One Giant Leap ...with Joanne Harris

| May 16, 2019

Celebrated author Joanne Harris has written numerous best-selling novels and cookery books, including Chocolat, her French village-set novel made into an Oscar-nominated film starring Juliette Binoche. But, as she tells Compass editor Jennifer Cox, it was a journey to the Republic of Congo which stands out.

Joanne Harris author photo credit Kyte Photography EDIT


I went to the Republic of Congo with Médecins Sans Frontières about 10 years ago. I’d decided to donate the proceeds of my cookbooks to MSF, and they asked, “What would you like us to put it towards?” I remembered reading an article by AA Gill about sleeping sickness and it had struck me forcibly. I asked if they had a sleeping sickness programme and they did – in the Congo. So I went there with them for a month.

The journey was a series of extraordinary experiences. We spent a couple of weeks on the Congo river going into villages, and a couple of weeks going inland into the war zone. We also spent a week in the capital Brazzaville, which was very different again.

I was ostensibly there to write a story for The Sunday Times, but helped MSF screen villagers for sleeping sickness. We mostly travelled by river, a small group of us in a wooden canoe with an outboard motor. Behind was a slightly larger boat with doctors and medical facilities. Every morning we’d get up very early and travel up river to wherever the next settlement was.

A typical day was spent screening a community. Often we would meet the head of the village or medicine man to make sure there was no conflict or hurt feelings. If someone tested positive, there would be a blood test and lumbar puncture. Anyone who was sick would either be medicated there, or taken with the doctors on the boats if they needed longer treatment.

Wherever we went, I was constantly reassessing my thoughts and expectations. One day we’d be in a school full of refugees – doctors and nurses, teachers with degrees… but refugees because they’d been displaced. Other times we’d be in more traditional villages, which hadn’t had much contact with anyone beyond their own community for a long time. Despite the situation they found themselves in, everyone was hugely positive and welcoming.

Our journey along the river was through dense jungle, filled with strange animals and insects, monkeys, kingfishers, beautiful fishing birds and huge butterflies. The river was extremely wide and treacherous, filled with crocodiles. It was almost storybook jungle, with tumbling lianas and huge tall trees. I kept asking villagers what things were called but they couldn’t tell me – the only thing people seemed interested in, was if they could eat it (or if it could eat them).

River and jungle view, Republic of Congo

River view, Republic of Congo

Villages came in all sizes, but there was always a team of small children who were very curious and wanted to know absolutely everything about us. And a small coin given to a group of small boys would always get us an enormous pile of oranges, durians, mangoes or whatever was growing nearby. We drank boiled river water, and from time to time beer or bottled coke. The coke was very old, as it was quite expensive in Congolese terms so not many people bought it: bottles of thick green glass, sold out of cellars in the ground or sometimes little cafes. The Belgian Congo is still culturally quite French, so we ate bread and lots of little vache qui rit cheeses, as they travelled well. And chicken, as all the villagers kept them – and were so hospitable, we had to keep telling them we’d already eaten, so villagers wouldn’t kill all their chickens for us.

I found myself climbing a lot of mango and durian trees. In one case I brought a whole nest of fire ants down on my head, which was not fun. But I also learned from that experience that the pygmies who lived up river used fire ants as sutures; the ants bite into you and don’t let go, but if you knock the body off, you can use the head as a suture to nip two sides of a wound together. It wasn’t very useful when they were all down the front of my shirt, but it was an interesting piece of information.

One of the most surprising things was how quickly you acclimatise to what people think of as discomfort – that you couldn’t wash, that there weren’t any toilets or electricity… I thought I was a bit phobic about spiders, but that went away when I saw the size of the spiders there (ordinary spiders don’t do it for me anymore). I was also surprised how quickly I got used to the horrible humidity; when you know there’s no possibility of air con, you don’t notice it after a couple of days.

Another surprise was how much fun it was, and satisfying – despite often very desperate circumstances. I think that’s perhaps because we live in such a big society, it can be hard to see how you can make a difference or directly change anything. Well these doctors might screen 800 people for sleeping sickness, in a village in a day. And if they found 10 people who were infected, you knew they’d saved 10 people that day. There was no arguing with that: it was a direct consequence of them being there. It felt a privilege to be there and see it for myself.

We usually slept in abandoned huts. At one point we slept in a derelict villa in the middle of the jungle, abandoned by the Russians a few decades earlier. It was full of bats and rats, but was rather beautiful in its dereliction. One night we slept in a large partitioned hut where, unbeknownst to us, there was also a large sleeping crocodile (tethered by the villagers, who planned to eat it). The first we knew of it was when we were woken in the middle of the night by this enormous noise. The crocodile had broken free and escaped! We ran out into the jungle and the crocodile ran out after us. But the village witch doctor (who’d been to university in England) caught it and killed it. And then we ate crocodile! It could have eaten us, so really we were just returning the favour.

Joanne Harris' latest novel The Strawberry Thief is out now, the fourth in the series that began with the best-selling novel Chocolat.


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