Malaria is a huge impediment to productivity and development wherever it strikes. That is one reason it is particularly agreeable to see the recent initiatives to reduce and eradicate malaria, and reason to pray that they be successful, in Ghana, and in all other countries.
The Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski has spent much time in many of the countries of Africa and is very fond of the people and the continent. One of his books, Shadow of the Sun, is a collection of essays about different places, people and events he has visited, met, and witnessed throughout the continent. He has suffered from malaria more than once, and provides one of the most vivid written descriptions of the disease. In a chapter he calls “Inside the Mountain of Ice” he writes about the onset of malaria. For those who have never suffered a malaria attack, this provides insight on why it is so devastating.
The first signal of an imminent malaria attack is a feeling of anxiety, which comes on suddenly and for no clear reason. Something has happened to you, something bad. If you believe in spirits, you know what it is: someone has pronounced a curse, and an evil spirit has entered you, disabling you and rooting you to the ground. Hence the dullness, the weakness, the heaviness that comes over you. Everything is irritating. First and foremost, the light; you hate the light. And others are irritating – their loud voices, their revolting smell, their rough touch.
But you don’t have a lot of time for these repugnances and loathings. For the attack arrives quickly, sometimes quite abruptly, with few preliminaries. It is a sudden, violent onset of cold. A polar, arctic cold. Someone has taken you, naked, toasted in the hellish heat of the Sahel and the Sahara, and thrown you straight into the icy highlands of Greenland or Spitsbergen, amid the snows, winds, and blizzards. What a shock! You feel the cold in a split second, a terrifying, piercing, ghastly cold. You begin to tremble, to quake, to thrash about. You immediately recognize, however, that this is not a trembling you are familiar with from earlier experiences – say, when you caught cold one winter in a frost; these tremors and convulsions tossing you around are of a kind that at any moment now will tear you to shreds. Trying to save yourself, you begin to beg for help.
What can bring relief? The only thing that really helps is if someone covers you. But not simply throws a blanket or quilt over you. This thing you are being covered with must crush you with its weight, squeeze you, flatten you. You dream of being pulverized. You desperately long for a steamroller to pass over you.
I once had a powerful malaria attack in a poor village, where there weren’t any heavy coverings. The villagers placed the lid from some kind of wooden chest on top of me and then patiently sat on it, waiting for the worst tremors to pass. The most wretched are those who have a malaria attack and there is nothing to wrap them in. You can see them by the roadsides, in the bush, or in clay huts, lying semicomatose on the ground, drenched in sweat, confused, their bodies rent by rhythmic waves of malarial convulsions. But even snuggled under a dozen blankets, jackets, and coats, your teeth chatter and you moan with pain, because you sense that this cold does not come from without – it’s forty degrees Celsius out there! – but that it’s within, inside you, that these Greenlands, and Spitsbergens are in you, that all those floes, sheets, and mountains of ice are advancing through your veins, muscles, and bones. Perhaps this thought would fill you with fear – were you able to summon the strength to feel anything at all. But the thought occurs just as the peak of the attack, after several hours, is gradually subsiding, and you start a helpless descent into a state of extreme exhaustion and weakness.
The malaria attack is not merely painful, but like every pain also a mystical experience . . . But this moment of discovery, too, passes, and the spirits desert us, depart, and disappear, and that which remains, under the mountain of the most bizarre coverings, is truly painful.
A man right after a strong attack of malaria is a human rag. He lies in a puddle of sweat, he is still feverish, and he can move neither hand nor foot. Everything hurts; he is dizzy and nauseous. He is exhausted, weak, limp. Carried by someone else he gives the impression of having no bones or muscles. And many days must pass before he can get up on his feet again.
Each year in Africa malaria afflicts tens of millions of people, and in those areas where it is most prevalent – in wet, low-lying, marshy regions – it kills one child out of three.