The King Airlines flight, TI 237, a Boeing 747-800 plane to Addis Ababa, had been pretty eventless until a boy rose from seat 23L and tumbled into the aisle. Every passenger who saw the boy fall backwards tilted their heads in his direction, on the walkway. A white American guy in 24L, directly behind the boy’s seat, made a futile attempt to grip him.
‘Are you okay?’ he asked. The boy shook his head.
‘What’s wrong?’ asked a light-skinned black woman to the boy’s right, sitting in 25M. The boy opened his mouth to talk but suddenly contorted and disgorged a rivulet of vomit on the aisle rug. The lady in seat 25M moved her feet quickly in an effort to dodge the rancid mess but part of it landed on her legs. 24L had not been in the path of the puke, but he moved his right leg anyway and took out a Kleenex. He held it out to the boy and pushed the call button. A flight attendant came rushing to the scene.
‘Sir, are you all right?’ the flight attendant asked the sick boy. His mouth was agape. His breathing was less rhythmic. He finally spoke in a whisper.
‘No, I am not. I have nausea. I hope it is not Ebola.’
Immediately 25M heard the word ‘Ebola’, she sprang forward.
‘What? Did you say Ebola? The boy has Ebola, oh! And he has vomited on my legs. Oh my God! Who sent me to this seat? I am dead. Please move, let me keep away from the vomit.’
‘Madame, please don’t touch me, he has vomited on your legs, don’t infect me with your Ebola vomit,’ a burly light-skinned Ethiopian man in 25N warned.
25M started shedding tears. The flight attendant stooped, examining the patient. He raised his head slowly. His eyes had gone red and he was sweating profusely. He also had a high fever. Vomiting, sweating and fever: the trademark Ebola symptoms, though nothing had been confirmed in the boy’s case. Another approaching flight attendant stopped, right next to Flight Attendant 1.
‘I’m not from Liberia,’ the ill traveller said slowly. ‘I don’t even know where Guinea or Sierra Leone are. I don’t have Ebola!’
‘Did you fill in any health form before boarding this flight?’ Flight Attendant 1 asked.
‘Did any medical personnel check your temperature before you boarded the plane?’
‘No. Passenger temperature measurement is not done at the Douala International Airport in my country.’ The flight attendants exchanged glances.
Flight Attendant 1 stayed with the weeping 25M, consoling her. Flight Attendant 2, who was also the flight purser, walked towards the cockpit door, picked up the wired device and spoke on the PA system.
‘Go ahead for the captain!’ His voice was gruff.
‘We have an emergency. A passenger just fell down in the aisle and is vomiting!’
‘Okay, implement targeted clean-up and infection-control measures. Then let me know how he is doing.’
Flight Attendant 1 made her way towards the cockpit area to put on a face mask, protective clothing and to get cleaning equipment.
Most of the passengers had begun fidgeting. 25M continued weeping theatrically. Commercial air travel could be a potential vector for spreading global pandemics, especially airborne ones like the eradicated SARS.
The sick traveller lay in the aisle, heaving. 24L shook his head.
‘I’m really puzzled by the lady’s exaggerated dramatics,’ he said.
‘Well, this is the type of reaction that happens when your Western media creates an issue and then whips everybody into a hysterical frenzy,’ 25N retorted.
‘What do you mean? He sparked all of this. Why did he mention Ebola when he started vomiting? It’s no different from saying, “maybe I have a gun in my purse” while you’re on board a plane. It can cause panic,’ said 25M.
‘He didn’t say he has Ebola. He just raised some concerns about Ebola,’ an Arab man in seat 26N pointed out.
‘There is no reported case of Ebola in Cameroon, so why should he suggest it? Ebola is surely going to be a hot word aboard a plane or in any airport terminal now,’ said 24L.
‘He’s got Ebola symptoms, for God’s sake. How did it develop in the affected countries? Was it not from a first case like this?’ 25N asked.
‘I think it’s the lady who blew things out of proportion. What he said was that he had nausea, not Ebola. I was travelling to the UK in 2005 after the London bombings and was narrating a teenage drinking incident to my wife. I used the phrase, “being drunk was the bomb”. Another passenger thought I said I had a bomb on board and informed the crew. I almost got into trouble because of that. It taught me that one has to be careful about using certain words in certain places,’ said the Arab man.
‘I didn’t blow anything out of proportion. Why don’t you let him vomit on your feet, too,’ said 25M.
‘The Western media needs to stop scaring the public. They should state the facts about Ebola and how to prevent it. Instead of perennially pounding us with gory images of scrawny and helpless Ebola-infected people and corpses and skyrocketing infection figures,’ 25N said.
