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Field Notes
Michael Finkel
Photograph by Joseph Kawele
Michael Finkel

Reporting on malaria was very personal for writer Mike Finkel, who contracted the disease in 2002 while traveling in northern Thailand. "I made a full recovery, but the experience gave me an emotional connection to this story that I've had with few others in my career," he says. "I didn't just witness the suffering; I very much knew how the patients were feeling." Although malaria is endemic to more than a hundred countries, Finkel decided to focus on Zambia because of the attention it's drawing from the scientific community and local efforts to reduce the occurrence of the disease. "I'll be tuning in to this story for the next decade," he says, "to see how it plays out."


I've always been a fan of road trips. I love to watch as the land unfurls and gradually changes. So instead of hopping a quick prop-plane flight to northern Zambia, I decided to hire a car (and driver) and embark on the 15-hour trip from the capital city of Lusaka. Though the roads, in spots, were in poor repair, I'm glad I took the journey. My favorite sights—as always in the fertile plains of Africa—were the enormous termite mounds, some towering more than 30 feet (ten meters) high, like dreamland sandcastles. People sold the local specialty of produce or meat along the road. In one stretch, smoked bush rats were offered. In another, young boys sold giant mushrooms, big as umbrellas. In fact, during rain squalls, they actually use them as umbrellas. I enjoyed the trip so much that I didn't take the plane back either.


I spent more than a week living on the grounds of the remote Kalene Mission Hospital in northern Zambia. A few times, I stayed up with the night shift. The rainy season had just begun, and malaria was swiftly spreading. Throughout the night, families would arrive at the hospital, toting young children with severe cases of malaria. The staff knew that not everyone was going to survive. It was a desperately helpless situation, watching as a disease that's entirely preventable—given the proper funding and medical infrastructure—ravaged the health of so many children.


The predominant tribe in northern Zambia is the Lunda. When two people pass one another in a village, the traditional Lunda greeting is for the junior person—the one who is of lower social rank—to dip his or her knees slightly to the senior person, clap the hands twice (with the hands cupped at right angles), and say "mwani." This presented some problems for me. Generally, an older person is considered senior in a casual encounter between two Lundas. But the Lundas, who are welcoming and polite almost to a fault, often grant automatic senior status to visitors of any age. I didn't want to appear rude, so when encountering a village elder, I'd dip, clap, and say "mwani." But the elder would then bend his knees a bit deeper, also clap, and say "mwani," thereby deeming me more senior. This, however, felt wrong, so I'd dip a bit further, clap again, and say "mwani." Of course, the elder would have none of this, and he'd dip even deeper, do the clap, and say "mwani." At this point, I'd usually look at the elder, give a sly grin, and we'd both have a little laugh and continue on our way. It was never more than a few minutes, however, before I encountered another person who wished to greet me. (It's considered essential to make a visitor feel welcome, so nearly everyone greeted me.) Suffice it to say that I spent a great deal of my time in Zambia dipping my knees, clapping, and saying "mwani."