C.W. Gusewelle

Bugs, not bullets, caused a journalist’s head to spin

Tiny mosquitoes can create terrible trouble.
Tiny mosquitoes can create terrible trouble. The New York Times

The life of a traveling journalist is not without some adventures and occasional hazards.

The perils — if they are dramatic enough —– can have a certain professional benefit. That is, of course, if one survives them. And if, in the telling, they turn out to be verifiably fact-based, not tainted by careless exaggeration — a sin that can derail a career.

In my own newspaper travels, there have been no gripping war stories, no spectacular emergencies to relate. That’s not to say the journeys have all been uneventful.

But for the most part, the crises have been of a medical nature.

In the second week of what would be a seven-month reporting trip across much of Africa, I was felled temporarily by a kidney stone — my first of 30 — in a town just south of the Atlas Mountains in the Moroccan Sahara.

A Dutch physician, operating a little clinic the French had left behind, gave me a shot of morphine and a bed to lie in.

The occasion was memorable. But a renal calculus is nothing to inspire soaring prose. In just two days the stone was passed and I was on my way south to Guinea, Liberia, Ghana and beyond.

A week or so later, on the plane ride from Monrovia to Lagos, Nigeria, my seatmate was a physician from Johnson County on his way to assume his duties as resident doctor at a U.S. embassy in Africa.

That evening, after a tiring day of travel, we put down in Lagos and I made my way to a small hotel, tossed my suitcase on the bed in a stuffy and long-unused room, switched on the air conditioner and went down to the dining room for a meal and a double whiskey to ease the fatigue. Then I fell exhausted into bed.

I awoke in the morning, horrified to find the bedclothes, my nightclothes and myself liberally spotted with blood.

It turned out mosquitoes had been breeding in the air conditioner and it had blown the room full of them while I slept. They had feasted on me the whole night.

Before the journey, my Kansas City doctor had armed me with what he regarded as an adequate malaria preventive. But it proved useless against the deadliest strain of the disease, Falciparum malaria — the variety for which at that time only the drug chloroquine offered protection.

The organism that causes it is transmitted by the bite from a female Anopheles mosquito. Untreated, it frequently causes death and is a major cause of mortality across much of sub-Saharan Africa.

The incubation period of Falciparum is said to be roughly nine days. A little more than a week after that miserable night, I was assailed by alternating spells of burning fever and wracking chills. And I knew I was in trouble.

Next on the list of the 16 countries to visit was the former Belgian Congo — ruled by Joseph Mobutu. Though sicker almost by the hour, I made my way there on a Belgian flight, checked into the city’s one commercial hotel, suffered through a terrible night and went down the next morning to ask the sullen desk clerk if he could direct me to medical help.

“Leave,” he snarled. “Get out.”

He was a Belgian national. And in the time when the passion for independence was sweeping the continent, European holdings across much of Africa were giving way to self-governing republics.

The U.S. had supported the Congolese drive for the independence of what had long been a Belgian colony. And in the tumultuous period of transition, there had been instances of native violence against the departing colonials — incidents that, unreasonably or not, the Belgians held against Americans.

So with no place to stay, I spent the three days and two nights sitting at an outdoor restaurant table on Leopoldville’s main boulevard — sweating and shaking by turns, trying to convince myself I was coming down with the flu.

By the third morning, sense ruled. I knew my predicament was dire. Carrying my suitcase, I set out hoping for directions to someplace I might find medical help.

I must have been a sorry spectacle because pedestrians stepped quickly around me, ignoring my mumbling in French.

Then I spotted a small lad — 8 years old or 10 at most — in a blue school uniform and carrying his bag of books. I stopped the boy and was about to ask if he might know the way to a hospital.

Before he could reply, one of Mobutu’s soldiers strode up to us — a submachine gun slung over his shoulder — and with a man’s full force struck the child in the face, knocking him to the ground.

The boy ran off screaming, his books scattering as he fled.

Then the uniformed hooligan pivoted to face me, his gun pointing at chest level. I waited for whatever might happen. But he only flashed a toothy grin and slouched away.

I had the good fortune then to spot a man in civil dress who was kind enough to draw out with his pen directions to the U.S. Embassy. I found the place, explained my predicament to the guard and was admitted.

The receptionist was friendly.

Did she know where I might find a doctor, I asked.

“Certainly,” she said. “I’ll call him.”

In only moments he appeared — the embassy doctor. To my amazement, he was the same one who had been my seatmate on the flight from Monrovia.

“You look like you’re feeling pretty rotten,” he said.

“I’m afraid it’s malaria.”

“Most likely,” he said. “And it’s nothing to fool with.”

That was my first great luck. It turned out he was lodged in spacious quarters, waiting for his wife to join him from the States.

“The apartment has two bedrooms,” he told me. “You can lodge there and I’ll treat you. You’ll need medication for at least three days. But the side effects of chloroquine can be troubling. Blurred vision and memory problems.”

He was right about that.

I would no more begin typing a thought than I’d lose any sense of where the passage was headed. For much of a week I was unable to work, but at least the fever and the chilling had ended.

Thanking that generous Johnson County doctor whose name I cannot now remember, but whose saving kindness I will never forget, I was fit enough to resume my journaling and the travels those mosquitoes had interrupted.

Still ahead were Nyasaland (since renamed Malawi), Tanzania, Kenya, Sudan, Ethiopia and most memorably Salisbury, the capital of what then was the British colony of Southern Rhodesia but now is the independent republic of Zimbabwe, ruled by the tyrant Robert Mugabe.

There I met Bob LaGamma, head of the U.S. Information Agency’s Rhodesian office. Concerned about my wasted condition, Bob and his wife, Anita, lodged me and fattened me up a bit, fortifying me for my ongoing travels and my impending return to the U.S. and Kansas City.

That was the beginning of what has been a 50-year friendship, nourished by further times together both in Africa and here.

For me, many memories of that challenging journey remain vivid still. But rich as the experience was, it is one I would not care to repeat.

For more of C.W. Gusewelle, go to gusewelle.kansascity.com.