"Western Africa" story # 21

Bubaque, Guinea-Bissau           September 9, 2012

The cuts on my feet would get worse before they got better, during the rainy season of Guinea-Bissau.
     I loved the rainy season when I was healthy, when I could walk around in my poncho and let the rain fall on my head. But, it was difficult to enjoy when I was sick.
     Ignorant to the world of poor health, I put faith blindly into the hands of anyone who said he knew what I should do with my feet. In my blind journey to the world of good health, I tread the following paths ...
     TREATMENT # 1: "Do nothing."
     I came up with this plan. If I would've been home in the States, I would've put a cream (which my Mom called "sab") and band-aids on the cut. But, I was poor and impoverished in Guinea-Bissau, so I saved my money for bread and chocolate. I began executing this plan on August 17th, the day my soccer cleats had scraped the skin off my toes.
     TREATMENT # 2: "Swim in the sea."
     On August 20th, a thirteen-year-old Guinean named Renato advised me to do this. This was my most fun treatment plan. The salt water killed some bacteria and kept the flies off my feet for a little while. But, my wounds became uglier.
     TREATMENT # 3: "Wet wipes, liquid anti-septics, band-aids, and bandages."
     Roberto, the long-haired Italian priest, came to my aid on August 22nd. He explained that the water from the wells which I was bathing in wasn't fully clean. Thus, I should use the soapy, sterilized "wet wipes" to clean my wounds after showering. Even when I did this, the holes on my feet grew bigger.
     TREATMENT # 4: "Cut my ankle open with a razor blade, wash my cuts with scalding salt water and cotton, keep my feet dry and use an anti-septic powder, and rest."
     Johnny from Switzerland recommended I follow his advice, unless I wanted to get a blood infection and get helicoptered to Dakar. But, I had just begun a job doing web design, so I wasn't able to rest. My ankle became swollen. Johnny - a short, shirt-less, shaggy Frenchman - cut my foot open and squeezed the sickly yellow pus out. It was infected. On August 26th, I began following Johnny's advice. (He'd impressed me by living hidden in the same housing complex of Bijagos people where I lived.) I now showered while seated, and kept my feet dry. My feet missed the rain. They missed the sea. They missed being small and cute.
     TREATMENT # 5: "An anti-septic spray, cream, and pills - and wear covered shoes!"
     Father Luigi, my boss at the Catholic Mission, started me on this new plan. (No matter how good Shaggy Johnny's treatment plan was, I needed antibiotics.) This jolly 68-year-old said, of my bandaged feet, "You're like Jesus Christ!" On August 29th, he also gave me my first income in months. Hallelujah!
     TREATMENT # 6: "Soak my feet in hot salt water, sleep at the Catholic Mission, apply cream, and take antibiotics and multi-vitamins."
     On August 30th, Father Roberto looked at the pills Father Luigi had given me and exclaimed, "Those aren't antibiotics!" Oh? I thought. He asked about Johnny: Was he a doctor!? No, I thought, he was just shaggy. I also thought: Why was I listening to Roberto, he'd already given me the lousiest plan? And why wasn't I going to see a real doctor??? The antibiotics Roberto would give me this time, however, were real. Along with the salt-water soaks, they were effective.
     Roberto - my neighbor at the mission - invited me to a dinner one night. He served a healthy salad, and hardy duck meat which I ripped off thigh bones. He said, "You have to eat right in Africa, or Africa ...
     "... will eat you."

The following Sunday, I was at my home among the Bijagos people, and I came upon a fisherman sawing the leg off a sea-turtle. This turtle's foot problems were worse than mine.
     Two sea-turtles lay on their backs. Their white throats still gulped air. Black eyes bubbled out of their heads and looked around for compassion. Dark green hexagons decorated their necks. They were beautiful.
     They'd been caught during the night by Domingos, Fernando, Julho, and Nino. These young men had been the first people I'd met in the Archipelago of the Bijagos; they'd welcomed me with their gentleness and intelligence. Now, they chopped a poor turtle into pieces and put these into a pot and boiled them.
     They offered me some of the meat. I tried it.
     It had an agreeable texture, like a big, white, floppy piece of bacon. The intestine resembled cow fat, except that it yielded to my teeth, allowing me to bite through and chew it without any effort. A jelly texture, the meat felt like the meat of an animal that hurt nothing and was beautiful. Easy on the teeth and digestion.
     Its taste was a mix of pepper and squid in vinegar and artichoke and bacon fat. I wanted to leave its delicious taste in my mouth for as long as possible.

On Friday of this week, I saw a white girl whose foot problems weren't as bad as the turtle's. Her feet were swollen, infected, red. It looked like she was walking around on two ripe eggplants.
     (Her feet weren't black, though, thank god.)
     By this time, the wounds on my feet had shriveled and dried up. Even if I tempted the flies with them, the flies wouldn't eat at them. They were almost healed.
     I felt bad for this short, dark-featured white girl.
     She'd come over on the ferry from Bissau with me five weeks earlier. Before that, she'd hitchhiked here from Lisbon, accompanied by another small girl and a small, curly-haired dog. In Guinea-Bissau, they met up with their friend, a short bearded fellow. Together, they traveled with no money. The names of this Portuguese trio were Sara, Claudia, and Chico.
     Many Guineans disbelieved they'd come to the archipelago without money. The twenty-five-year-olds had a penchant for marijuana, and Chico liked cigarettes. But, I liked to believe in them. They inspired me. It was very "African" to believe nothing was possible without money; it gave Africans an excuse to not do much.
     After arriving on this island, the Portuguese had walked eightteen kilometers to a wild beach named Bruce. There, the villagers gave the trio fish every day if they had some. The Portuguese were given an abandoned room to live in. Somehow, they acquired a chicken.
     When I saw Sara's feet this Friday in the main town, I was told by Chico that their treatment strategy was: "Trust your body." Chico had black scars on his feet and shins, remnants of cuts that had lasted months. He said a friend of his had been saved by a Red Cross helicopter the previous year, and now he was home in Portugal recovering. Normally, I would've agreed with Chico. But, unfortunately ...
     ... not here.
     Nevertheless, I was inspired by how care-free and playful the Portuguese were. In the home they were now staying in, Claudia turned backwards somersaults on a bed and encouraged local children to do the same. Claudia, with her long honey hair and sunny red cheeks, asked if I'd be joining them for a swim.
     In the sea full of bacteria? I thought. Oh, no!
     At the beach, Guinean friends told Sara she should take antibiotics for her feet.
     Chico commented to me on the quantity of antibiotics the average Westerner consumed in a year. He said they gradually made our bodies weaker. They were even in some foods, he said, and we didn't know it.
     Two days after our swim at the beach, the Portuguese were granted free passage on the ferry back to Bissau. They'd stayed thirty-seven days on the island with no money, and had eaten sea-turtle, turtle eggs, gazelle, jungle rat, and a whooole lot of fish.
     I wished Chico good luck on his transportation job in southern Guinea-Bissau.
     And I wished good luck to Sara's feet.

good health to all,
Modern Oddyseus

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