled out their gear and began to douse the floor with chlorine solution. The father moved away. The team ordered the mother out, but she refused. They erected a sanitary cordon all around the house, then the neighbors crowded onto the stage, their faces still wrinkled with sleep, their loincloths tied around their chests.
The villagers watched from a distance, standing in silent groups under the trees. Father and mother already looked like ghosts, their neighbors thought. Another missing family.
In the past, each new death was announced with a lot of fanfare. Screams spread the news throughout the village. The women were wailing and rolling in the dust tearing their hair. But now, this time, there was no such thing, absolutely nothing. Everything was happening in silence, a thick and threatening silence, auguring even more heartbreaking days. The death of the two boys triggered an ominous premonition that petrified the entire village.
The mother got into the ambulance with her children; it was the last time the father saw them alive. He barely had time to send his eldest daughter away. Not a single tear was shed. He was already fighting for his life. DM/ML
In the company of men is published by Jacana Media (R195). Véronique Tadjo is a writer, academic, artist, poet and author of children’s books. Born in Paris, she grew up in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, where she attended local schools. She holds a bachelor’s degree in English from the University of Abidjan and a doctorate from the Sorbonne, Paris IV, in Afro-American literature and civilization. To visit The reading list for South African book news, every day – including excerpts! This excerpt originally appeared in The Johannesburg Book Review.