Rebuilding Foundations

An exploration of international development work in Africa

Not Malaria

Oh my word, yesterday I was sicker than I’ve been for years.

I knew something was wrong as soon as I got out of bed.  I stood up and immediately felt dizzy.  My head hurt and my eyes ached.  My stomach felt nauseous.  I staggered to the bathroom and had to hold onto the walls to steady myself.  As I stared at my spinning reflection the mirror, I tried to convince myself that I could make it to work.  It was my last Monday, after all.  All I would have to do is sit at my desk and write my final report.  It’s not like I have to walk around or perform any labour-intensive tasks.

As I washed my face, however, I knew I wasn’t going to make it.  I didn’t even have the energy to brush my teeth.  Instead I lurched back to my bedroom, hunched over like Quasimodo, and collapsed into bed.  I sent a text to my coworker that I was too sick to make it to the office and fell back asleep.

I slept straight to noon with weird, feverish dreams.  I dreamt that I was trying to scoop ice cream from its tub into a bowl, but I’d lost my eyesight and couldn’t do it.  I was surrounded by family and friends who didn’t believe I was ill and were laughing at my efforts.  If you know how much I love ice cream, you’ll understand that this was truly a nightmare indeed!  It was extra horrible yesterday because my body felt like it was burning up from the inside out.

At noon I tried to eat some oatmeal and barely got through half a bowl.  As I lay back in bed, still burning up and nauseous, I tried to reason out my game plan.  My biggest fear was that I’d caught malaria in Malawi.  At least I knew it wasn’t the bad/potentially fatal strain since that one usually sends its victims straight to unconsciousness.  Also they get muscle spasms that wrack their entire body.  I was still conscious and my body didn’t’ have the energy to turn over, let alone convulse!

Whether or not it was malaria, however, I knew I couldn’t miss another day of work and get everything finished that I needed to.  I decided that if I didn’t feel better the next day, I’d send an email to Rooftops Canada and ask them to push my flights back a week.

I spent the entire day sleeping, waking up periodically to drink water or rush to the bathroom.  I tried to be thankful that at least I was home and not going through this in a hostel.  My second night in Malawi I’d gotten food poisoning and spent a considerable amount of time in the bathroom, puking up stomach acid.  As a result, I’d gotten tons of mosquito bites on the soles of my feet – one of the reasons I was so worried about malaria.

I don’t have the internet at home so I sent a text to one of my friends and asked him to look up how long it takes malaria to show itself.  Usually 8-14 days.  That was good, right?  I was going to ask him the symptoms too, but decided not to.  I should’ve, though.  I wouldn’t have been as worried.

According to Wikipedia, malarial symptoms may include

  • headache
  • fever
  • shivering
  • joint pain
  • vomiting
  • hemolytic anemia
  • jaundice
  • homeglobin in the urin
  • retinal damage
  • convulsions

That’s not what I had.  I had a headache and fever, but those go along with most flu.  I was nauseous, but not vomiting.  Instead I had diarrhea.

(Is this too much detail?)

As I lay in bed, I tried to figure out how I could’ve caught something so bad.  The plane food?  Those weird berries I’d bought from a woman on the side of the road?  The stranger I’d kissed two nights ago?

One of the travelers I’d met in Malawi was super careful about everything she did.  She refused to eat anything that wasn’t cooked.  She brushed her teeth using bottled water.  She wouldn’t even go near Lake Malawi, which is crawling with bilharzia, a parasitic worm that buries into your skin and breeds in your body.  They spread through snail poo and you can see the snails in the water, as if waiting to infect you.  If you crawl on the rocks, you can actually watch the little worms wiggle into body.

It’s super gross.

But the lake was so beautiful and inviting: how could I not jump in?

My hostel sold the antidote for bilharzia.  It’s a super strong antibiotic that you take 6 weeks after your last swim in the lake.  Unfortunately it doesn’t kill the babies, so you have to wait for all the little worms to grow up before taking the pill.

Honestly, though, I think I enjoyed my visit to Lake Malawi more than the other girl.  I may have to deal with some wickedly terrible consequences, but I’ll survive.  Hopefully.

And, despite how awfuI felt yesterday, I still think all my risk-taking was worth it.  I had an amazing time swimming, kayaking, and snorkeling with tropical fish

At around 2am this morning my fever finally broke and I woke up again at 6am feeling much better.  Furthermore, my digs mate texted me that she’d caught my bug.  Although I felt sorry for her because I know how horrible this sickness is, part of me rejoiced since it was contagious and definitely not malaria.

I’m sharing this story for two reasons.  Mostly, I want sympathy for my suffering.  At the same time, though, I want to warn travelers that sometimes it is better to err on the side of caution.  You know yourself.  If being sick doesn’t bother you too much, don’t hold back.  If extreme pain and discomfort would ruin your trip, however, maybe it’s better to avoid the riskier foods and activities.  You can still travel Africa: I met a girl who also ate an apple from a man at the side of the road, yet she’d gone for 5 months without getting as severely sick or as often as I did in a week!


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One thought on “Not Malaria

  1. I definitely remember the mental questioning of what caused whatever was ailing me at the time in Ghana. It can certainly be frustrating.

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