How the Ebola Epidemic in Africa Prefigured COVID-19

Novelist Veronique Tadjo’s In the Company of Men focuses on Ebola in 2014, but nevertheless speaks to us of COVID today

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in Conversations • Illustrated by Nina Pagano

In the novel, In the Company of Men, a virus speaks. It is laying waste to society, putting its victims into mass graves, leaving survivors in limbo, and confining the rest to quarantine. Yet the virus defends its actions, insisting that it is no worse — perhaps even it is even better — than human beings in regards to how it behaves. The virus argues that its behavior is natural, uncontrived, as opposed to the pain that humans intentionally inflict upon each other. “I’m neither good nor bad,” the virus says. “I’m like a plant that grows, like a spider that devours its prey.” 

Reading In the Company of Men in 2021, it is impossible not to think of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic — but author Veronique Tadjo’s virus is in fact Ebola, which ravaged West Africa in 2014. Originally published in French four years ago, but issued in English only last month, its tale of suffering and solidarity has grown that much more striking in the duration. 

In the Company of Men is composed of vignettes of fantasy and fact. The diatribe of Ebola, along with passages from the bat who carries the virus and the Baobab tree who defends humanity, is set against the testimony of patients, healthcare workers, family members, and others contending with the epidemic. Evoking these various voices, Tadjo paints an impressionistic landscape of Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone, as the people there struggle against an Ebola outbreak that ultimately infected nearly 30,000 people and killed more than 11,000 in gruesome fashion. While the balancing act between myth and medical science sometimes stumbles — it’s difficult to imagine a tree (or anyone but a doctor, really) saying of Ebola: “It takes between five and 21 days for the fever to appear in its acute and life-threatening form” — the overall effect is powerful, connecting the epidemic with environmental degradation, individual suffering with universal solidarity, a painful past with a hopeful future. 

I recently spoke with Tadjo about In the Company of Men, the novel’s new significance amid COVID-19, and whether the world will look away while so dire a situation unfolds again. Our conversation below has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity. 

Arvind Dilawar: In the Company of Men avoids naming characters or countries, instead of presenting the Ebola outbreak as affecting innumerable people throughout West Africa. Why was it important to you to generalize the experience of the epidemic? 

Veronique Tadjo: The 2014 Ebola epidemic was widely covered by the media at the time. I wanted to throw a different light through the medium of literature. By deliberately not naming the characters I wanted to emphasize the fact that in the fight against a disease, race, nationality, or gender does not matter — just human beings trying to beat the virus. 

It is the same approach that I adopted regarding the three affected countries: Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone. (I do name them specifically at the end of the book, with more information in terms of the number of victims and the length of the epidemic.) Because my motivation was not to write a documentary or a scientific essay, I chose to draw parallels and commonalities between the three countries. Viruses know no borders and do not differentiate between people. 

I was interested in creating a spaceless and timeless territory in which the epidemic could be dissected as if under a microscope. The fact that “Baobab,” “the Bat,” and even the virus are characters in their own right indicates to the readers that the story should be understood more like a fable for our modern times. And maybe that’s why it talks to the COVID-19 pandemic as well.  

AD: Was there a lineage of “plague literature” that you drew inspiration from? Since you were writing in French, Albert Camus’s The Plague instantly comes to my mind. 

VT: Yes, Albert Camus The Plague was a strong inspiration for me. I have read and re-read his book and also taught it to my students at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, where I was Head of French and Francophone Studies for seven years.  

When writing In the Company of Men, I did not need to look for “plague literature” because it is not a genre that I am drawn to. I was interested in talking about the suffering and the chaos that engulfed the three countries during the epidemic, but also about the resilience and courage that so many people exhibited — local people and those who came from many foreign countries. 

I was also influenced by African oral literature, which allowed me to tell the story from different perspectives. The storyteller can use an array of genres from poetry to song or even political language. This suits me fine because I prefer to avoid the linear style when writing a story. I like to hear many voices. 

AD: African oral literature is something that I’m afraid most Americans are shamefully ignorant of — myself included. Is there a particular story that you drew the most from for In the Company of Men? How much of the Baobab tree was taken from common folklore? 

VT:  African oral literature is the corpus of oral tales, myths, proverbs, and legends that has been passed on from one generation to the next. It is centuries old. Yet oral literature can be adapted for new audiences. All the cultures of the world have been through that oral stage at one point or the other. However, some societies have chosen to keep them alive, while others have relegated them to dusty books. 

African oral literature has influenced a lot of contemporary writers of African descent. The traditional storyteller (often a man) can call on different genres to tell his story: music, song, history, or even political language. Animals and nature are characters in their own right. He doesn’t tell the story in one go and doesn’t adopt a linear structure. 

