Kenya: The Color (of Malaria is) Purple



My eyes open slowly unable to focus, closing again with the weight of a dumbbell.  Seconds, minutes, days are interchangeable in this state.  I flow in and out of consciousness.  My breathing is long-drawn-out like that of a dying woman.  I muster the strength to rise only to vomit.  Nothing comes out from my empty stomach.

I lie back down on the bottom bunk bed in a ball and attempt to peer out at my surroundings through the narrow slit of my right eye.  Purple walls glare back at me.  Lilac, grape, violet, lavender – whatever the shade it’s horrible.  I’m suffocating in a 4×4 room of purple.  Trapped.  It feels as if the walls of Barney’s playroom are closing in on me. Thick floral vinyl curtains are drawn to block any light.  The tired nerves in my brain send a message and I gradually roll onto my back.  Above my head the wooden slats from the top bunk enrich the confined feel in the room.

Sleep washes over me like an accident.  I’m out of body.  I hardly speak. I can’t read.  When I do open my eyes, my vision is blurry and all I see is that God-awful colour purple.  Even in the midst of illness my judgmental taste is in tact.  The air is thick in this room. Why can’t someone open the window? Reaching my arm to the floor where a tray of water and aspirin sit, I manage to swallow a pill with as little movement as possible.

The next time I open my eyes a green and yellow parrot is perched on my outstretched arm.  I squint and try to focus, blinking and hoping for lucidity.  It squawks as if to tell me: yes I’m here.

I wake again, which must mean I slept.  It’s neither here nor there.  A tiny sweet golden retriever puppy is nestled against my stomach in the nook provided by my curled up legs.  In my mind I’m smiling unable to physically pull the corners of my lips upwards.  The dog’s deep breaths mirror my own: yes I’m here.

Reality and fantasy morph in this dream-like state: Purple, Parrots, Puppies, Pills.  In the suburbs of Nairobi, I am hallucinating the letter P while at the hands of a terrible spell of malaria.  The house belongs to Anne, a tall, thin but muscular Kenyan woman with the confidence and will of a thousand white men.  While her stature is remarkable it is her rhythmic commanding speech patterns that are most memorable as they lull you into submission.

I arrived to the city two days earlier tired, but still in working human form.  Nonetheless my symptoms were obvious to a seasoned Kenyan.  Anne forced me to visit the hospital where I was tested and diagnosed with malaria.  This would be the third time a vile mosquito tapped my blood and my strength.

Ignoring the doctor’s order to rest I traipsed around Nairobi’s downtown core sitting in cafes and inhaling the cosmopolitan city life.  As the sun began to set so did my energy.  My vision went first, from clear to fishbowl effect, as I crawled into a fancy hotel and slid down the side of a white marble wall in the toilet stall.  I was burning up, nauseous, dizzy and debilitating back pain made it difficult to stand.   I called Anne who scolded me like a child: “Go to my home right now! Malaria is no joke. You go rest.”

A taxi drove me the twenty minutes to the house she shared with her brother-in-law and her ten-year-old niece, but not before we pulled over so I could throw up on the side of a congested High street.  Looking worse for wear I climbed the stairs to the room that would become my ICU for the next 48 hours.   My nurse – an adorably chubby ten-year-old girl with gorgeous skin, braided hair and a shy smile.  Her orders were to care for the dying white woman on the bottom bunk.

Like a kaleidoscope the purple room continued to produce patterns only visible to the malaria-ridden patient.  A collection of disregarded food gathered on the floor by my bed: a bowl of plain spaghetti, toast with butter, orange juice, a mango, eggs.

Simultaneously awake and unconscious I hear footsteps.  I open my eyes expecting another animal, a zebra, an elephant – something more East African this time.  I raise my head an inch from the pillow and spot a portable DVD player propped up on a chair in front of me.  “What do you want to watch?” the sweet girl asked the corpse.  My dehydrated lips were pasted shut, making it difficult to speak, but this nurse deserved an answer.  “Your favourite movie.” I responded with the whisper of a defeated woman.

My eyes droop until they closed and I fell back into a trance as Jack Black’s Gulliver’s Travels played in the background.  An ironic twist that does not go unnoticed for the traveler strapped to a bunk bed in the grips of a psychedelic malaria-induced trip.

Karen Shaw
Karen Shaw is known to be a hyper-active, hyper-critical creative wanderer. Working as a writer, director and producer, she dropped it all for a year of volunteer work and documentary filmmaking in Nigeria. Her blog captures her tales from around the globe and back again and focuses on that curious, interesting, unexplainable, questionable, magical, remarkable, fantastical, disturbing, enticing, or dubious thing that happens when you travel and you ask yourself... WHY MONKEY?
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2 Responses to Kenya: The Color (of Malaria is) Purple

  1. Jo-Anne March 27, 2012 at 2:19 pm #

    Did you take malaria medication prior to your travels? What time of year are you talking about? Where were you when you think you were bitten? How long did the symptoms last? I am taking a group of people there in October and I was told the mosquitos are not that prevalent then. At least I hope not!

  2. Karen Shaw
    Karen March 29, 2012 at 5:40 am #

    Hi Jo-Anne,
    The mosquitos are pretty prevalent around the coast so it depends where you are going. Mombassa can be bad, but yes, if you take the necessary pills you will be fine. I think I caught this round of malaria (I had it 3 times) in Uganda or possibly it was the original mosquito from Nigeria! Will never know… I went on and off malaria pills because I was on the continent for so long. If you take your pills and put bug spray on you should be fine!

    Happy Travels,

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