Warning to my readers: What I am about to talk about is gross. Really gross. Bodily functions, little critters living inside the human body, poop, etc. If choose not to read this blog, I won’t be offended. If you do, don’t judge me for what I write. I am only doing it because I want to accurately document the African experience, even the less glamorous parts (in fact, especially the less glamorous.) Enjoy!
A month before I moved to Africa, I talked with a former NGO volunteer about what to expect when living abroad. He talked about making sure to drink enough (clean) water, the kinds of food that are available, and to expect to get diarrhea a lot. I was thinking, as he was talking about his bowel movements, “Too much information, dude, that’s gross, and I don’t even know you, but you are talking to me about poop.” But now that I live here, I talk about poop with my friends on a weekly, if not daily basis. It’s about as common of a subject as talking about the weather or how our days have been going.
Over the past six months that I have been in Benin, I have had a plethora of minor/major health issues. I was surprised because the 5 months prior spent in Ghana went rather painlessly. Aside from some minor intestinal issues and a fever that came and went in an afternoon, I got off scott-free.
But starting my first week in Cotonou, I had severe diarrhea somewhat regularly, as well as the unpleasant side effects that come with it. (Dehydration, constipation, etc). The initial intestinal issues were most likely a product of adjusting to a different water supply/food.
But over the past months, issues have… evolved. Parasites and amoebas are quite common here. You get them from basically (and this is gross, but) eating food that was at some point exposed to poop. Like someone wiped their ass, didn’t wash their hands, and then served my lunch. Or flies eat poop and then land on my food. Yummy, right?
First I got giardia (also called giardia lambia if you want to get technical.)
Awww, ain’t he cute? That little guy, and about a million of his parasitic friends gave me all sorts of fun symptoms. Other than the big D, I was bloated, nauseated, stomach cramps, burping every 5 minutes, and had no appetite. But with a healthy dose of a medication called Ciprox, as well as Flagyl, I was good as new in no time.
Ciprox (Ciprofloxacin) is one hell of a drug, and is NOT to be taken frequently. It has been used to treat everything from UTI’s to typhoid to anthrax poisoning (holy crap!!).
A few weeks after my initial dance with this intenstinal devil, I returned to the doctor with similar symptoms. This time, she made me poop in a cup. (good times.)
The results of the test showed that I had shigella (shigellosis for you science nerds out there.) Shigella is basically the redheaded step-child to salmonella and e. coli. It causes dysentery, diarrhea, fever, stomach cramps, fatigue, etc. Fun fact: Shigella get its name from the Japanese doctor who discovered it over 100 years ago, Dr. Shiga. There are four types of Shigella, only one kind is deadly. I don’t think I had that kind.
Everyone, meet Shigella. Shigella, meet everyone:
Ok, so I know this all sounds disgusting, and probably makes some of you say, “See this is why I don’t go to exotic places or developing countries.” However, you should all know, that everything I, and many of my expat friends have had, has been treatable and quickly cured (not to mention temporarily good for my girlish figure.)
Besides, you know what I haven’t gotten since I have been in West Africa? Malaria. I actually wrote a blog 7 or 8 months back about my conflicted feelings about staying on anti-malarial medications for the long haul, but I decided to stick with it. Staying on preventative meds does not, however, guarantee that one will not get malaria. I’ve seen Peace Corps friends who are religious about their meds and still get it, as well as friends who refuse to take the pills manage to not get it at all. Go figure. I have less than 100 days left on this continent so I am praying that I can stay malaria-free for the rest of my journey.
Of course there are several other health risks here in Africa, some not found in this country (thank God), like Guinea worm, which grows in your skin and lays eggs inside you and stuff… no thanks! Or there was the time that I got shocked by all the faucets in my house (apparently there were a disconnected wire under the house somewhere.) But all in all, I feel strong and happy for my health, so no one feel bad for me.