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BOOKS In the Company of Men: The Ebola Tales

Stark warning of how destructive human impact on the planet is a breeding ground for pandemics

IN THE second year of the Covid-19 pandemic this book by Veronique Tadjo, translated in collaboration with John Cullen, has extraordinary resonance and some of its descriptive sequences epitomise the impact of neoliberal globalisation on new pathogens.

Uncontrolled, and with no regard for the environment and nature, they have emerged due to relentless expansion of capitalist production and industrialisation in all parts of the globe.

Fossil fuel mining, mineral exploration and timber logging, along with industrial plantation farming and sprawling urbanisation have brought pathogens, which for thousands of years have existed in wildlife such as bats and other remotely domiciled animals, into contact with farm animals and then with humans through wildlife food markets and farming.

But governments did not want to know because effective action would mean the curbing of profitable industrial expansion.

In the Company of Men tells the story of these destructive relationships through a series of narratives about the 2014-16 Ebola epidemic in west Africa, with each chapter providing its singular perspective.

There are the boys who go hunting for bush meat, killing and eating infected bats, and there are the health workers doing their best — the doctor, the nurse and the student who becomes a gravedigger — struggling to treat the dead with dignity, despite the sanitary requirements involved.

We hear from the survivors as well as from the dying, the public health worker and the Congolese researcher who identified the Ebola virus. There is a chapter about poetry as a source of comfort for a man who is hospitalised with his fiancee. He survives but she dies.

And there are chapters of prose poetry, telling the stories of the animals and the trees, the bat and the baobab tree.

Together these tales offer extraordinary insights into the experiences of those who lived and died through the Ebola epidemic and it is an highly atmospheric account. The cumulative effect is intensely moving.

Company of Men comes highly recommended — it’s been described as “a reminder that deadly diseases spreading from humankind’s encroachments on the natural world recognise no borders, no political parties or faiths” — and it is part of a series of publications from Hope Road promoting the best writing from and about Africa, Asia and the Caribbean, focusing on themes of identity, cultural stereotyping, disability and injustices.

And there’s much of interest in Hope Road’s Small Axes imprint, which republishes out-of-print post-colonial classics, books which helped to shape cultural shifts when they first appeared and which remain as relevant today.

Published by Hope Road Publishing, £9.99.

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