Ebola ’76 by Amir Tag Elsir – Chapter One

It was a blazing afternoon in August 1976, and the deadly Ebola had begun its pursuit of Lewis Nawa, fiercely determined to infiltrate his bloodstream.
         Lewis was from the borderlands of Nzara in the south of Sudan, a blue-collar worker in a small factory producing cotton garments. The factory was owned by a certain James Riyyak, a former dissident in the rebel army that had long been revolting against the central authorities in Khartoum. Lewis had gone to Congo to mourn his lover, having learnt of her death from a traveller recently returned from Kinshasa. For two years now the woman in question had occupied his every thought and desire, monopolising all of the affection he had previously reserved for his wife. Having arrived in the centre of Kinshasa, Lewis remained just long enough to glance cautiously from left to right, before hurrying across the unpaved road to a minibus which would take him to a small cemetery on the outskirts of the city. There, Ebola’s many victims lay side by side, struck down in the overwhelming chaos of its recent outbreak.
         The cemetery was enclosed by a white stone wall and a border of trees, some in leaf and others already with their branches bare. As Lewis entered, Ebola was all around. It hovered inches from him, anticipating its moment to pounce. The virus had already claimed the bodies of most of the people he encountered there. It coursed through the blood of the old, sunken-cheeked beggar woman as she silently extended her hand towards Lewis to receive his half franc. It had infiltrated the veins of the stern guard, who now leant against his battered old rifle, his gaze flitting between the visitors as they came and went through the main gates. It inhabited the many mourners who passed before Lewis’s distracted gaze. Even as he knelt in tears beside the grave of his lover, who had died just two days previously, the virus was there, lurking in her corpse beneath the soil.
         The deadly Ebola was not entirely sure what it found so intriguing about Lewis Nawa, but something about him had propelled it into a fit of excited agitation, and it had resolved to enter his bloodstream and migrate to another land. The virus had been terrorising its home country for some time now and everywhere a refrain of mournful wailing rang out, while the authorities had mobilised every force of good and evil to hunt down the killer and uncover its identity. Samples of blood from its many victims had reached the laboratories of wealthy western countries. In America, Canada and Australia, scientists were hunched over sophisticated microscopes, searching for a vaccine or cure to consign the virus to oblivion.
         To be frank, Lewis was not particularly physically alluring. He certainly was not handsome, with a bulbous nose peppered with stubborn white pimples, and shoulders that were a little too broad. His lips were always dry and cracked, due to the heat and his constant state of dehydration, while the centre of his wide forehead was branded with the sacred and rather ugly markings that distinguished his tribe.
         How old Lewis was nobody knew for sure, but he looked to be in his late forties or early fifties. Up until then, his medical history had been impeccable. He had suffered neither hypertension nor diabetes, his eyesight was perfect, and his prostate and kidneys were in good order. He was afflicted only by the occasional bout of Swamp Fever, which was barely even considered an illness in those parts. In contrast, Lewis’s romantic history was rather pathetic. He had made his first attempts at romance at an early age, pursuing sixteen girls in total: some his own age, as well as others both older and younger. Only one of these girls had responded to his attentions, and she also happened to be partially-sighted. Yet it had not been long before she too had abandoned him, giving no reason for her sudden flight.
         It was now seven years since Lewis had finally married a woman named Tina Azacouri. Tina was from another tribe, but now lived with him in his home town of Nzara, where she sold water on the streets with her mother. During the course of her career she had been the victim of six rapes and two attempted rapes. Yet this was not the cause of her and Lewis’s estrangement – that had begun only two years previously when Lewis first met the woman for whom he now wept so bitterly.
         Lewis’s mistress was named Elaine, although he liked to call her Elaina – not that it mattered now that the deadly Ebola had erased her forever from his life. Lewis failed to comprehend why she had been taken, along with the many others who lay beside her, mourned by their own loved ones who would soon share this same fate. Blithely unaware of this, the people of Congo continued to scoff at the warnings issued by the health authorities, and the government’s attempts to alert them to a danger no one fully understood. The people were convinced that the endless parade of death marching through the villages was the work of a vengeful, wicked sorcerer, who – in reality – existed only in their impoverished imaginations.
