Sister Augustina is the Mother Superior of the mission, however the main character is Sister Veronica, or Vero as she’s called. She is full of energy, drives her Vespa scooter between villages, doing good work. Though the country is ravaged by the greed and corruption of the privileged handful around the president, a few missionary schools and hospitals like Yambuku continued to function effectively.
There’s insight into the Zairian village culture, too. ‘When the old died, they moved to the village of the ancestors and were served by the living… Infants who died before undergoing initiation ceremonies that made them full members of the clan went into limbo and were forgotten. Such losses were difficult, but other children could be created. Far more devastating was the death of a young man or a young woman in their most productive and energetic years. Those deaths were a threat to the survival of the family. Their lives had not yet been filled by experience. Those who died before they had played their part in the perpetuation of the clan could be denied a place with the ancestors.’
The medicine man or native healer was the conduit to the ancestors and sought advice from them.
The priest, Father Gérard believed there was ‘nothing as simple or as stubborn as a Flemish nun.’ Close’s book lends the lie to that statement: he truly looks into the hearts of the valiant nuns as the insular world they inhabit crumbles.
Father Dubonnet is another priest, often spouting pithy observations: ‘We are all a little different after we have lived in Africa for a while.’ Which seems true, if you listen to anyone who has lived in that diverse continent.
A late arrival is Dr Aaron Hoffman, an expert on tropical disease; He reminisced about his time in Africa, not long before he was called back to assist in the outbreak at Yambuku: ‘… slow-flowing, mud-coloured streams and naked kids jumping up and down, family groups sitting outside wattle huts, bright cotton prints drying on thatched roofs, small log spokes around a fire, sweet-smelling smoke curling up and fading into blue sky, muscular clouds flexing and writhing before the evening storm. He could smell the hot earth and hear the whine of mosquitoes, the barks of dogs, the clucking of scrawny chickens around the manioc bushed scratching for grubs, and the laughter of children – happy, round faced and round bellied…’
Hoffman, a lapsed Jew, questioned why God did not intervene when disasters claimed so many innocent lives. In response, the Mother Superior stated: ‘Dogma controls through fear; spirituality through love. God gives each of us the freedom to choose how we behave in the face of nature’s disasters or even our own defeats.’ We have freedom to choose – and missionaries and nurses like these depicted – western and African – literally risk their lives to help their fellows. Despite their religious calling, Close does not dwell on religion. It’s the people that he’s interested in – those who die, those who succumb yet survive and those who win through though at great cost. Indeed, Close has captured the humour and character of the nuns and the priests. Sister Augustina says of Veronica, ‘Although you have added to my grey hairs, your vitality has helped sustain me… In an exhausting sort of way.’
At the deathbed of a nun who has so many ‘sins’ to confess, Dubonnet says, ‘I will give you a general absolution that will cover the big sins and all the little ones.’
This is far from a western- or white-centric novel. The character of Masangaya, who ran the mission hospital, is developed like all the others, with compassion and dedication beaming through. The various villagers and the medicine man are treated with great empathy as they suffer.
Reading this, knowing that death’s pall would fall upon them, I found the book to be suspenseful, making me wonder who would survive. And of course at this time they didn’t even have a name for the disease (it was eventually named after the nearby river, Ebola). Certainly, the spectre of death, as one after another patient was claimed, caused concern and fear in the whole area, aided by superstition: ‘He is afraid because he has a wife and children,’ says Sister Théofila of a clinic doctor who refused to enter the hospital.
On several levels this is a good novel: suspenseful, heart-rending, yet clinical and terrifying in its authenticity. And the characters seem alive and you feel for them in their bewilderment. As you may have already glimpsed from the few excerpts, the writing is eloquent and often beautiful; the opposite of the disease itself.
Between 1976 and 2013 there have been 24 outbreaks involving 1,716 cases, according to the WHO. What seems appalling is that the latest outbreak in West Africa has over 27,000 cases and in excess of 11,000 deaths. Prior to this latest outbreak, no specific treatment or vaccine for the virus was available; some opinion has debated that perhaps the giant pharmaceutical firms didn’t see any money in developing one.
TV: BBC2 – Monday, 1 June – Outbreak – the truth about Ebola. This is a documentary examining the response to the epidemic, looking at why it was not stopped earlier.
William T. Close is the father of actress Glenn Close. He died in 2009, aged 84.