After Africa

Hot dust and red sweat, that’s all I remember. Not the nurses, not the needles, not the drip-drip-drip of the IV. When I think back to those three days, I am lying still and wet, wanting everything and getting nothing.

Tanzania took me at once. She is earth and sky together, mountains and borders and people. I liked it best there in the evenings, when the mosquitoes took flight and the sky was filled with the low hum of black wings as they practised making silent silhouettes against Kilimanjaro.

I arrived in Moshi late-July, after boarding the plane that took me from summer to winter. Africa’s sun still burned me, its winter air still choked. On the streets I saw fruit sellers, fabrics and art made from paper and paint. I saw handshakes and coffee beans and banks, gardens and water and dust-filled roads. The people were friendly and the days there were long. I slept well, my dreams filled with thoughts of home and the days still to come.

A week passed and I left Moshi. I was to go to Kifaru to teach. With three friends and a bag full of clothes, we set off into the plains, travelling for an hour until the sound of the school hit us. Children sang, teachers shouted, and everyone extended their hands to ours in welcome. There were two single mattresses for the four of us and no electricity. Dirt and old objects piled in the corner. A log kept the wooden door closed. We shared one roof that night, telling stories until the candle burned out. I woke to a rooster’s crow and the feel of a spider on my leg.

We spent one happy week at Kifaru, planning lessons and learning about our new home until it happened. They said it was bad meat, but to me it was dizziness and sickness and breathless pain. The doctor suggested E.coli, though he didn’t have the equipment to say for sure. I knew it was true.

I was taken back to Moshi, where I had to wait through the night for the surgery to open. By the time they examined me I couldn’t be woken, my body gripped by sweat-soaked terror and tortured hallucinations. While I was out, they attached the IV, piercing my veins and saving my life.

When I woke, I knew.

‘Were the needles clean?’ I asked.

‘I’m sure they must be out of packets’ they answered, worry etched into every line in their face.

The hospital had very few resources. The town was remote.

I was ill for weeks. My body shrunk, my skin hung off my once-sturdy frame and my hair fell out. I faded.

After 40 more days, I boarded a plane for home, happy to be back with my family, but I was changed. Knowing that I had to wait three more months to find out if I had HIV changed me.

Though I had returned to England, I left myself in Africa. The carefree side of me was pierced by those needles, and anxiety had leaked into the holes it left. My life was ruled by panic attacks and moments of terror. I was scared to cough, scared to cry in case it was a sign that I had been infected that day. My hair, now coming out in clumps, had to be cut short. Only my mother knew. She was strong for me when I couldn’t be.

The day of the test, I cried as the nurse drew blood.

‘I’ll have your results in a fortnight’ she cooed, and I cried again. She made me tell her what I was scared to wait for.

‘Listen, I can move some things around,’ she said, ‘I’ll have them this afternoon.’

My mother came with me, holding my hand as she told me the test came back negative.

HIV negative; anxiety positive.

My life became a cycle of panic attacks and pain, fear-filled days and tearful nights. I told myself I must never allow that to happen again, and I treated every illness and opportunity as though it would kill me. Leaving the house became impossible, leaving myself aside even harder.

It took another year for me to decide to fix it. The doctor was kind, he said he understood. I was ashamed of myself, but he convinced me that I shouldn’t be. He gave me little white pills and I swallowed them gratefully.

The fear started to fade.

It took doctors and counsellors and medicine to cure me of the illness I never thought to fight. Now, five years after Africa, I am finally better. No more panic, no more fear.

 

When I think back now, it’s the hot dust and red sweat that I remember.

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