‘You have a point there. I think this Ebola is the world’s next AIDS,’ said the Arab man.
The purser returned to the sick boy, watching him breathe.
‘Ebola is worse than AIDS, oh! And now I have it,’ 25M claimed.
‘Ma’am, please don’t talk like that. He may just have regular fever. We will clean your feet with alcohol and if there are any Ebola viruses in the vomit droplets, they will die,’ the purser said.
Flight Attendant 1 returned. The purser put on gloves and took a bottle of alcohol and tissue paper from her, which she used to clean the feet of 25M. The woman looked a little relieved after the cleaning.
Flight Attendant 1 scrubbed off the mess on the patient’s body with disinfectant. He held his face in a grimace and rolled over. When she finished cleaning him up, she gave him an air-sickness bag to use, in case he vomited again. Then she helped him to an empty seat, near the lavatory. It was quite a distance from the last passenger. His head slumped but the flight attendant held him up again and lowered him to his seat. He continued breathing deeply.
Scared, some of the passengers changed seats and moved towards the middle part of the cabin. The flight attendant restricted the use of that lavatory to the ill traveller only. She proceeded to clean the vomit mess on the aisle thoroughly, which she put in disposable plastic bags. Last, she sterilized the target area with alcohol, took off her gloves in the toilet, disposed of them in a plastic bag and washed her hands.
‘It seems people now need to wear an extra layer of clothes, disposable gloves and masks even to travel!’ a Chinese female passenger in seat 24N said.
‘That sounds ridiculous. The risk of a person catching Ebola on a plane is very low, like an aircraft crashing after being struck by a meteorite,’ said 24L.
‘I would rather look ridiculous and be safe than regret!’ the Chinese woman said.
‘Uh huh, like some Asian passengers I saw at the airport wearing face masks and gloves to prevent catching the virus, as if the Ebola virus is now airborne,’ 25N teased.
‘I disagree with you all. Bitter kola can kill that virus. Eat a lot of bitter kola, drink lots of salt water and the virus will die!’ a Nigerian guy in 23K said.
‘Hilarious! Kola does not kill the Ebola virus. Is it because the virus is shaped like a worm that you believe salt water can kill it? Just like it dehydrates and kills earthworms? That’s absolutely not correct,’ 24L said, in a burst of laughter.
‘Ban all flights from Africa,’ the Chinese woman shouted.
‘Why? Ebola is only in three African countries! Ban flights from those countries instead. Not all of Africa!’ reasoned the Arab man.
‘A mon avis, Ebola n’existe pas. Ce que vous appelez Ebola n’est qu’une invention des Blancs pour semer la peur à travers le monde,’ a Francophone Cameroonian man in 24K said.
‘Moi, connait, ça existe!’ the Chinese lady said, in what she believed was good French.
‘That thing exists but it was created by the white people in their labs to reduce the growing African population,’ 25N said.
‘That’s rubbish!’ 24L snapped.
‘They say it has no cure. Yet they fly infected American citizens from Africa back home and treat them. But the infected ones in the affected countries are dying every day. It doesn’t make much sense,’ 25N said.
‘I think that’s why Kofi Annan called it a poor man’s disease,’ said the bitter kola guy.
‘The experimental drug Z-mapp can treat it but it’s in limited supply,’ 24L explained.
‘That’s a lie!’ said the bitter kola guy.
“The Americans sent soldiers to the affected countries to combat the disease instead of doctors. When did the Ebola pandemic become a war? Are those American soldiers going to shoot all the Ebola viruses dead or what?” 25N said in jest.
The lively debate continued as the purser communicated with the captain on the PA system about the condition of the ill traveller. He had stopped vomiting and his condition was stable, though he still had a fever. But he wasn’t coughing.
After a couple of minutes, the purser announced lunch. Four flight attendants rolled out two trolleys packed with food and drink. They began to serve the passengers on the front seats, handing them trays full of rice, chicken or beef sauce, vegan food, cake, bread, cheese, soft drinks, beer and wine. Some of the passengers ate with ravenous appetites, while others toyed with their food, chewing slowly and distorting their faces, in a manner that portrayed that they didn’t particularly like what they were eating but had no choice anyway.
25M had stopped weeping and somewhat recovered from her Ebola infection shock by the time lunch was being served. Flight Attendant 4 halted in front of her with an open food trolley. She gave a warm look and smiled before asking, ‘Are you okay now, ma’am?’
‘Would you like chicken or beef for lunch?’
