Friday, June 4, 2010

The Mosquitoes

There are our old friends, the mosquitoes. From the first evening, outside on the verandah praying, they make their presence felt. They descend from the skies in ones and twos, and settle daintily, almost fondly onto the bare patches of skin that wait, like fields buried beneath which lie globules of blood, waiting to be harvested. There are two main reactions to the mosquito. First there are the swipers, who cannot sit still for a moment in a mosquito's presence, because even hearing the whine of the insect in the air (or imagining they hear it) sets their skin to crawling. And so they swipe their hands through the air, and clap them together.

These are the two generally agreed-upon and most effective ways to kill a mosquito, apparently: the swipe (a swinging of the forearm through the air to a decided-upon point in the sky, at which point the hand is suddenly clasped closed, the idea being to fool the mosquitoes ("oh look - there - an empty palm facing upward and moving down toward me - I'll just continue flying in its general direction - how could it hurt me"), and then at the crucial moment intercepting their flight path and squashing them flat (or as flat as a mosquito can be, given that it is already so tiny).

The swipe casts a wider net, though its disadvantage is that it leaves you with a palm full of blood and is not as satisfactory as the clap, which is like a sudden sharp shock in the life of the mosquito bringing it to an end (we don't just want our enemies to die, we want them to die painfully, with thunder rolling down from the skies and lightning illuminating the scene and everyone witnessing it). The clap begins as two palms facing each other in the sky (as at the beginning of a clapping motion, hence the name) - the mosquito flies between them like - well like a mosquito really

There is a tale of a pharaoh who, fooled by the excess of his earthly wealth and power, dared challenge the name of God himself. And God, ever patient, said nothing, only watched as he boasted and pounded his chest* and pointed out to his people how God was doing nothing, because he was so great. That night while he slept God sent a mosquito, the tiniest of creatures - it flew and flew, whining all the while, until it reached the sleeping pharaoh. It did not bite** him, oh no, it did something infinitely more cruel: it flew into his ear. The pharaoh (we imagine) awoke with a start, to the whining which seemed to be coming from his very brain. And so the mosquito stayed, driving the pharaoh to madness and eventually death. (At this point in the story the Oustass who was narrating it would point out just how powerful God is, and how He can use even the tiniest creatures (imagine! - a mosquito) to his advantage. There is also in the story a metaphor, in which we replace the pharaoh and the mosquito stands in place for the thousands (millions? are they really that much? the thing about counting mosquitoes is that because they zoom around so fast and are so small there always seem to be an infinitely greater number of them than there are in real life) of mosquitoes that bite us every day.

The mosquitoes in my memory are much larger, their stomachs bloated, basically jars of blood with wings attached, leaving stains on your sheet where you wiped off your hands after killing them. The ones in my room now seem to be much smaller, barely-there mosquitoes, driven this way and that erratically through the air when I put the fan on. When this happens they will fly to a curtain and hang on for dear life, waiting… Why have the mosquitoes shrunk (or, alternatively: why has the mosquito in my memory become enlarged to inhuman (in-mosquito?) proportions).***

The war against the mosquitoes is an ongoing one, fought in backrooms and front rooms and parlors and bedrooms all over the land. In the morning the mosquitoes rest in their stagnant pools of water, so light on its surface they barely cause any ripples, sleeping, gathering energy. At dusk they set out.

[ Or rather the female mosquitoes set out. The males drink nectar, and do not have a thirst for anything else. It is the females who need blood, in order to reproduce. There is something tragic about this: the female mosquito, ready to reproduce, going out in search of an animal to supply it with the only thing left, the missing ingredient: its blood. A dangerous mission, especially if the animal in question is human, a suicidal mission in order to ensure the species continues. The tenacity of mothers everywhere in nature, to bring their offspring into the world and raise them at any cost. After the female mosquito has fed it retires for few days, until it has developed and laid its eggs. And then off it goes again to search for another animal to bite, repeating the cycle. There is something poetic (of the gruesome school of poetry) and moving about this. ]

And in the houses the ritual killing of mosquitoes begins. The first line of defense is the insecticide (Bop, Baygon, Spritex - every house has its favored brand). All the rooms of the house are sprayed, causing noxious fumes which force everyone to go outside for a bit…

…where the mosquitoes are waiting. It is there, sitting outside, that the first battles are fought - the swiping and the clapping, the dodging through the air, the itchy skin, the whining. The spilling of blood. And it lasts all night, or at least until the humans are asleep, lost in their dreams and unable to react. Then the lucky ones, who have survived the onslaught on them - they feed in peace, with sighs of relief (or whatever the mosquito equivalent of a sigh of relief is - perhaps a different pitch to the whining, as their wings slow down and they settle).

Why we hate them of course is the malaria (and also the yellow fever, and the dengue fever, and the exotically-named Chikungunya), something they can never understand. But in Gambia the malaria especially: the weakening of the joints, the fire that threatens to consume you from within. 700 million people infected every year, 2 million dying from it. All from an insect so tiny you can only see its features if you lean in real close and squint.

We dream of exterminating the mosquito, of annihilating it from the face of the earth. The mass extinction of a species that not many people will complain about, or miss. And the mosquitoes? As they lie in their swamps what do they dream? Who knows - but perhaps this: a man, middle-aged and healthy. During the day, while the mosquitoes sleep he goes about his business. He eats good food, and exercises. He goes about his life as normal (while the mosquitoes dream). And then in the night he retires - he goes back into his house. In his room he takes off all his clothes, and lies on his bed naked, and closes his eyes. He stays perfectly still, does not move a finger. And in a minute the mosquitoes, who have been waiting, will descend. In their hundreds, the young and the old, from the closet and the corners of the room where they have been biding their time. And softly, softly, so as not to wake the man from his trance-like state, the only sound the their gentle whining, so softly, they will land on his body. There will be no fighting amongst them, for there will be enough for everyone. And they will feed, they will satiate their thirst, not wasting a drop, not taking a drop more than they will need, their covenant with the man. There will be no swiping, and no clapping. After fifteen minutes they will rise as softly as they descended and in a dark cloud they will leave the room, leave the man where he lies sleeping, a small smile on his face. Perhaps this is what the mosquitoes dream.

* Needless-but-cool-(I think) Aside: The Wolof phrase for pounding one's chest is "foga dayna", which is completely unrelated to mosquitoes but has a certain lyricism and poetry to it - say the phrase to yourself, softly and for a moment you will see a puffed-out chest and a hand pounding on it, and hear the sound it makes.

** the dictionary says mosquitoes bite, but there seems to me an association between bite and teeth within a mouth that mosquitoes do not possess, and so I hesitated at using it here. Sting, perhaps, would work better, though it too has its shortcomings. Perhaps suck. Or, if we're feeling adventurous, feast ("the mosquitoes descended on the man, and feasted upon him as he slept").

*** the cats, too - though the cats have always been different animals: the cats in America are fat and spoilt, protected by law and loving owners. In contrast to our cats, which are lean and look underfed, always kept on the edge by the stone thrown by a bored kid, and the increasingly empty waste bins. Two communities, each hated by the other: "there is a place", the older Gambian cats will tell the younger ones, "where the cats do not believe in God and live decadent lives of over-nourishment. If you do not behave we will send you there" (and in America the opposite story).

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