LIfe Is Calling You. How Far Will You Go?: Malaria's Lessons
by Varsha Mathrani, May 15, 2013
In May 2012, I traveled to Uganda intending to serve for two years as a Peace Corps Volunteer. After ten weeks of training in language and technical skills, and getting sworn in as a community health volunteer, I moved to the small town of Bugiri to start life with a new community. Within a week of my arrival, I fell sick with malaria.
Low energy and low emotions were just two of the many symptoms I experienced from malaria. Some of the symptoms included losing a sense of taste, having simultaneous sweats and chills, and vivid violent dreams from the prophylaxis medication, Mefloquine hydrochloride (Lariam, Mephaquin or Mefliam).
[As a side note, I’m unsure why the Peace Corps still prescribes this drug to its volunteers who serve spread across countries, sometimes as the only volunteer in their locality, as was the case for me, as the manufacturer stopped marketing it in the U.S. in 2009 and it was dropped by the U.S. military as its primary anti-malarial drug the same year, stating doxycycline is the drug of choice, according to the Army Surgeon General’s directive. See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mefloquine. I also don‘t know why we were not required to start taking anti-malaria prophylaxis two to four weeks before arriving to Uganda, as this is the CDC protocol to follow.]
At the lowest moments, I would have welcomed death because I was in so much physical pain. There were moments when I felt like I was dying, losing myself, facing death. "There was a strange serenity to this condition, a suspension of ordinary time and ordinary annoyances and ambitions." (A Paradise Built in Hell by Rebecca Solnit, 2009) It was almost as if suffering was a grace, a gift given to awaken some parts of my being. I've experienced this momentary awareness before in meditation, though not in the same manner. The experience was intense and visceral; it felt like time had stopped, and I lost the concept of space and form, and felt like I was formless and floating. It felt like an energetic near-death, out-of-body experience.
I know we all have our time when we leave the body, and one may never know when that time is. Whereas some people have flashbacks of memories during near-death experiences, this was different. During the time I was bedridden in my home in Uganda, I “saw” myself lying limp on my bed, under the covers and mosquito net. It felt like a direct experience of myself as I/Universal Spirit or pure energy and awareness, not identified with my body, mind, or emotions. My heart felt expanded to include a connection with everyone—like unity among diversity. From this humbling experience I can more strongly identify and feel in solidarity with those who are dying or who have near-death experiences or fall ill with similar debilitating and deadly diseases like malaria.
As Charles Fritz notes in Disasters and Mental Health, “Disasters provide a temporary liberation from the worries, inhibitions, and anxieties associated with the past and future, because they force people to concentrate their full attention on immediate, moment-to-moment, day-to-day needs within the context of the present realities.” So does illness. Going on being—surviving—was completely captivating, as it was the task at hand.
After three days of illness in my home and one week of medical treatment in the capital city Kampala afterwards, I resigned from the Peace Corps due to health reasons. In some ways, I feel like I gained a great deal in those few days, maybe more than what I would have experienced in two years, had I not had that experience. Despite how incredibly scary and tough things were with this experience, it was beautiful at the same time. I learned a tremendous amount from it, some of it beyond words. Going through this has been life-enriching, and I’ve reaped some amazing introspection from it all. Maybe life threw this challenge at me to allow me to find my path, purpose, and value, and strength amidst adversity. Or maybe, was my soul trying to tell me something?
I flew home to the United States to continue my recovery. I went into the Peace Corps not realizing the challenges of certain diseases and environmental stressors, thinking this is something I can do and offer myself to. I am learning to accept, however difficult it is, my disappointment at not being able to complete my term of service. I also await a response from the country director about possible reinstatement or re-enrollment. I did not imagine the physical and environmental toll disease would take, nor did I imagine how much it would teach me.
To some extent, I know I can’t live life in the same way as before. The words of Walter Anderson come to mind: “I am responsible. Although I may not be able to prevent the worst from happening, I am responsible for my attitude toward the inevitable misfortunes that darken life. Bad things do happen; how I respond to them defines my character and the quality of my life. I can choose to sit in perpetual sadness, immobilized by the gravity of my loss, or I can choose to rise from the pain and treasure the most precious gift I have—life itself.”
As the illness became less intense, I found that it had made me less willing to waste my time and more urgent about what mattered. As Gioconda Belli said after the 1972 Managua earthquake, “You realize that life has to be lived well or is not worth living. It's a very profound transformation that takes place during catastrophes. It's like a near-death experience, but lived collectively.”† (Rebecca Solnit, 2009)
I was the only person of South Asian descent in my training group, with the majority of people being Caucasian-American, African-American, or of mixed ethnicities. One Caucasian-American friend thanked me for teaching him how to eat Indian food by hand. I had the chance to do this in Jinja, the second largest city in Uganda with a sizeable Indian population and various Indian eateries.
In Uganda, as in much of East Africa, there are South Asians living in some of the bigger towns and cities. There were some in my small town of Bugiri. Many are originally from the state of Gujarat, India, and run the supermarkets and some tailoring and electronics shops. In my town, a couple of Gujarati brothers (one who introduced himself to me as "Champs-bhai," the suffix “bhai” meaning “brother”) used to greet me (as I did them) with a Namaste—basically meaning, “I give reverence to the spirit in you, which is also in me.” I bought a few items from their store—usually water, juice and yogurt. They also seemed to care about my whereabouts and about how I was feeling and adjusting to the new place.