25M instinctively turned and glanced at the food trolley, before making her choice. She stared at the food trolley in a manner that no passenger had ever looked at a food trolley before. Flight Attendant 4 repeated her question, watching her keenly.
‘Ma’am, would you like chicken or beef?’
‘Lizard!’ 25M suddenly screamed.
Flight Attendant 4 widened her eyes and furrows immediately appeared on her forehead.
‘What?’ she snapped, not making sense of the woman’s choice.
‘Lizard! Lizard! Lizard!’ 25M screeched again, placing the most bizarre food order Flight Attendant 4 had ever heard in her entire six years working for the airline.
‘Em, we, we, don’t, serve… lizards for lunch ma’am, I’m sorry, please stop screaming.’
‘There is a lizard in your food trolleeeey!’ she shrieked, pointing at the interior of the trolley and jerking from right to left like she had been bitten by a driver ant.
Flight Attendant 4 turned to look at the trolley, but didn’t see anything at first. And at that moment, turbulence struck and she lost balance. The plane dipped and that uncomfortable feeling of weightlessness came upon them. It was like the plane was going straight back down, as it made its balancing trajectories, quavering and staggering like a drunk.
The turbulence had caught them unawares. When the second dip occurred, Flight Attendant 4 held a seat. All of a sudden, a big red-and-blue lizard with an orange head jumped out towards her. When she saw it, she bent over, towards a passenger’s food tray, to get out of the way. She hit the tray and soiled her uniform in the process, but didn’t scream. The lizard brushed against her left shoulder and bounced on seat 25M.
‘Get away,’ she yelled.
The lizard fell straight on the right breast of 25M and gripped her dress right on her boob to gain balance. She held both hands upwards, Moses style, and shuddered. But the reptile nodded thrice, like the big male Agama lizard that it was, and did not budge.
She then released the outburst. It was a tumultuous fit of deafening sounds, which emerged from her mouth like fine grains of sand, and scattered through the cold winds of the whole pressurized cabin.
Quite a scream! But she finally plucked the courage to flick the lizard away with her right hand and the creature glided in the air. The two annoying incidents had the woman swearing,
‘Useless airline! You let people vomit on my legs. You let lizards jump on my breasts and it’s a lizard you serve me for lunch. This is too much. I will sue you people! Useless airline.’
Most of the children had now taken over the screaming and passengers were fidgeting too. Some were moving about left, right and centre in utter confusion.
‘Un lézard à bord! C’est de la folie. Impossible. Je n’ai jamais vécu une telle chose, même pas dans les romans de Mongo Beti, je n’ai jamais lu quelque chose comme ça,’ 24K expostulated.
‘Kill that ugly lizard!’ 25N ordered erratically, pointing as it dashed towards his sandals. He tried to raise his legs to his seat but the space was so small his feet hung in the air.
The awful smell from his toes pricked 25M’s nose. She sniffed the air like a police dog and lashed out, ‘Jeez, put down your smelly feet!’
25N quickly lowered his feet, with a frown on his face.
The lizard took off in the opposite direction.
25N shouted again, ‘Kill that lizard!’
‘No, that’s against animal rights. It’s not a poisonous lizard. I can use it for scientific research. I need to know how it got on this plane in the first place,’ 24L said.
‘Damn it, kill it,’ 25N said.
‘How can a big, strong guy like you be scared of lizards? This one is harmless,’ 24L laughed.
‘Kill that devilish creature! How can it jump on my breast?’ 25M said.
‘Kill the lizard. It’s a delicacy in some cultures,’ the Chinese woman said.
‘No, please don’t. Lizards have souls, no matter how small they are. They have a right to live, just like human beings,’ the Arab man protested.
‘Tuez cet animal! Le lézard est en train de semer la panique. Pas d’animaux à bord – tuez le,’ 24K said.
‘The rule is no live animals on board. If it’s running around and scaring people, then we just have to kill it. You can’t carry a lizard in your carry-on luggage,’ said 25N.
‘Then catch it alive,’ suggested the Arab man.
‘Who wan catch that fast ting wey don cause this wahala so?’ the bitter kola guy asked.
‘Then kill it,’ 25N ordered.
‘Kill it yourself, scared big man,’ urged 25M.
The captain had heard the noise and asked the purser on the PA what was happening in the cabin. The purser informed him that the panic was caused by a lizard that had emerged from one of the food trolleys. The captain exclaimed and asked her to make sure it was caught, as soon as possible.