         Lewis had first met Elaine on holiday, in a shabby little hostel on the outskirts of Kinshasa. Elaine was a chambermaid with no great aspirations. Lewis began to visit her once or twice a month, bringing with him the wild lust of one newly in love and enough good food to keep them going through two days of particularly ravenous and debauched love-making. Once the two days were up, he would return to Nzara, burying himself in work and concealing his mad longing for another encounter even more frenzied and passionate than the last. Luckily for him he was absent the day the deadly Ebola entered Elaine, ravaging her body until her last drop of blood was spent. Elaine had never been faithful to Lewis, and had contracted the virus from a man who would visit her during his absence.
         And now it was Lewis who had been chosen to carry Ebola back to his home country, where it would wreak more damage than ever before. As he stemmed the flow of his tears and mopped his eyes with a corner of his embroidered thawb, a scrawny, barefoot flower-seller approached him. The girl often travelled the short distance from her small village to the cemetery, to sell tokens of mourning to the grievers. Despite her total nonchalance towards the virus, she had not yet been infected, and held out a pansy to Lewis, its black face surrounded by a fringe of purple petals. Lewis jumped to his feet as though scalded and took three, burying them in the tear-soaked soil. As he left the cemetery his eyes continued to drift unwittingly back to the grave of his dear departed Elaine.
         After passing through the main gates, Lewis immediately found himself surrounded by a crowd of men of various ages and physiognomies, all attempting to strike up a conversation with him. He could not tell whether they were acquaintances or simply fellow mourners wishing to share a particular insight. What united them all, however, was the virus lurking in their blood, ready to strike them down, one by one.
Luckily, Lewis was protected by a cotton scarf he had taken home from the factory one day. He normally wrapped the scarf around his shoulders, but on this occasion he had used it to cover the lower half of his face, in an attempt to conceal the signs of his bitter grief. Thus, he had unwittingly foiled Ebola’s first assault on him, as it danced towards him suspended in the droplets of spit flying from the men’s mouths as they spoke.
         On his way to the main road to catch a lift back to the city centre, Lewis was next confronted by Ruwadi Monti, a famous blind guitar player known to fans and critics alike as ‘the Needle.’ Like Lewis, Ruwadi also belonged to the group of individuals whom Ebola had thus far failed to ensnare. In all aspects of life, he was an avid and ambitious man. He was handsome, in spite of his blank, roving eyes, and his keen senses allowed him to pick up all manner of human odour for many metres around. Ruwadi was also highly influenced by Western culture and claimed to have been educated at Brussels University, gaining the honour of becoming the first and last blind African graduate. Such a claim was, however, wholly unfounded – and the whole of Kinshasa, where the Needle had lived for sixty years, knew it to be so. Ruwadi’s musical credentials were purely African and he had obtained them with minimal effort, from the comfort of his own home. He had once visited Brussels, however, strumming his guitar in the Galeries Royales, the city’s busiest and most prestigious thoroughfare, and performing in a spirited concert at the grand Théâtre de la Monnaie, held in support of the Third World and its many afflictions.
         Ruwadi approached Lewis followed closely by Darina, a pretty girl in her early twenties who acted as the musician’s personal walking stick. Ruwadi did not want anything in particular from Lewis. A melancholy citizen from Nzara hardly presented fertile ground for the ego of a renowned old musician like the Needle. From an early age, however, Ruwadi had developed the habit of accosting people in the street. Sometimes he did so for no reason whatsoever and at other times – especially after he had become famous – in order to gauge the public’s opinion of him. He would accost anyone and everyone: his own mother as she left the house, armed men he knew to be dangerous, or even his own shadow if he encountered it on the street. That day Ruwadi had no particular aim, and had simply come to engage with the cemetery-goers. He had visited Nzara on numerous occasions, and other places both near and far. With his trademark flamboyance, he had entertained wild concerts packed with rapturous youths and pretty women whose physical charms were, for obvious reasons, lost on him. He had also experienced his fair share of failures: audiences composed solely of the organisers and a few diehard partygoers who refused to miss even the most lacklustre show. On several occasions Ruwadi had also been permitted to grace the tables of tribal chieftains and government ministers, along with various other important men made rich through war, and entertain them for a small fee.