I wonder if the connection is not just due to ethnicity, or also a result of close bonds due to the forced exodus of South Asians from the country during the time of Idi Amin. (See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Idi_Amin) In a way, it’s reminiscent of the fleeing of my parents’ families, refugees from their own country, India, during the British partition of India based on lines drawn to separate people who followed different religions. One of the local Ugandan Peace Corps office staff actually spoke to me after I expressed concern about some possible left over anti-Indian sentiment from that time.
I am touched by the many acts of kindness I received from strangers. A physical, mental, and emotional resilience came about from the care I received. I am confident that the bonds of love, which formed, will always be present. At one point, I wished that life could always be like this. But later, I noticed that I didn't need such loving attention all the time, because it is always implicitly there—latent, or hidden, almost like the dormancy period of an illness until manifestation (another metaphor: the incubation time and stillness of life energy of a caterpillar enclosed in a chrysalis before becoming a beautiful butterfly). Everyday life was made a little bit better. And to think that the same subtle care exists in society at large, not all the time, but in very important ways, means a great deal. We may not see it all the time, but it’s there in the small things. And I am reminded of this in how local people come together in the face of adversity, like in the aftermath of storms like Hurricane Sandy.
I think the hardest adjustment back to life in the USA since being back from Africa was experiencing Hurricane Sandy and worse, the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting. I couldn’t picture the latter happening in Uganda and wondered which country did I come back to? These were some of the reverse culture shocks I went through, in addition to what is regularly experienced by many in regards to what is colloquially called “first-world problems,” one of which is the myriad of choices we have at large grocery and department stores.
A neighbor from Canada at a guesthouse, where I stayed in Kampala, bought me some yogurt during the time I was sick, as the Coartem medication I was taking required fatty food in order to be digested.† Within a few days, we became friends. I am also moved by the words of my host family, who emailed me from across the miles upon my return to the States:
“Hi Varsha, hope life is fine. Joseph, Jolly and Joram in Iganga secondary school miss you a lot. During your stay at Bukoyo (an area of Iganga where I had my home-stay for a month) you were quite a disciplined, social and nice lady to stay with. Best regards” —Uncle Joseph
“Hi Varsha, I have been lately thinking of jotting to you a few lines. It’s quite unfortunate that you fell ill that bad! But at the same time nice to hear you are better and I hope you get re-instated in service as per your dream. We miss you, especially Jaja (Grandma) who is lonely in Iganga. Please keep in touch. We all love you.” —Aunt Ruth
It appears that home really is where the heart is, and love knows no bounds. I plan to maintain some contact, even from afar, with my host family, beyond even the two years I was planning to serve. This passage is dedicated to my Ugandan family, who treated me as one of their own. I was fortunate that my Ugandan Grandmother (fondly called “Jaja”) gave me a Lusoga name, “Nakato,” meaning “younger twin.” There were quite a few twins in Uganda, I noticed. I was told by a Ugandan Peace Corps staff member, Angela, that in regards to nicknames, “Some people do not get one! It says a lot if you have stayed with your family for just one month and they have given you a name! It will help, now that you have a name from your Ugandan family. If you introduce yourself by it, you will integrate better in your community when you move to site.”
I know it is a privilege traveling as a US citizen to a whole host of other countries, as it may not be the case for many citizens of other parts of the world to do the same. And I don’t know how many Americans would host a Ugandan coming to the USA as one of their own. Overall, the experience reminded me of several Peace Corps and related quotes: "Life is calling. How far will you go?"
It is said that serving in the Peace Corps is "the toughest job you'll ever love."
"What won't kill you will only make you stronger."
"You’ll never have to start sentences with 'I should've...' "
"How do you define extended family? Where does the road less traveled go? What if it takes you to a place full of strangers, that by the time you leave, feel like family?"
“Fixing and helping create a distance between people, but we cannot serve at a distance. We can only serve that to which we are profoundly connected.”—Rachel Naomi Remen. (I know that in any public and selfless service where one plays the role of servant-leader, it's so important to look, listen, learn, respect, love, and then, serve a community.)
It was an extraordinarily profound and intense experience. I hope that the wisdom and strength I reaped from it will allow me to live the gift of life more fully awakened and aligned with purpose, as life is a gift to be shared and life is short and to be lived to the fullest.
This piece of writing is dedicated to those who’ve had similarly intense and valuable experiences, but didn’t have the words to share it with the world, and to others who are curious.
Varsha Mathrani is a native of Queens, NY and has been involved in public service in places like Alaska, Thailand, India, and Uganda. She has degrees in biology and public health. Varsha recently returned to the US after serving in the Peace Corps, and is looking for a job in the broad field of her interest.
Her passions include positive social change, equity and justice for all. Varsha has more than seven years of work experience with nonprofit, non-governmental and international organizations, such as National Wildlife Federation, Alaska Community Action on Toxics, Project GreenHands, the United Nations Environment Program, ServiceSpace and as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Uganda. She hopes to contribute her skills in research, writing and advocacy and employ her values and ideals in finding fulfilling employment aligning with her service values. She was a 2009 Fulbright Scholar to India.
Varsha is artistic, creative and detail-oriented with calligraphy and crafts like origami (including micro-origami), beading, and jewelry-making. She's also an avid volunteer. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org