Véronique Tadjo’s slender, haunting novel In the Company of Men offers myriad points of view—human and nonhuman—in its story of the Ebola epidemic in West Africa in 2014. Published in French in 2017 and in English in 2021, it’s a timely novel that makes important connections, revealing the devastating impact of how humans treat the planet.
After a brief section that reveals the origins of the outbreak, Tadjo’s story is narrated by Baobab, “the first tree, the everlasting tree, the totem tree.” Baobab is harsh about the nature of the human species: “We [trees] were here to last. We were here to spread our shade over the remotest lands. We were here so our foliage would murmur the secrets of the four corners of the world. But human beings have destroyed our hopes. No matter where in the world they are, they wage war on the forest … The more they have—and they already have everything—the more they devour … They’ll go on until nothing is left.”
Baobab illuminates the lives of trees and why they’re essential to everything on Earth. “…did you know that no other terrain shelters as many living creatures as the forest does? … If only Man could realize how misguided he is, he would surely end the violence and lay down his axes and machetes.”
Baobab also shows the connection between human action and a disaster like Ebola. “…when men murder us, they must know that they are breaking the chains of existence. Animals can no longer find food. Bats can no longer find food … the bats seek the company of men.”
It is bats that lead to the Ebola outbreak—two boys hunting, killing bats, and eating the bushmeat—and as Baobab tells us, it will be devastating, and the entire world is vulnerable, whether we acknowledge it or not. “Simply touching another person is enough for someone to become infected … I saw the devastation the epidemic wreaked upon this country, while the rest of the world did its best to stay away. Africa became the cradle of untold suffering, the place where the future of all mankind was at stake. Should the virus jump on a bus, a train, an airplane, it threatened human extinction.”
Yet Baobab reveals, “I saw courage, too,” and the following chapters tell the stories of the humans who fought for their own survival and for that of others. We meet an exhausted doctor, stretched to his limits, who continues to fight. He wonders “What are we doing here on earth? Why have we been put here if our existence is nothing but suffering?” Yet he doesn’t give up: “I refuse to let the virus win the day.”
A nurse reveals the limits of the health care system, hospitals with “deplorable working conditions … long working hours spent in buildings with peeling paint, where the mattresses on the iron bedsteads are filthy and all the furnishings damaged or broken.” Hospital staff often had to send patients’ family members to get supplies they didn’t have. “At the same time, we knew perfectly well just by looking at them they they’d never be able to pay for even half of it.” Yet she, too, puts up a courageous fight: “I want to do my bit. I want future generations to understand how hard we fought to stop the triumph of the unacceptable.”
A young university student, too, would rather join the fight than stand by; he takes a job digging graves for the dead, brutal work both physically and emotionally, but he believes that “if young people didn’t answer the call, the epidemic would never end.”
Among the other human characters are a mother who watches her child die; a daughter who is sent away, catches the virus anyway, survives, and embarks on helping other young patients; a member of an outreach team; a foreign volunteer who gets infected and is immediately flown out to the safety of his unnamed home country; a relative who adopts one of the many Ebola orphans—children who are abandoned by their own families, forced to roam the streets in search of food and shelter, because “fear prevailed over compassion” when it came to Ebola.
In another eye-opening point of view, the virus itself tells its own version of events, noting that while it is thousands of years old, it was discovered by humans only four decades ago. And the virus deflects blame onto humans. “I don’t like to travel. I prefer to stay put right here, in the primordial jungle … It’s no secret what happens next. Man violates nature by pulling the trigger and killing an animal … Blood on his hands …He doesn’t know I’ve already entered his body.” The virus goes on to say, “It’s not me that has changed. It’s humankind, which has changed direction … They’ve become more demanding, greedier, more predatory. Their appetites are limitless.”
The virus is here to stay, it tells us, and it’s the humans who need to “take a hard look at the evil they have inflicted and continue to inflict on themselves, deliberately, ever since they first walked the earth.” In fact, the virus fears only one thing: “seeing humans go against their nefarious nature and start to help each other.”
The bat, too, has a voice in this novel, and denies responsibility for the outbreak: “It happened entirely against my will. I wish no one harm … [Ebola] was dormant in me until Man came and wrecked the spendor of the forest.” The bat tells her creation story, urging humans to “recognize that they’re part of the world, that there’s a close bond between them and all living creatures, great and small.”
In the Company of Men is both a lovely, philosophical novel about the fraying connections among humans and the natural and animal worlds, and a frightening, page-turning account of the Ebola outbreak of 2014. Tadjo did a lot of research to do both her human and nonhuman characters justice; she recently told Publishers Weekly in an interview that “while doing research at the time of the Ebola crisis, I came to realize that many aspects of our lives were connected: the degradation of the environment, climate change, and our health.” She also said, “I wanted to show human beings as part of nature and not above nature”—and at this she succeeds beautifully.
While the novel is unflinching in its portrayal of human mistakes, past and present, it also offers incredible hope during a time when a global pandemic has upended the world, when animals and the planet face unprecedented harm, and when humans have one last chance at making it better. As Baobab says, “The life of humans is a story we haven’t finished telling, a story of shipwrecked sailors washed up on an island in the middle of a sea.”