Fear In The Forest

The ancient Greek merchant Diogenes reported a voyage to the mythical Mountains of the Moon, source of the Nile. Ptolemy produced maps showing their presume location, but Henry Morton Stanley finally identified the Rwenzori mountains, snow capped and shrouded in clouds, as one of the sources. Their hidden presence dominates the fertile heart of Africa. Rich volcanic soil, tropical sunlight and a moderate climate nurtured man in the mist-shrouded valleys.

Twa pigmies still live in these forests, pursuing millennia-old rituals to pacify the forest spirits living before venturing under its canopy, but they are mostly enslaved today. Small cultivators still resent subjection by pastoralist aristocrats. From Sudan came Islam, competing with Christian missionaries for the souls of the animists. Francophone and anglophone spheres of influence meet here, tearing at the fragile fabric of society, while the government in far-away
Kinshasa is mostly absent.

A treasury lies under the forests: Rwandan-sponsored M23 rebels allegedly exported some US$ 500 million worth of gold, produced by artisanal miners working under near-slavery conditions. Coltan, essential to smartphone technology, is collected by hand, and tin ore, rich enough to justify export by air, is found in the Kivu provinces, remote from all capitals, dominated by warlords and militias.

People relish bushmeat: antelope, crocodile, monkeys, chimpanzees, and fruit bats all go into the pot. And the forest extracts its revenge: many of these species carry diseases. But none so deadly as the Ebola virus, probably carried by the fruit bats.

Very contagious, the virus causes severe internal bleeding. The victim is highly contagious: a single droplet of body fluid can infect. In early epidemics a fatality rate of 88% was common, but the dedication of Ugandan Doctor Matthew Lukwia brought the fatality rate to around 50%. Rigid adherence to WHO isolation protocols, total attention to covering every millimetre of skin against possible contagion, teamwork to help colleagues to suit up, to inspect their heavy, uncomfortable gear under tropical heat and humidity, these were the secrets. Lukwia paid the ultimate price. Rushing to support a dying colleague he neglected to put on a face mask, and so joined the other 224 victims of the Gulu epidemic of 2000. A child in Sierra Leone, in 2014, ate fruit dropped by bats. Traditional funeral rites infected many, and in total 11, 310 deaths were counted, due to lack of coordination by governments and ignorance and distrust among the population.

The second epidemic in little more than a year in the Democratic Republic of Congo is now raging among the 250 000 inhabitants of Beni, in the shadow of the Rwenzori mountains. The first epidemic, at Mbandaka, was brought under control by efficient, professional action by Congolese authorities, international support, and a new, experimental vaccine. But the
epidemic centred on Beni is in danger of running out of control.

The battle against Ebola does not take place in a calm environment. In November 2018 rebel militias out of the mountains raided a clinic, sending health workers and contagious patients scattering, exposing vital vaccines to the tropical elements. A funeral of an Ebola victim was disrupted by young relatives who had been told that the ‘foreigners’ are killing people for
their organs, and wanted to inspect the body. Most of them were infected. In nearby Butembu the one million inhabitants, but a year ago, had running battles with government troops they accused of corruption and ethnic cleansing.

Health workers encounter massive distrust and fear among a population that sees any official presence as harmful. Military forces are often on the side of one ethnic group or the other, and the remoteness of the area makes it even more susceptible to ignorance and violence.

The political background does not help: until recently the ethnic divisions among the people of this region was exploited by neighbouring governments, and only a UN-brokered Framework Peace Agreement and a Force Intervention Brigade re-established peace. An attack by the Allied Democratic Front rebels hiding in the mountains from Ugandan military
sent thousands of refugees into Uganda, a day’s walk away. The army of the Democratic Republic of Congo, often underpaid, often from alien ethnic origin, is justly feared by the population. UN researchers have documented exploitation, virtual slavery of the population, and rampant corruption under the military, but also local militias.

The North Kivu and Ituri provinces are at a continental crossroads. The World Health Organisation has warned of the possibility of the disease spreading due to political instability. More than 56 000 people had been vaccinated so far to try to contain the disease. But there is good news. Signs are that the battle against this disease is slowly being won. Small children rarely survive Ebola. In September 2018 a baby, Benedicte, was born from a mother with Ebola, who died in childbirth. The baby contracted the dread disease, and only dedicated care over 45 days enabled her to survive. And now a mother, recently cured of Ebola, had given birth to a healthy baby, Sylvana. The vaccine cannot be given to pregnant women since the side-effects are too dangerous. But dedicated medical staff are finding ways to master the procedures, to fight the virus, and to improve the chances of survival.

The Rwenzori’s have seen peace, prosperity and growth, but also death, genocide and worse. Never has the message been so clear. Violence and war cause diseases to flourish. Africa needs peace and good governance.