         Ruwadi extended a slender hand, whose great exploits deserved more accolades than they would ever receive, and ran his fingers across Lewis’s forehead, identifying his tribal branding as easily as he had picked up the scent of his ragged breath. Then he snatched up a corner of his scarf and began examining it.
         ‘Forgive me for interrupting you so abruptly and at such a moment, but the colour of your scarf has captivated me. Blue is my favourite colour.’
         By pure coincidence – or perhaps it was no coincidence at all – Lewis’s scarf did indeed happen to be blue, as was Ruwadi’s own stylish suit and silk shirt.
         ‘Thank you,’ Lewis replied, pulling the scarf tighter around his neck and covering as large a portion of his face as possible, in an attempt to conceal the tear marks which were still plainly evident.
         As he began to walk away, Lewis heard the guitar player call out behind him.
       ‘I’m performing soon in the south of Sudan. In Nzara – your town! It will certainly be an entertaining affair . . . Come along, my sad friend. Allow yourself a little frivolity and abandon your sorrows.’
         Lewis should really have been a little more taken aback by this conversation, at least by the comments about the colour of his scarf, since it was feasible the thin scars on his forehead were what had betrayed his tribe and country. Yet he showed no signs of surprise, perhaps because the sadness pulsing through his veins had temporarily obstructed such an emotion, or even obliterated it altogether. The blind guitarist’s words, however extraordinary they may have been, sounded to Lewis like any other mundane remark – no different to the daily banter he exchanged at the factory with his less than remarkable colleagues, or the marketplace chitchat with the butcher, the greengrocer and the Arab traders, or the gossip of his barber, Manko Nokosho, who shaved the heads of a good third of Nzara’s men, without ever begrudging his endless toil. As Lewis replayed the words in his mind, they eventually merged into his wife Tina’s nagging, an endless refrain that had begun at the time of his first infidelity. At this, Lewis’s thoughts settled back on Elaine. So sudden and painful was the memory that he almost returned to her grave to continue weeping and plant another bunch of pansies in the damp soil.
         With complete conviction, the crowd of men at the cemetery gates informed Lewis that the death and disease ravaging the villages and towns of Congo were the work of a wicked sorcerer waging some mysterious vendetta. Lewis unquestioningly accepted their words, conditioned to do so by his upbringing and intellectual capacity. The people had certainly heard tell of a mysterious virus, and those with a decent level of education had read out to others the warnings from the Ministry of Health, poorly printed on cheap paper. The radio was another source of information, now that the traditional and uplifting melodies of Draydo Lenoah, Suleiman Agho, Ali Farka Touré and Menelik Wossenachew were regularly interrupted by news bulletins about the virus. Despite this, the wicked sorcerer remained uppermost in people’s minds. Many tribes had even mobilised their own cohorts of wizened sorcerers, equipping them with materials for fashioning amulets and ordering them to hunt out evil in whatever nook or cranny it might be lurking.
         Lewis hailed from a similar background to the crowd of men. His brain, like theirs, was trained to accept the simplest explanation, just as his body was composed of the same hormones and afflicted by all the same grievances: hands that remained sweaty no matter the temperature or humidity, and hair that took years to go white. And so, besides his grief for Elaine, the only new addition to Lewis’s repertoire of emotions was a latent wrath against the vicious sorcerer who had killed his lover and left him in despair.
         Lewis hitched a ride back to Kinshasa in an open-topped cattle truck. The driver, who looked about thirty, stopped willingly, winking at him as he climbed on board. Another man and a woman were already occupying the back in stony silence, interrupted every now and then by the man’s violent cough – luckily just a symptom of a mild dose of flu. The woman sat in front of Lewis on an iron bench, and seemed to be in agonising pain as she nursed her swollen belly. Still in a daze, Lewis failed to deduce that she was in her final month of pregnancy and suffering her first contractions as her husband took her to the nearest hospital in Kinshasa. Vaguely, he assumed she must have eaten her way into such a state and was suffering the ill effects of her own gluttony.
