Love in the Time of Malaria
*Originally written in April 20, 2015 for the Sydney Morning Herald.
Stepping into the wild unknown with your partner can end in two ways – blissfully well as you sail into the sunset, or badly... very badly. Thankfully our story has a happy ending, despite a series of military coups, a filthy dose of malaria and an almost deadly scorpion sting.
It was never going to be an easy journey. Here we were, two television producers suffering from a case of wanderlust, taking a year out from busy careers to explore the dark depths of Africa. We carried little more than our cameras. Our goal was clear – live alongside Africa's most endangered and isolated tribes in places like Ethiopia and South Sudan - and try not to kill each other in the process.
No phones, no Internet, no showers, no hair-dryers. Nothing but plans of great love and grand adventure.We spent eight months attending ceremonies, rites of passage, religious festivals and traditional dances across the continent.
We photographed tribes literally living on the edge of civilization in villages not found with a GPS or map. This was humanity in its purest form, or at least its most raw. Our workplace and our home was now the road. Which meant being together 24/7 in every terrain – from jungles to deserts to tribal huts.
For many, romance may flourish on a sandy beach or a stroll along those famous streets of Paris. But for us, a baboon hunt with the Hadzabe 'clicker' tribe confirmed we were soul mates. But in every relationship, you have to take the good with the bad. Following a night of cold sweats and soaring temperatures and the taste of metal on the tongue, we worked out a big, fat dose of malaria had come to play. Aching limbs, crazy dreams, nausea, splitting headaches and dirty hair plastered to the side of a red, sweaty face – it was far from romantic. Love in the time of malaria can be tricky.
But Africa has a good way of slapping you in the face and teaching you a thing or two about life. Especially about love, respect and surprisingly, marriage. In Africa, marriage is for life. The whole 'till death do us part' thing actually applies and there is no easy escape clause. Both men and women push themselves to the limit to nab the best partner. Young men in Ethiopia's Hamer tribe have to strip naked, shave their head, and run across the backs of eight bulls to prove they're worthy of getting hitched. No stumbling or falling. This is in front of the entire community and egos are on the line. A successful bachelor is rewarded with an AK-47 machine gun and is officially allowed to start a family.In the Suri tribe, on the Ethiopian/South Sudanese border, 16-year-old girls insert giant clay plates into their bottom lips. The bigger the plate, the bigger the dowry. There are no pre-nups or piles of paper work, just a commitment for life. Family is everything.
So our time in Africa taught us a lot of things:
Malaria taught us to look after each other in sickness and in health.
Military coups taught us to handle our fear and to protect our partner – at any cost. Playing 'good cop, bad cop' with cranky border officials taught us teamwork.
Wrangling a tent (and sharing it every night) taught us patience... lots of patience.
Washing in rivers and digging our own toilets reminded us love isn't always pretty.
And the incredible tribes we spent months with taught us gratitude and the importance of family and commitment. These tribes are not poor, rather rich with pride.
Africa is something of a mistress. A lover who will never leave you. Give her time and Mother Africa will teach you some crucial lessons.
So, did we mention we didn't kill each other and were actually engaged at the end of the trip? A happy ending indeed. Robert Redford and Meryl Streep, had their Out of Africa romance. We had our Love in the time of Malaria.