in The Company Of Men does not make for a joyful reading experience. That’s hardly surprising though given its subject is the Ebola outbreak that devastated Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone between 2014 and 2016.
Véronique Tadjo’s novella tells of the appalling consequences of the epidemic through the eyes of those who come into contact with this killer. She draws on first hand accounts of people who succumbed to the virus as well as those who provided care and support, often at huge risk to their own health ,
We hear from an exhausted doctor who battles the virus every day without effective medicines and protected only by a plastic suit. The medical staff are pushed to the limits of endurance every day, becoming “a trespasser in the kingdom of Death.” but they keep going, refusing to let the virus win.
I can’t let the disease take control, spread and threaten my family. We must fight it. That’s the price we have to pay as long as we share the same planet.
Testimony comes also from a student who has volunteered as a gravedigger; an outreach worker who goes into villages to educate people about symptoms and precautionary measures and the Congolese scientist who identified the virus. Ebola itself and the bats that spread it to humans even get to speak,
Watching over them all is the ancient and wise Baobab tree, mourning the dire state of the earth and the loss of the old ways of life. Yet it suggests there is still hope for the future; that the wheel of fortune and disaster will turn once more bringing renewal and joy.
Facts, song lyrics, legends and poems are woven into the fictionalised testimonials In a parable about the sanctity of the chain that connects humans to nature. The message of In The Company of Men is clear: in destroying the environment, humankind has sown the seeds of its own destruction.
As Ebola itself says: “…it’s not me humans ought to fear the most. They should rather be scared of themselves!” Ebola is perfectly content in the “primordial jungle” and has no need to seek out humans, but humans cannot leave any part of Earth unclaimed.
The Baobob tree, “the first tree, the everlasting tree” has borne witness to man’s destructive tendencies over the centuries. They chopped down trees, seeing not their beauty but their potential for profit; clearing forests to make way for crops or plantations of rubber, cocoa and eucalyptus. But when the trees disappeared, so did the animals and birds.
But when men murder us they must know that they are breaking the chains of existence. Animals can no longer find food. Bats can no longer find food, can no longer find the wild fruit they like so much. Then they migrate to the villages where there are mango, guava, papaya and avocado trees with their soft, sweet fruits. The bats seek the company of Man.
The eyewitness testimonies make for grim reading.
A nurse lists the legacy of mismanagement and low investment in healthcare: peeling paint, filthy beds, broken furniture and underpaid staff. “We’re used to all that. But this time, things are worse than ever,.” she says.
The scientist who has made it his lifetime’s work to find a vaccine, shares his frustration that financial factors are outweighing the humanitarian needs. Pharmaceutical companies want to make sure there’s money to be made before they invest in research and development. Vaccines exist that have never made it to a trial phase as a result. His testimony contains a searching question:
We have the ability to prevent Ebola from resurfacing but does humanity truly have the will to make this happen?
It’s impossible to read this book and not see uncomfortable parallels with the Covid-19 pandemic:. the danger underestimated and downplayed initially then turmoil when cases began to be identified in the West. The panic that followed at the realisation this was a global health crisis. Health checks at airports; temperature checks for travellers; isolation for suspected carriers. Even the instructions given to citizens on preventative measures sound familiar: keep your distance; wash your hands ; stay at home; don’t shake hands. etc
This was not the first Ebola outbreak. It was overcome but not eradicated. So although the book ends on a note of optimism it nevertheless asks a fundamental question:
Are we better prepared if disaster strikes again, or has everything fallen into oblivion already, crowded out by the thick bustle of our days?
That’s a question we’re all asking right now having lived through the Covid-19 crisis.
In The Company Of Men by Véronique Tadjo: Footnotes
In The Company Of Men was originally published in French in 2017. An English translation by the author in collaboration with John Cullen was published by Other Press in 2021. Véronique Tadjo is a poet, novelist and academic from Côte d’Ivoire who earned a Doctorate in Black American Literature and Civilisation from the Sorbonne. she was a Fulbright Scholar at Howard University, Washington DC. Several of her other novels have been translated into English.