         He was lost in thought, his head lolling onto his shoulder, blind to the pleasant greenery that fringed the road and stretched into the distance as far as the eye could see. Even the stench of dung from the cattle tied up next to him barely made an impression. Thus, the woman’s piercing scream came as rather a shock. As Lewis watched blood and water pooling beneath her, all he could think was that he had lived with two different women in two different countries and neither had given him a child. Before he could reflect any further on this, however, Lewis found himself dumped unceremoniously onto the road into Kinshasa. The driver had expelled him from the vehicle, winking again as he did so, before lugging the woman off to a suitable spot for delivering the child. Lewis did not give the wink much thought. Even if he had, he would never have guessed that it did not in fact result from the driver’s roguish character, but from a chronic – and at that time incurable – illness affecting the nerves in his eye.
         Some time later, Lewis arrived in the centre of Kinshasa, with Ebola still hot on his trail. After leaving the cattle truck, he plodded along a tedious stretch of road before being picked up by a one-eyed Congolese lorry driver. He finally disembarked in one of the capital’s most respectable streets, where there were none of Ebola’s usual types of prey: local eccentrics, coy prostitutes, obstinate beggars and pro-democracy protesters. The street, in fact, belonged to an old magician by the name of Jamadi Ahmed. He did not really own it, of course, but his consistent daily presence there, year in and year out, as well as his dazzling tricks, had inspired one of the street cleaners to remove the sign bearing the name Zumbi Street and replace it with another scrawl declaring it to be Jamadi Ahmed Street.
         The magician was already there when Lewis arrived. His audience was not exactly what one would expect of such a distinguished magician, since his glory had been waning for many years now. Over the past decade he had lost many of the prestigious fans every true magician deserves. The entire national football team had left for more appealing lands, and several overly ambitious politicians had been executed in the streets without trial. Thanks to a string of military coups in a neighbouring country, Jamadi also risked losing the patronage of a close female relative of the country’s president who came to watch him several times a year and always paid him handsomely.
Lewis joined the crowd in front of the magician and was soon enraptured by his performance. Despite having visited Kinshasa several times before, he’d never encountered the magician. He watched as Jamadi popped a fluttering dove into his canvas bag before pulling a wild rabbit out of a hole in the side. Having deposited the rabbit back in the sack, he then extracted an extremely fluffy white chicken.
         Lewis applauded self-consciously, hearing only the sound of his own hands. The rest of the crowd had long since abandoned the custom of clapping, agreeing that, no matter how awkward the silence became, they would applaud only if the magician came up with some new tricks – but he had thus far failed to do so. Jamadi, meanwhile, pulled six jagged razors from the felt cap on his head and swallowed them with a groan before washing them down with a strip of red ribbon. Lewis watched in tense silence, his hands trembling as he fished a whole franc from his pocket and tossed it into the magician’s almost empty cup. When Jamadi brought his hand to his mouth and pulled out the ribbon, neatly entwined with the razors, Lewis was unable to contain his amazement, laughing and rushing to embrace the magician. He had momentarily forgotten his lover was dead, a deadly killer was on the loose, and embracing a homeless magician, who fed himself on God knows what, was a risky activity best avoided.
         No one could tell why the old magician rejected Lewis’s impetuous gesture with such animosity, stamping his foot angrily on the ground and cutting the show off early, even though it was scheduled to continue until midnight. Jamadi started gathering his equipment and arranging it into his case as the audience muttered possible explanations to one another. Perhaps Jamadi had eaten a suspect stew at the filthy restaurant where he had dined before the show. Perhaps he had some irrational hatred of foreigners. Or perhaps Lewis’s unexpected embrace had ruined a new trick he was planning to spring on an audience always eager for something new. To Ebola, however, it made no difference whether the magician laughed or cried as it continued to stalk Lewis, longing to accompany him to a new land. It only hoped that after the show’s abrupt end the exhausted Lewis would move on and encounter another of its victims. At that moment, the virus was growing seriously concerned that Lewis might suddenly cut short his travels and board a bus home. If he escaped, the hunt for a victim would have to begin all over again.
         Lewis stood in stunned silence before the magician’s unexpected wrath, gazing questioningly at him with eyes that had begun to fill with sorrow once again. Jamadi both noted and understood this beseeching gaze, and yet chose to ignore it. He spoke to Lewis in French, gesticulating towards his box of tricks.
