Continental Drift

November 22, 2010

Germ Theory

Filed under: Uncategorized — unaleona @ 3:16 pm

Long before I came down with this weeklong killer cold/throat infection combination, I’d been warned about the wind.  I mean, everyone in Mali who didn’t have malaria during the last month did have a cold, and the obvious culprit was the mostly pleasant breeze that arrived with the tail end of the rains. The wind signals a preview of the neneba (the big cold), and is the symbolic seasonal shift equivalent of changing leaves in Fall.  In the same way that leaves changing means back-to-school means cold season, wind means back-to-school means cold season.  But Malians are convinced that this is causality, not correlation, and sometimes their ferocity in attributing all sorts of malaise to the wind is so convincing I begin to wonder if there is something particularly ominous and contagious in these Sahelian winds that I have merely misunderstood scientifically.

Twins with colds bundled up against the evil evil wind

My cold was not unexpected.  Everyone in the compound had had a cold or two already, and after weeks of sharing bowls of to and rice prepared by someone with a cold (and a lack of soap and tissues) with the hands of a variety of sick people, I was more surprised that it hadn’t arrived sooner.  Batuma and the baby twins have, predictably enough, had on-and-off colds for more than a month, meaning all sorts of snot, cough syrup and wailing.  The day when Batuma clambered onto my chair to look me in the eyes and pleading hold out her hand for a taste of to, but instead looked me in the eye and sneezed violently into my bowl, I knew I was done for. That Friday, when I awoke with a sore throat, I headed over to the office to make some tea.


Can't get between Batuma and food that she wants, however dirty she is.



“How are you? Did you sleep well?” asked Diak.  “I slept well, but I am a little sick,” I explained.  “My throat is sore.” “I know! It is this wind, it is really terrible.  Myself, I have passed a terrible night, I woke up and felt very ill at three o’clock in the morning and I couldn’t go back to sleep.  It was because Madame had insisted on sleeping with the windows open and the wind was very harsh.  Even though I closed all the windows when I woke up, it had already really disturbed me.  I really have to counsel you to sleep with your door and windows closed.  I know you [plural, meaning white people] feel hot easily and want air, but really it is very important to keep the wind out.  You can turn your fan on once everything is closed if you must have ventilation.”

This discourse was too much for me too early in the morning, especially since my throat really did really hurt.  I nodded and retreated back into my tea, to ponder what it was that was so bad about natural wind that was not reproduced by my fan.  Diak is a very competent doctor, one very sensitive to the superstitions of the community and usually quick to quote biomedical theory to disprove it. All day people told me it was the wind’s fault.  Everyone: educated, uneducated, male, female, everyone blamed the wind.  Ami arrived to open the microfinance caisse, and also bewailed the wind when she heard that I was sick.  “All the children,” she said, “have been getting sick because of the wind.”  Diallo said that he thought that “This wind, it is very bad.” Sometimes a fleeting reference was made the “the period,” this terribly perilous, windy season, but usually the culprit was the wind itself.

The next evening, at Erin’s house cooking dinner, I was chatting with her courtyard-mate, Amidou, a young man who prides himself on being intellectually curious.  We discussed that I was sick, he wished me good health, and then I joked about how everyone seems to want to tell me it was the wind.  He looked concerned.  “Well,” he said, “I don’t really believe that wind can make you sick, there isn’t anything to that, it is just what people say. But, I have to say, what I do know is this.  If you go out and get caught in the rain, and the rain makes your head wet, it can make you sick.  If it gets on your hair—I know this is true for myself and I have talked to many others that find this to be the case—then you will get a cold.  This is why you will often see people, if they don’t have anything with them to cover their heads, if they get caught in the rain they will take a plastic bag and put it around their heads.  Like this,” he demonstrated.

I was taken off guard, by the way his desire to show that he was not to be taken in by old wives’ tales about the wind meant that he used his own sort of anecdotal ‘proof’ to prove the very old wives tale that if you go running around with wet hair you will get sick.  As a myth, it makes more sense to me that this would have sprung up in countries where walking around with wet hair in winter can actually make your hair turn to ice, but obviously somewhere along the way I have missed the point.

Mama, not surprisngly, had more to say on the subject than anyone.  The third day I still wasn’t better.  My throat was still piercingly painful and I had developed a full blown cold besides.  “Why didn’t you buy a chicken?” she asked.  “If you had bought a chicken, I could make you a soup and I would put lots of hot pepper in it and your cold would go away pew (completely) just like that.” And, “Did you take medicine? You should go to the pharmacy  they will give you medicine to make your cold go away.”  Most frequently, she continued to berate me—as she has every time I have had a cold—for blowing my nose too much.

Most people around here can’t really afford enough tissues to only use tissues to blow their noses.  Moms are constantly using whatever is handy to remove snot from their kids.  If it is their finger, then they rub it off on the wall.  Adults are on their own.  Nose blowing seems to be looked on a really disgusting thing to do, kind of like farting.  If it must be done, it ought to be done in private, and when I do it in public I constantly receive disgusted looks.  But because I am sick and because it seems ridiculous to be so offended by something that is actually preventing me from getting germs all over you, I usually just do it anyway.

Mama’s response is not disgust, she simply threatens me. “If you keep blowing your nose like that, it will fall off.” And when that doesn’t work, “If your cold doesn’t go away soon, n bena nu tige” (I will cut off your nose).  I have learned that simply protesting this fate does not discourage her, I have to threaten to cut her nose off back.


Mama probably threatening to cut off my nose, next to the saga (sheep) that she will soon cut up into little pieces.



