Charlie Walker comes down with malaria – and typhoid – on the road to Kinshasa. The kindness of strangers helps him survive
The thickly-misted morning was cool. My head throbbed and my body ached universally. Unsure whether this was the start of a fever or merely exhaustion, Archie and I sat watching the daily life of the surrounding village unfold. A woman, weakened by malaria, sat stoically on the ground next to a fire. Her companion prepared a concoction with the leaves from a quinine branch. Quinine pills are extremely cheap and relatively widely available in Africa, but apparently not here.
By lunchtime the engine had coughed almost into life a couple of times. A 4x4 approached and we flagged a lift. Bikes and bags were unceremoniously dumped on the roof and the driver lurched the car into action. He drove as if chased and very nearly killed a couple of village children. My state deteriorated and when, as asked, the hasty driver dropped us at the Greek Orthodox mission in Kananga, it was all I could do to lie down in the shade and fight off unconsciousness.
We'd been instructed by a friend to go to the mission and say we were sent by a Greek man in Lubumbashi called Michel. They had never heard of him and Archie was left struggling to explain who we were and why we had come to the mission where there was no space for us. Phone calls were made and the head priest, a charming Congolese man called Kallinique, arranged for his brother Stefan to drive us to the Catholic mission.
Unwashed and racked with aching pains, I lay on the bed that I'd been led to. I had two strange and conflicting physical sensations: my body weighed an inestimable amount and was immovable, and yet my limbs had withered to sharp, bony appendages that grated teeth-spinningly against one another. My fevered mind didn't know what was going on. I had cold sweats and hot shivers. I couldn't eat and lay inert while Archie sat nearby, torn between sympathy and delight (the mission's kitchen had provided a hearty meal of chicken, rice and veg - a step up from the pasta, potatoes and tomato paste we'd been living on).
Stefan (a caring bundle of nervous energy who spoke some English) came in the morning with Nurse Martin and a malaria test. My finger was pricked and a drop of blood squeezed onto the test strip. After a while it was gravely proclaimed: "You are malaria" as the first indication bar showed red. Seconds later: "Eh! You are very malaria!" The second bar had appeared. I had 'malaria plasmodium falciparum' (AKA 'malignant malaria') which can be fatal if untreated. A quinine drip was plugged roughly into my arm by Martin who didn't believe in swabbing skin or using a fresh needle for the next drip. He often blew on the needle to remove dust. Four hours of drug infusion ensued while I lay breathing heavily in my sweaty cot. Rolling over in bed left me breathless for minutes.
Another quinine hit in the morning led to the firm belief of Martin and Stefan that I should be up and about that evening: "Malaria go away now. Don't rest. Don't sleep more." Indeed, I did feel stronger for a time and we were taken to Stefan's home for dinner. His wife prepared a humbling feast but by 9pm (when dinner was served) I was fading again and without appetite. I felt rude and must have appeared ungrateful. In the morning a blood test returned the verdict of typhoid fever. Five more days of Martin's twice daily, Russian-roulette drips followed.
Slowly appetite returned and I began to feel stronger. I could walk outside to sit in the sunlight and could read a book. After the last drip, we took Stefan and Martin out for some beers to thank them. Their well-intentioned impatience for me to spring back to health had been touching.
Charlie Walker is a bicycle adventurer who is a quarter of the way through a four year, 40,000 mile cycle trip to the four corners of the Earth. He is hoping to raise £20,000 for a variety of charities. You can follow his exploits on his website, CharlieWalkerExplore.