VACCINES & BAYONETS: Fighting Smallpox in Africa amid Tribalism, Terror and the Cold War is as true as I can make it. My memory of these long ago events is supplemented by thousands of pages of personal archives–letters, cables, reports, diary entries, tape letters, and home movies.

In historic Kurmi Market, Kano, Nigeria 1969

Selected excerpts of Vaccines & Bayonets: 

from the Prologue

It was called the Cold War. The powerful angled for more power. They eyed the resource-rich continent of Africa with its newly and soon-to-be independent countries. Russia and her allies, America and hers, China—they all purchased loyalty with aid. They fought proxy wars. The CIA, the KGB, Israel’s Mossad, and more maneuvered to outwit each other in now widely documented espionage.

In this Cold War context, Carl and I, with our two young children and our ideals, moved to West Africa, assigned first to a country that was always in the news and then to one that should have been….

City wall, Nigeria 1969

from the chapter “Ranka Didi”

In the front seat with his driver, Carl leaned forward, searching. At the last mud-walled village he’d heard there was an encampment of nomads nearer the Niger border. He had to find them before they moved on. For my husband, vigilance was not optional.

We knew exactly what was at stake. More than once today out here in the Sahel, this belt between Sahara and savanna, people had appeared out of nowhere, many with skin covered by the ugly, hard-earned badge of having survived smallpox. Running toward our truck, they raised their fists and shouted. “Ranka didi!” May you live long! Then the ululation – the long, emotional high-pitched trilling sound. It was a common response to our white Dodge Power Wagon and its large letters, “Smallpox Measles Program.”

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“Mammy wagon” – Kano, Nigeria 1970

from “For Your Eyes Only”

Dearest Peggy,

     ….The few times when I can use the smallpox truck, I drive myself to Kingsway, the British grocery store. Driving on the left is challenge enough on the straight-away, but turning corners makes me a nervous wreck….

     Last week I turned into what I thought was a clear lane. Out of nowhere a bicycle and its rider flipped up in the air and onto the hood of the truck. I was petrified. Had I injured the man, or worse? But the rider bounced off the hood as though it were a trampoline, gave me a brief matter-of-fact look, reunited body with bicycle and barreled on down the road. Few among the sea of pedestrians even glanced at the cyclist or at me, and those who did registered no surprise.

     I was shaking so hard. I pulled off the road as soon as I could and finally calmed down enough to drive again.

     I don’t think I’ll tell Carl.

In African market. Back of African man in white shirt walking ahead, head-bearing large white pan; back of African woman with bare shiny ebony skin, young child in her arms, an infant strapped on her back, and head-bearing a small bowl and bottle in a larger bowl.
In Kurmi Market, Kano, Nigeria 1969

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The Smallpox Eradication Program transfers our family to a new country.

from “Mr. Ambassador”

As our luggage was taken from the small plane a crisis erupted with our very large cat. Soldiers in rumpled dark green fatigues, eyes wide and legs braced, surrounded his wire kennel….I heard one of the soldiers say something about a leon. I wondered if these were the “calm largely restored” soldiers I’d been promised….

Carl said in my ear, “We’ll be okay,” as our family followed the soldiers toward the shed that served as a terminal. Even in the dim light of the musty interior I could tell that no one smiled. Neither soldiers nor passengers….

Part of the official seal. Letters at least partially visible say "assy of the United States"

Vaccination team in the field, Rio Muni, Equatorial Guinea, 1971
Carl Bloeser, Dr. Martin Bradley and a local team of vaccinators, Equatorial Guinea, 1971.

from “Eerie Silence”

After several nearly empty stores, we passed the post office. Nothing happening there.

Hardly a car was in sight on the streets, and only the occasional pedestrian. What’s going on? How silent and empty this place.

And I suddenly realized something else—no music. It wasn’t just the absence of voices and laughter, car horns and bicycle bells. I heard no rhythms of drums or chants. No mellow tones from flute or thumb piano coming from any of the businesses or shanties. Just silence….

Black and white photo of eerily empty, silent street in the capital of Equatorial Guinea, 1970.
Eerily empty, silent street, our corner, Equatorial Guinea, 1970.
Our son Charles with group of Cameroonian boys. 1971