Having been raised in West Africa, I have been influenced by this type of narration. In a way, the Baobab comes directly from oral literature, as the storytelling usually takes place under a tree. In the Company of Men, the storyteller has become the tree itself. 

AD: The “many voices” that you mentioned come through loud and clear in your book. That said, were there any voices that you didn’t include or felt it necessary to tone down? I can’t help but think of “deniers,” or people actively opposing otherwise accepted medical science, who have been at the forefront of the narrative around COVID-19, at least in the United States. 

VT: What I learned during my research while writing the book was how important communication was — not just through the media, but on the ground. When medical experts realized that they were not winning the fight against Ebola, they had to send volunteers to remote villages to explain to the people what the Ebola disease was and how they could protect themselves against it. The volunteers had to use a language accessible to the majority. 

In the case of the COVID-19 pandemic, there is an added difficulty: trust. How do you make people trust the information that you are giving them? If there is little confidence in local or government authorities, then it becomes a battle to convince deniers. Community-led approaches are to be reinforced again and again. 

I guess I had to tone down the whole political discourse behind the Ebola epidemic because it was so divisive. I privileged the need for solidarity and collaborative work as, at the end of the day, “we are all in it together.” 

There are many voices that I did not include. Young people working in call centers, for example. They had to deal with sick people at home panicking while waiting for ambulances to arrive. There were so many actors in the fight against the epidemic that it would have been impossible to name them all. What was important for me was to highlight resilience and courage. 

AD: Do you feel that anything may have been lost in translation, or difficult to capture, between the French and English versions of In the Company of Men? Did West African elements, like the Baobab tree, present unique challenges to render in French, and then English? 

VT: Questions of translation are fascinating. When the process is successful, what you lose on one side, you gain on the other side. The idea is not to replicate the original text — that is to say, not to do a literal translation. It would only bring disappointment because it is an impossible mission. In my mind, the role of translation is to ease the passage from one culture to the other. 

In the case of In the Company of Men, the emphasis has been placed on orality. The reader can almost hear the characters speak. The original French was more lyrical in a way. So you could say that the tonality of the narrative has changed, but at the same time, the English translation has created a more direct way of telling the story. 

The process of translation followed different stages and it was a collaborative work from beginning to end. I was able to bring in my knowledge of English-speaking Africa. I have lived in Lagos, Nairobi, and Johannesburg. Finding equivalent words was not an issue, although it generated very interesting discussions. As for the Baobab tree, it is found in many countries of mainland Africa, but it also grows in Madagascar and Australia. It is very well known and is a bit of a world celebrity among trees. 

AD: How has the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic recast your novel? Has the change in global context changed the story that you thought you were telling? 

VT: COVID-19 has probably made it more poignant, in the sense that the readers can more easily identify with the story now. There is less distance between the events and their own experience. The pandemic has brought isolation and the loneliness — family ties are torn apart, the way we express love by kissing or hugging has been changed, the issue of trust in political leadership and its ability to make the right decisions for us has come to the forefront, and, of course, the heavy burden on the medical profession. Economic recession is also a common feature. 

Yes, the Ebola epidemic occurred in Africa, but I try to revisit the principle of allocating a nationality to epidemics. The coronavirus may have started in China, but it has become irrelevant with time. Of course, I am not referring to the very important scientific attempt at locating the source of the outbreak, but when all is said and done, there is no such thing as a “Chinese virus.” The pandemic requires us to think in terms of collaboration and solidarity at a global level. 

AD: In the Company of Men captures the relative isolation of West Africa during the Ebola epidemic. Do you think greater attention will be paid to such tragedies in the future, now that the entire world has experienced similar hardships? 

VT: Absolutely. I do think that the world has changed its attitude towards epidemics. We now know that, with all the means of transportation available, it is virtually impossible to function only in terms of isolation within national borders. 

There is a new awareness that a global solution has to be found to a global problem. But this hasn’t come easily. We have seen that the first reaction from many Western governments was to hoard vaccines — what is also called “vaccine nationalism” — while low-income countries were left behind. This is gradually changing with initiatives like COVAX, the international system that tries to achieve vaccine equity. It is a still fairly slow and arduous mechanism, with many hurdles like conservation and distribution of doses to very remote places. However, there is no choice but to move forward. 

It is hoped that, when the crisis is over, more energy and funding will be allocated to prevention and primary care, which are much more durable ways of tackling global health. This is the responsibility of global health experts and government, but as citizens and artists, we also have a role to play. •