November 14, 2009

The Masked Neocolonialist

The mask is a public-health measure designed to protect the population, and ourselves, from flu. When we arrived, there had been one confirmed case of H1N1 in the entire country, and a few days later, there were three more, all of them in our little compound. While we were in Muhanga, an hour from the capital, a couple of us felt sick and went to the central hospital in Kigali for tests, which came out positive. A third tested positive shortly afterward, and the public health officials told us to wear masks (we informed them that masks had been shown to be of zero value, but they weren't listening). I kept my mask on for about two minutes, not long enough to learn to put it on properly.

I never developed any symptoms, owing in part to the fact that I belong to the least susceptible age group of Americans, in part to having drunk about a gallon of black elder berry extract over the past weeks, and in part to not giving a shit. I've made friends with my inner germ, and if it wants me it knows where to find me. Otherwise it can go bother someone else.

Most of my colleagues remained under house arrest while Pamela (the other uninfected mzungu) and I traveled north to see some mountain gorillas. In Muhanga, a sound truck cruised the streets announcing that Americans had brought disease, and to keep away from us. When we walked through the streets, children covered their noses and mouths and turned away. The Rwandan newspaper New Times had an article about us.

It was Columbus and the Indians all over again. We came to serve, and wound up bringing a new disease. Except that in this case, we apparently managed to keep the bug away from the natives: Costa was flu-free, and our houseman Gigy, a hip young guy about whom more needs to be said at some point, tested negative despite wandering around in an enervated red-eyed funk, mask securely fastened.

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