In the jungle you could make a difference for many people on so many levels. You could be teaching a tribal friend to read when with no warning out of the blue (or gray as the case might be) in would swoop a helicopter full of officials. Whether for the after noon or longer the missionary was there to help as guide, interpreter and to answer a hundred and one questions. One was always ready to provide meals and accommodations for the night and on some occasions for weeks at a time.
We especially worked very closely with the officials who were in charge of providing healthcare for the tribal villages. For several reasons those officials were eager to enlist the missionaries help in caring for the health of the jungle folks. In looking for the best way to provide more comprehensive healthcare in the villages the authorities decided to train local folks, that is tribal men and women to become “rural medics”. Several missionaries were invited to train along side their tribal counterparts in order to go out into the villages and help them get set up and going once the training was finished. I was chosen to accompany two tribal friends to a certain village and help in any way I could, get them off to a good start. I could speak the villagers language but not my fellow medics language so we communicated with each other in Spanish and with the villagers in their language, which was other than my co-workers language.
There was a malaria epidemic sweeping through the area and we were working night and day with the medical besides building ourselves a very small, very rustic jungle house which would serve as our living quarters and a place from which to dispense medications, do the required record keeping etc. The floor of the house was dirt, the walls one kind of palm leaf, the roof another kind of palm leaf, and all tied together with vines.
In those days the common malarial treatment was a very, very bitter substance to be taken in pill form. Our patients did not like to take these pills, especially if their prescribed dose included part of a pill. Part of a pill was bad because that awful taste escaped into the taste glands of the patient. Even the whole pills were bad because the sickest were unable to swallow them whole. So we’d grind them up, mix in some sugar water and spoon feed them. It still tasted awful! When we’d treat the well with a preventative dose many times they’d pretend to put the pills in their mouths but would in fact keep them in their hand to throw away later. Who could blame them but we knew if the preventative dose wasn’t taken they’d get sick and possibly die. I can tell you we were very insistent our patients took that awful tasting stuff. It was a matter of life and death.
My fellow medics didn’t have any money with which to buy supplies or gasoline for my outboard motor and I had precious little of it myself. Mostly we lived from hunting and fishing plus what little we medics could contribute to the pantry. My friends brought bundles of cassava bread from their village and I contributed things like rice, cooking oil, sugar and salt. We did trade some things we had for food items from the villagers but their food supplies were very limited because of so many people being down sick with malaria.
My two co-workers and I took turns cooking the once a day hot meal we ate. Depending on what our day looked like we’d eat early or late. Our usual meal consisted of some rice with a little oil mixed in to give it some flavor especially if we didn’t have any fish or wild game that day. For several weeks, no matter which one of us did the cooking, our rice had been tasting more and more, well pretty much awful! Our cooking oil was stored in a gallon tin for which we’d carved a wooden plug for the pour hole. Our oil was almost all gone and more and more you’d have to tip it almost upside down to coach the oil out. This one day two of us were sitting there waiting for our buddy to cook and serve the rice with the usual cooking oil. All of a sudden the cook began the most horrible gagging and retching . Was he having a sudden onslaught of malaria we wondered? As the two of us moved over to help him the cause of those awful sounds became apparent. There he stood with the oil can upside down over the pot of rice. From the pour hole there was hanging out a very long tail of a very long time very dead rat. Obviously one of us had left the wooden plug out overnight weeks ago, I say weeks ago because the rice had begun to taste awful, weeks ago! Well, we survived and you can be sure nobody ever forgot to put the plug back in the next can of oil. If some of our patients we’d been practically forcing that oh, so bitter malaria medicine down had been around they would likely have thought “it serves them right”.
We needed something on the lighter side such as the rat episode to help us get through the utter seriousness of our work. In spite of our best efforts we lost some patients to malaria and that was very hard for us. Thinking of malaria brings to mind the role DDT played in our lives there in the jungle. I want to do a post on the use of DDT in the future.