As a Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV), one essential place of refuge from life in Africa was under the mosquito net. In 2000, the World Health Organization estimates that malaria killed over 700,000 people worldwide. Peace Corps didn’t want its volunteers to experience malaria or any of its related health consequences. We received insecticide-impregnated mosquito net for our beds, instructions on how to eliminate the mosquito population in our immediate area, and an anti-malarial medication called “Mefloquine.”
When I arrived in Washington, D.C., I wasn’t given any choice as to the type of anti-malarial medication I was to take. No one was. Unless there was a history of allergic reaction or someone had done the research and put up a real fight, all PCVs took mefloquine. It was the preferred medication because it only had to be taken once a week, instead of every day. Peace Corps thought volunteers would be less likely to forget a weekly pill, even though many of us were taking vitamins every day. Most of us were too young or too idealistic to care. We assumed that Peace Corps would want to take care of us and offer the best preventatives available.
I certainly never looked at the possible side effects, and when I heard rumors about them, I just shrugged them off. I’d never experienced severe side effects associated with prescription medications. I didn’t see a need to worry. More importantly, I wanted to get out there to help people. If taking a questionable medication would get me there, I was fine with it.
The Mosquito Net’s Importance
Anti-malarial medication isn’t one hundred percent effective, mostly due to human error. If you forget the medication one or two days in a row, you really want to have a back up plan. The mosquito net was that. It was an impregnable fortress that not only kept mosquitoes from biting you, but also kept other insects out of your most private space – the bed. You might get attacked by anything – scorpions, ants, spiders, snakes, mice, termites, the list is long – but once you were under the mosquito net for the night, you were safe. The mosquito net was also impregnated with insecticide, so it killed any mosquitoes that tried to get to you. When the day was over, you could crawl under the net and rest assured that nothing was getting while you were asleep. Or so I thought.
A Violation of the Mosquito Net
I had just finished reading one night. I put the book down beside my pillow, turned of my reading light, and rolled onto my back. There must have been a full moon that night because I could dimly see the inside of my hut. As my eyes adjusted to the ambient light, I could see more detail. I had tucked in my mosquito net, so I was safe. I could just close my eyes and go to sleep.
There was a scrabbling sound on my thatched roof. It wasn’t uncommon to have some bird or lizard run across the roof, except they weren’t usually active at night. My eyes drifted to the sound. A gray flash ran around the top of the mud walls. It was just a blur; it moved so fast. Then, it crawled on the line attaching my mosquito net to the ceiling. It was a mouse. I wasn’t too worried about it. I was safe under my net.
The mouse dropped down and disappeared. I figured it landed on the floor, and I would deal with it in the morning. I was too tired to be bothered with it now, so I closed my eyes and listened, secure under my net, waiting for sleep to take me. Something rustled I the dark. I ignored it. Then something wriggled underneath me. It was the mouse. I leapt up from the bed and got out from under the mosquito net. I tore the sheets away and saw a cockroach about three inches long in my bed. How’d it get there? I pushed it off the bed, squished it on the floor, and swept it outside to let the ants deal with it. I searched for the mouse but didn’t find it. Uneasily, I crawled back into bed.
Mefloquine’s Side Effects
Peace Corps told us that one of mefloquine’s most common side effects was vivid dreams. They involved all of the senses. Was this one of those dreams? I don’t know. What I can tell you is that I hadn’t slept for about three months. My dreams were so real that it felt like I was living them. I’d wake up tired and irritable. Some days, it would take me a little time to get my bearings and understand which version of the day was reality and which was the dream. I’m sure having a routine saved me from appearing crazier than I already seemed. When I went to the Peace Corps medical staff and told them about it, they calmly said – “Oh, that’s just the medication. Can you take a pill every day?”
“I take vitamins every day, so I can take them together.”
They switched my medication, but even now, I still have days and weeks where my dreams feel more real than real life. I struggle to separate the two until I stand up from my bed – tired and stressed from another restless night. Is that the mefloquine 20 years later? I don’t know, but it sure feels like it.
More from the Peace Corps
While the above is a memory, “My Life in the Peace Corps: Letters from Guinea, West Africa” is directly from my time as a PCV. There is no reconstruction, so you get the information as I lived it and as I sent it home to family and friends. The book will be released on Dec. 28, 2020 in eBook format on Amazon. I will try to publish the paperback on Amazon about that same time. If you want to get it quickly, watch my Facebook page for a link. If you want an autograph, you can pre-order the paperback on Penguinate.com. As soon as I get some copies, I will sign them and send them out. This process will take longer than ordering directly from Amazon because I cannot order them ahead of time.