Orderlies carried the patient in on an old door. The hospital only had two gurneys, and there was no point asking for more from Beijing. With crops failing for the fourth year in a row, the people of Kenya needed food far more than a trolley.
Li Zhen hurried over as the man was eased onto a bed. Unusually for one of her patients he did not look malnourished. His leg was broken, the foot turned strangely outward, but that was not the most striking thing about him.
That was the pale, fuzzy layer covering the skin around his mouth.
“What is you name?” Zhen asked in her crudely accented Swahili.
“Barrie Ndungu,” the man replied through gritted teeth. “You will fix my leg?”
“Of course,” she replied, reaching out with a swab towards the pale growth. “And I will deal with this too.”
The hospital laboratory was poorly equipped and over-stretched, but the technicians were smart and dedicated. Barrie had been in the ward for only two days when the test results came back.
“Your face is infected with a redclaw fungus,” Zhen said. “Do you know what that is?”
Barrie nodded. “I used to be a soldier. They used redclaw against us during the last war. To see a man’s flesh dissolve…”
He shook his head.
“Then you understand the importance of treating it.” Zhen poured an anti-fungal powder into the basin of water on Barrie’s nightstand. “I have not seen this variant before. It has not attacked your flesh so far, but that could easily change.”
“No.” Barrie shook his head.
“Excuse me?” Zhen paused, a cloth in her hand.
“I chose this, Dr Li.” Barrie pointed at the white layer covering half his face. “And I know my rights. You cannot treat it without permission.”
Other patients were turning to look at them, gaunt eyes staring from faces reduced to skin and bone.
“Chose this?” Zhen frowned. “What do you mean?”
Barrie glanced at the plaster cast around his lower leg, and then back at her.
“Get me crutches and I will show you,” he said.
The other patients watched expectantly. Zhen was intensely aware of the delicacy of her position, how easily their trust in her could be shattered if she proved another arrogant foreigner, ignoring the wishes of people here.
“On one condition,” she replied at last. “If I remain unsatisfied, then you let me treat you.”
“Fine,” Barrie said.
Zhen had seldom been to the old Kisumu docks. The abandoned warehouse, with its rusted roof and broken windows, reminded her of why.
“Barrie!” People greeted him warmly as the two of them entered. There were at least fifty people here, some thin and hungry looking, many with the redclaw infection covering their mouths. Zhen had heard of disease tourists, people who took a thrill from surviving rare infections, but she had assumed that such perversity was reserved for westerners and the spoilt sons of party officials. Apparently the sickness had spread.
There was a raised platform at one end of the warehouse. The crowd gathered in front of it, looking up at a man in a shabby lab coat, a surgical mask covering the bottom of his face. On a table next to him was a row of petri dishes, and beside it a pile of withered corn husks, a symptom of the blighted harvest.
“Doctor Rono,” Barrie whispered. “He is a wise man.”
Zhen kept her vehement disagreement to herself. Show respect. Build trust. Her work was founded on that.
A young woman, her face free of the blight, stepped up onto the stage. Horror knotted Zhen’s guts as the mock-scientist opened one of his dishes and approached the volunteer. Respect be damned – she had to do something.
“Stop this!” Zhen pushed through the crowd and up onto the stage, pulling the girl back before Rono could touch her. “You could kill someone!”
She cringed as all eyes turned on her, some confused, others accusing. Every instinct screamed at her to bow her head, to apologise and accede to their desires. Trembling, she stood firm.
Footsteps echoed around the warehouse. Two men ascended the platform and grabbed hold of Zhen, fingers digging into her arms. They dragged her off to one side of the stage.
“Let go of me!” she shouted. “I am a doctor. This man will kill you!”
“No.” Rono untied his surgical mask, letting it hang down across his chest. The face beneath had once been fine but was now etched with thin scars. Redclaw fungus covered it. “I will save them.”
He picked up one of the corn husks from the table and raised it to his lips. The fungus rippled, spreading out to coat the end of the husk, which began to dissolve into Rono’s mouth. He stood like that, swallowing every few seconds, until the whole husk was gone. Then he raised his mask again and rubbed his belly.
Realisation rising like the sun in her mind, Zhen looked again at the crowd. None of those infected with the fungus looked malnourished or even thin. At one side of the warehouse lay heaps of withered maize, a failed and abandoned harvest.
As the men let go of her, she stepped back into the crowd, ready to watch.
* * *
Today I went to the news for inspiration for my story. Unfortunately, it’s in the nature of news that much of it is bleak, and I’ve written more than enough downbeat stories lately. So my challenge to myself with this story was to take bleak subject matter – in this case fungal infections and failing crops – and turn it into something optimistic. Let me know if you think it works.
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