By David McLaurin
No matter how much you trust him, under no circumstances believe your doctor if he tells you that having a test for TB does not hurt. It does hurt – like hell. If I had known just how much it hurt I would have refused to have the test, which is probably why I was told that it was just a slight puncture in the arm. The reason behind the test was two-fold: I had (and still to some extent do) a cough that would not go away, and TB is now rampant in Africa. While most people in Europe associate TB with the 19th century and those pathetically coughing operatic heroines of Verdi and Puccini, here TB is a clear and present danger and on the increase.
In fact, the TB test turned out to be negative, as did all the other tests, and I was told to stop worrying about my year-old cough. Which I did. But one remained curious as to its cause. It was only recently that realisation dawned. I was listening to Kiss FM, which is Kenya’s most popular radio station, and to the morning programme hosted by Caroline Mutoko. When it comes to opinion-forming, Caroline is probably one of the most important people in Kenya. Radio, unlike printed media, cannot be effectively censored, which was very important in the Moi era. Radio reaches more people than newspapers and television, especially here, where only about one in ten people have electricity, and where newspapers cost money. Anyway, Caroline (one uses the first name, as one feels one knows her, so beguiling a broadcaster is she) mentioned a news story that I must have missed elsewhere. It seems that some people in outer space, don’t ask me who, looking down on Africa, remarked on the red cloud of dust that covered the continent and the way that the rivers were all brown with the silt that comes from soil erosion. (How they saw the rivers through the dust, I am not sure.) Caroline then segued into a discussion of deforestation and the urgent need for more trees, the cause championed by Professor Wangari Mathai.
I myself have noticed the dust phenomenon: I have mentioned in this column that Ngong Town from a distance sits under a cloud of dust. I have also noticed the way most large buildings in Nairobi have a light brown colouration to them, caused by dust. But the point is that the whole continent is in a cloud of dust and we are all breathing it in: hence my perpetual cough. In addition there is another problem caused by dust, though of a more trivial nature – that of trying to keep one’s clothes clean. A pair of dark trousers after one day will have a reddishbrown tinge to them. Wear a light shirt for a day and you discover reddish stripes inside the collar and the cuffs. A conventional washing machine does not really make much impression on this sort of ingrained dirt: you need to soak everything or else scrub it with a stiff brush, which means that your trousers look pretty worn after a time. This does however have one advantage: a wrecked pair of trousers are hardly likely to tempt thieves. So whenever I go out I always wear a pair that in Europe I would have thrown away ages ago, hoping that no one will be tempted to debag me. If I ask any African how I look when I am about to go out, they reply, in tones of approval: “Yes, you look poor, no thief would be interested in you.” David McLaurin is a missionary priest in Kenya