Insects in Africa

I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Guinea, West Africa.  In my current role as stay-at-home mom/housewife (I like to refer to myself as "domestic goddess"), when I tell people I was a PCV in West Africa, they immediately imagine me in some ideal role of service in the middle of the bush and start to ask questions.  And although my stories about my daily life are entertaining and completely fascinating to anyone who has never left the continental United States, this one instance is by far the favorite of my friends and family.


I was selected to be a math teacher and had to undergo about three months of training.  We called this the "Stage".  Although our group was going to Guinea, our Stage took place in Thies, Senegal, a few hours from the capital city of Dakar.  Africa, is hot, but July and August in Senegal are especially brutal with the daily torrential rains and subsequent steamy humidity.  Our Stage was long and hard, we had three two-hour sessions daily, consisting of language, cultural, and technical training.  We were in a full French emersion program so all activities, and training sessions were in French (expect for sessions that clearly needed to be in English, like how to prick your finger and make a blood smear to test for malaria).  It was mentally exhausting and at the end of the day we went home to our host families who spoke no English.  This language thing was great for those PCV's fresh out of college with their French majors and  minors under their belts, but for the vast majority of us who started out with hazy memories of a semester or two of conjugating verbs, this was brutal.  The long training sessions in a foreign tongue in temperatures hovering around 100 degrees was exhausting and all the trainees were incredibly grateful that we had a nice long break after lunch.  This time of day was called "sieste", and yes, most of us did go take a nap, especially after we figured out everyone else in Thies took a sieste and closed up shop at exactly the same time.


The most coveted spots during sieste were one of the five or six hammocks on compound.  I was lucky enough to snag one one fine day and managed to doze off despite the heat and the flies that would not leave me alone.  My nap was interrupted by a particularly pesky fly who was trying to investigate my inner ear.  I woke up with a start, brushed it away then realized it was about time for our afternoon session to start, so I got up and made my way to the bathroom.  The flies this time a year were relentless, so when I got to the bathrooms, I recall saying to one of the other girls something about one of those pesky suckers trying to fly in my ear.  Now this next part is probably TMI, but talk to any RPCV, and you are bound to get at least one story that focuses on the toilet and/or their activities in it.  As I was sitting down on the toilet, I suddenly hear this loud buzzing.  And it is vibrating.  And it is coming from the inside of my left ear.  It took about a second for it to dawn on me that the pesky fly I thought I had shooed away had actually flown into my ear and was trapped in there and another second to be relived I was already sitting down because the shock of it all would have literally floored me. 


I left out a blood-curdling scream and ran to the training facility's Director's office and attempted to explain, in my horrible French, what was going on.  My written French was never great, and since it has only gotten much worse in the 15 years that I have not had to use it on a daily basis, I will translate the exact vocal exchange into English.


Me - "There is a fly in my ear.  It goes like this 'BUZZZZZZZZZZ'." (Because I did not know the French verb for "to move" or "to buzz".)


The Director - "Really?  Are you sure?"


Me - "Yes.  It goes like this 'BUZZZZZZZZZZZZZ'."


The Director - "How did this happen?"


Me - Silence.  I am thinking and trying to pull French words out of my brain behind the struggling fly.


The Director - "Okay, Jennifer.  You can speak English."


Wow, this much be serious, we were NEVER asked to speak English.  So I went on to explain the hammock, the nap, me sitting on the toilet.  We routinely had an ex-pat nurse on site, but she only came in a few times a week from Dakar, and was not there that day, and this fly issues was too pressing to take me to the Embassy doc all the way in Dakar, so I went to see a local doctor, who did not believe I had a fly in my ear.  It did not help that he did not speak English and I had to explain it again in French.


Me - "I have a fly in my ear.  It moves and goes like this 'BUZZZZZZZZZZZ'."  (The Director was kind enough to give me the French verb when I asked him, in English, "What is the French verb for "to move"?)


The Doctor -  Clearly not believing me.  "Really?" 


He pulls out the otoscope, that little light thingy doctors use to look in patient's ears, sticks in there and I heard an echoing "CRUNCH!!!!!!!!!"


The Doctor - "I see something."


At this point it is no longer a moving buzzing fly, but a very dead crunched up fly, thanks to Doctor Dubious's crushing otoscope.  I was much relieved to have the fly silenced, but was now a little concerned about the dead bug in my ear. 


The doc had no idea how to get this out, he'd never dealt with an insect in a patient's ear.  This sort of surprised me since you hear about roaches and spiders crawling people's ears all the time in the US (okay, not all the time, but it does happen).  You would think with the overwhelming population of flies and other funky African insects buzzing around Senegal in the middle of August you would have had at least ONE other patient with the same malady.  But he thought about it and decided the best way to get the dead fly out of my ear was to flush it repeatedly with saline.  Now I did not expect him to sweetly drip it in my ear like my mom used to do with ear drops after coming home from the pool when I was a little girl.  But neither did I expect the tidal wave of water he shot into my ear canal.   I am not sure if it was the crushing otoscope, or the hurricane he had going on in my ear, but the fly got all broken up and was not coming out as one large insect, but as lots of unrecognizable tiny pieces.  To make sure all of it was gone, the doctor flushed my ear over and over again basically until I started crying because my ear hurt so badly from all the irritation.


The doctor announced me cured and sent me on my merry way.  Naturally my ear felt irritated the rest of the day, but truly started to ache a few days later and I did get that medical visit to Dakar where it was confirmed I had an ear infection.  Shocking, I know.


MY ear has NEVER been the same since.  I can still hear out of it, but it is incredibly sensitive to pressure, so major changes in the weather make it pop and it often feels clogged, like I have cotton in it.  It always bothers me the most when I have a horrible head cold.  And I get swimmers ear regularly every summer now that I have kids and we go to the pool every day.  No doctor has confirmed any visable damage to my ear drum or ear canal, but I am convinced all these lingering symptoms are due to the whole fly in the ear escapade.


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“Sunset at the Railroad” by PCV Nicholas Baylor Hall. Namibia, 2011.