The other day I pounced on a novel set in Tanzania called 'Exile' by Jakob Ejersbo, a Danish writer. The author had, like me, done some of his growing up there and I was thrilled to think that I might see some of my experiences reflected in the writing of someone good enough to do it professionally. That the book looked rough and cynical and was by the author of 'the Danish Trainspotting' boded even better. Mentions of places I spent time in, the view of Kilimanjaro in the morning and a liberal sprinkling of Swahili words took me back, right enough, but it was the simple word 'bilharzia' that tipped me into a full vat of reminiscence. Bilharzia was the reason why our mothers told us we could never swim in any of the lakes we encountered in central Tanzania, though some older guys I knew claimed that they often did it, and you just needed to make sure your feet never touched the bottom. I doubt many of the lakes were more than four foot deep.
I tended to trust my mother on this, as I did when it came to scorpions, jiggers, green mambas and most other issues of health and safety. I was never stung by a scorpion, jiggered by a jigger or bitten by a green mamba. I never really even knew what bilharzia was, just that it was to be avoided. I don't think I had ever seen it written down before and can't say I recall hearing the word once since we came back to Ireland, nineteen years ago. Nor did I think about it much. Turns out it's caused by Schistosoma parasites*, which burrow into your kidneys, bladder, rectum and any other private, precious parts you can think of and cause you to bloodily shit yourself to death.
Nostalgia is a rum beast.
*The Internet tells me that they swim freely in open water, which means that those older braggards were either full of shit or, y'know, minutes away from violently shitting themsleves. Ha!