I told her, on this third day of my illness, that I was going to rest on a mattress under the mango tree in the office courtyard.  Since everyone in the family sneaks over the office to sleep under the mango tree whenever possible, I expected approval of this plan.  “With the wind!” she exclaimed.  “You mustn’t go lie there with the wind about, of course your cold isn’t getting better.  If you sleep outside the wind will get in!” I tried protesting that I was hot, I tried protesting that it didn’t bother me. Finally, to escape the tirade of worry, I had to promise that I would find some fini (cloth) to wrap around my head to keep out the dreaded wind.  I escaped off to the tree, where I camped out enjoying the cool air, the pleasant breeze, and privacy to blow my nose.  I remembered that I had another throat infection in Africa a little more than a year ago; that time the only things pushed on me were thermometers, effervescent flu tablets, endless wonderful cups of tea with honey, and finally an extremely efficient doctor’s office with some antibiotics.  But that was South Africa and that was then, and this is Mali and no one in South Africa would have killed a chicken for me.

My disease dragged on all week, though thankfully my throat troubles healed faster.  I continued to feel stuffy and awful, and continued to blow my nose and then be threatened by Mama with losing it.  The day of Seliba and the day after I decided to be well enough to eat meat, greet and be very merry by force of will, which led to feelings of utter physical collapse by the end of all that.  That night, concerned that I still wasn’t well, Mama continued to berate the wind but searched for other environmental factors.

We talked, me flopped down lying on the ground, she sitting fanning the fire to heat up a large pot of hot water for my bath.  She told me that the reason I stayed sick was because I was showering with cold water.  No, it was because I was showering and getting my hair wet at night.  “Can’t you wash yourself without washing your hair?” “No, it is sweaty and dirty. “Why didn’t you shower at midday?,” I wasn’t home at midday, I was visiting people.” “Don’t you know that wet hair makes you sick? If it were daytime, the sun would dry it, but at night it stays wet.” Exhausted, and left with little hope that any further attempt to dissuade her logic would be pointless, I decided to just be the all-knowing toubab voice of authority. “That’s not true.  People say that but it isn’t true.” “It is true.” “No it’s not.” “It is! If you wash your hair, and it stays wet, the cold can enter through the tiny little holes where your hair comes out.  That’s how you get sick.” Lying wrapped in my pagne looking up at the stars,  already half-asleep from being horizontal, it seemed awfully difficult to find anything that could possibly be more true than that. Luckily I didn’t have to, the water was ready, and I took a deliciously toasty hot bucket bath.

Snugly in my pajamas, I sat down to eat some to before I collapsed in bed.  “You have to give me a different bowl, Mama, I’m sick.  If I eat with you guys, I will give you my cold.” I had tried this tactic the other day, and had only been laughed at.  “Maimouna, we don’t know that way here. Here we all eat from the same bowl.  Anyway, people can’t give illness to other people.  Only God can give someone an illness.  Isn’t that true?” But the following day, when Mama felt she was coming down with something, she had yelled at me “Maimouna, you gave me your cold!” “No Mama,” I cried triumphantly, “I can’t give you my cold.  Only God makes people sick!”  She liked that immensely, and shouted it out louder for old Makoroba to hear.

Since all of that had already happened, I thought that maybe today she’d be more amenable to isolating me and my germs off to my own plate.  Grudgingly she agreed to it, and dished me out a serving.   I sat to the side about to eat when Djenebou, a neighbor came into the compound to say hi to Tanti.  To explain why I was off to the side eating by myself, Mama said “Maimouna says if we eat from the same bowl, all of us will get sick with her disease.  Isn’t that a crazy thing to say?”  Djenebou agreed that the toubabou idea seemed rather unlikely. Having won the bowl battle, I didn’t feel the need to participate in the continuing war.  I reached my nice clean, freshly showered hand into the dish to take the first bite.  Instantly, I was greeted by shrieks of disapproval. “Maimouna!” yelled Rokia and Mama, “You haven’t washed your hands!”  They shoved the bowl of murky water everyone else had already washed their hands in towards me, “What are you thinking? You’ve been out on the town all day and you have a cold, and you don’t even wash your hands before you eat! No wonder you are still sick! Toubabou doesn’t know anything.”



  1. Maybe the folk medicine has some basis: link between the onset of meningitis epidemics and the date of the onset of Harmattan winds in Mali!

    Comment by Devon — November 23, 2010 @ 6:28 am | Reply

    • Cool! That is definitely both the time of the meningitis epidemics and the time of the Harmattan, but Harmattan winds are different from end of rainy season winds. And as far as I understand, the Harmattan doesn’t really figure much into the climate as far South as Bamako. But either way, I still don’t understand the wind and the common cold!

      Comment by unaleona — November 23, 2010 @ 11:49 am | Reply

  2. Just wanted to say I really enjoy reading your blog. You write about the things I think about all the time and you write it so eloquently. I was told that the wind dries out your nose which makes it impossible for the mucus in your nose to do its duty of catching the viruses before they enter your body. If you use a saline solution in your nose it helps keep it moisturized and probably helps keep out the viruses. My theory is get sick as often as possible now. . .then in your old age you’ll almost be immune. So although the wind doesn’t carry the actual virus. . .it helps make you more susceptible by reducing your natural defenses. I am here in BAmako with my two young children, I heat water every night to bathe my children inside the house because when I was bathing them in the Kenema. . .everyone in my apartment complex would constantly scold me telling me I am making my children sick. They play with so many other children with snot hanging out of their noses its inevitable they will catch everything here.

    I believe I once read somewhere. . .I don’t have a source that you don’t catch the same virus twice that you develop immunity. So if this is true I want my children to get as many colds now as possible because when they reach adulthood they will seem to never get sick. My quick search about the common cold came out with this.

    Comment by Danielle — November 23, 2010 @ 10:39 am | Reply

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