         ‘Next time, kindly read this notice before launching yourself at me.’
         Before joining the textile factory, Lewis had worked in the service of a French family long resident in Nzara, and so he understood the magician’s words. Along with the rest of the audience, his gaze moved to the box.
         ‘Ladies and Gentlemen!’ the sign declared in bold red letters, ‘You are kindly requested to refrain from shaking the performer’s hand or directly embracing him, whatever the extent of your admiration.’
         This sign had in fact been stapled to the case for as long as the magician himself had been around. But no one had ever read it, and over the years there had never been an outburst violent enough to draw attention to it. Yet as soon as the audience had read the sign, it was inevitable the words would become legend, spreading through the city like wildfire and entering into everyday parlance. ‘My dear wife,’ a husband would write on his pyjamas, ‘you are kindly requested to refrain from embracing me, whatever the extent of your lust.’ ‘My distinguished professors,’ a wheedling student would scribble on his exam paper, ‘you are kindly requested to refrain from failing me, whatever the extent of my stupidity.’ Perhaps the magician’s sign would even inspire some new, repressive decrees: ‘By order of the government,’ a local newspaper would proclaim, ‘the people are kindly requested to refrain from protesting, whatever the extent of their suffering.’ It was a dangerous statement, concluded a journalist who happened to be present, as well as a campaigner for the rights of women and children. Having just left prison, a rebel fighter seeking some light entertainment vowed that he too would accept neither handshake nor embrace until he had completed his unfinished business. He immediately began to curse the government again, before promptly being thrown back into prison. Lewis, however, merely blinked in confusion, while Ebola squirmed anxiously. The chase continued as the man from Nzara slipped through its grasp once more.
         The respectability of Jamadi Ahmed Street was entirely dependent upon the continued presence of the magician, and over the years this presence had proved reliable. The audience’s faces thus filled with consternation as the old man suddenly flagged down a donkey cart and loaded his tricks on board. In went the familiar everyday tools, and the dusty old ones, entangled with spiders’ webs – Jamadi was off to who knew where. The incredulous bystanders froze, certain this must be the new trick they’d been anticipating for so long. They gazed around, inspecting puddles of water, peering into battered windows, and digging their hands searchingly into their pockets. They didn’t know exactly what they were looking for, but were certain all would soon become clear.
         During those few tense seconds, a young girl named Kanini managed to wrench herself out of the general state of bewilderment. Kanini had been born in a stable on the outskirts of Kinshasa, to an unknown father. She had stayed there until she was eighteen, suffering constant harassment from the farm owners, their horse trainers and field labourers. Scanning the fifty or so baffled spectators, her gaze settled on Lewis. He seemed to be the least muddled of the lot and had greatly assisted her by compelling the long established magician to quit the street, thus paving the way for a new era of sin and depravity. Kanini read the sign with difficulty, her skills lying more in the physical language of lust than the rules of grammar. Hers was a purely spoken dialect, embellished with a few dirty phrases to boost business. Having left the countryside a year ago, Kanini now roamed Kinshasa in search of tourists she would accompany wherever they wished to go, whether to a fancy hotel or – more often – a dirt-cheap hostel.
         Kanini was not impressed by Lewis’s looks or by his physique – both were decidedly below average. Nor did he strike her as having untold wealth buried in his pockets. Yet he was the only foreigner available and, no matter how thoroughly you rinsed them, foreigners always seemed to have a little extra set aside for travel expenses and emergencies.
         Hovering nearby, Ebola broke into a grin as Kanini sidled seductively up and pressed herself against Lewis. It watched as she brought her lips close to his scarred face, cackling with glee as Lewis left with the young girl whose blood it had infected the previous day. Ebola sidled after them as they stumbled through filthy, deserted alleyways until finally reaching their destination, a low building whose walls reverberated with shrieks of raucous laughter. Every now and then, drunks would totter out, barely able to remain upright.
         And so the deal was sealed. Having visited Kinshasa to mourn his mistress, Lewis Nawa of Nzara was to transport Ebola to new territories.