The lizard pecked at a piece of vegan food on the rug, which a passenger had thrown due to the chaos. It bustled around, through people’s restless feet, in an effort to disappear from their view. The flight attendants moved about looking for it thoroughly. The lizard slowed down, crawled and hid under a piece of tissue paper. Not for long though, for a foot kicked it out and it rose out of the paper. Two flight attendants pursued it along the aisle and it whizzed across as fast as it could, dodging some kicking feet. Other passengers shot disposable spoons and knives at it. But it kept running towards the cockpit and hid there.
Some minutes later, the cockpit door partially opened and the co-pilot peeped out. He asked the purser, ‘Has it been caught?’
‘Where is it?’
‘It hid somewhere around here. We are still looking for it.’
The co-pilot glanced around to catch a glimpse of the reptile but he couldn’t.
‘I want to use the restroom,’ he said.
He opened the cockpit door completely and walked out. As he began closing it with his left hand, the orange head of the reptile shot out of its hiding place and made for the cockpit door. The co-pilot gasped when he saw it running towards the open door and flung his left leg to kick it away. The reptile wheeled to his right and he missed completely.
‘Oh, no!’ the purser exclaimed, as it entered the cockpit.
The captain was drinking a cup of coffee and didn’t see it when it crawled in. But he immediately turned in its direction, when he heard the missed kick and scurrying movement. He paused with his cup right before his lips and muttered, ‘Damn it, the lizard!’
He lowered the cup as the co-pilot turned at the door.
‘Be careful, the lizard just crawled into the cockpit.’
‘Yes, I saw it.’
The captain threw his disposable spoon at the lizard but it crawled forward. The spoon hit it on the head and it ran around haphazardly. It got so close to the captain’s feet that he freaked out and spilled coffee on himself. The lizard moved leftwards, the liquid dropped rightwards. The captain moved upwards, swaying from side to side.
‘Goddamn it! Who put a lizard on my plane? I’m a pilot not a fucking zoo keeper!’ he barked, moving his right hand back and forth. ‘Get off my cockpit!’
‘Be careful, captain!’ the co-pilot cautioned.
‘Yes. Can you get away from the door?’
The co-pilot moved. The captain rolled a piece of tissue paper into a ball shape and shot it at the lizard. It scampered around in the cockpit, trying to find its way out. The captain climbed on his seat, looking around. When he saw it, he brought down a leg and gave it a gentle kick. The lizard skated out of the cockpit, landed and took off again.
A little girl on one of the front seats in Business Class screamed. Her younger brother didn’t shout, though. He asked their mother, ‘Mummy, was the lizard flying the plane?’
‘No, why would you think that?’ their mother retorted.
The lizard kept crawling quickly. A bold man succeeded in grabbing its red-and-blue tail. But it pulled itself so vigorously away from the man’s grip that its skin broke loose and its tail gave way. It got off his hands and fell on its back. The man flung the wriggling tail away. The lizard tossed and turned, landed and balanced on its claws. Freedom again! It skipped right across the walkway, as passengers yelled. Its speed was slowing down considerably though, as fatigue set in.
After zigzagging through the legs of some passengers, it arrived at the rear end of the plane, halted and did three push-ups: a remarkable show of its male ego. It crawled to one corner, where there were empty seats, and lay prostrate. But there was someone there, watching it keenly. The ill traveller, who was sleeping in a bedlike position on two seats, stretched out his right hand quickly and covered it with his air-sickness bag. The lizard jumped and hit the plastic covering from all angles. Yet there was no way out.
‘I’ve caught the lizard!’ he said slowly and held up the air-sickness bag. The lizard squirmed inside. Some passengers rejoiced.
‘Ah, na so! Finally! After yi don chakara place soté,’ the bitter kola guy celebrated.
‘Now kill the lizard,’ 25N said.
‘How can a sick boy catch a lizard and a big, strong man like you be scared of lizards?’ 25M asked 25N.
‘Maybe he’s allergic to lizards,’ the bitter kola guy said.
‘I’ve never seen anything like this before. It’s like a movie,’ 24L said.
‘C’est du jamais vu. Cette histoire mérite une page dans les journaux,’ 24K said.
‘Let me think of a suitable title for the newspaper article: “Lizard on a plane”’, suggested the Arab man.
‘Lounge lizard!’ proposed 24L.
‘Wahala lizard,’ the bitter kola guy chipped in. Some people laughed.
When Flight TI 237 finally landed at the Bole International Airport in Addis Ababa, all the passengers disembarked from the plane except the ill traveller and the lizard. The boy was transferred to a health unit in an ambulance and quarantined to be tested for Ebola. The lizard was transferred to the station manager’s office at King Airlines and put in an empty plastic container. The station manager took a good look at it and shook his head.
‘Ugly Douala lizard! Look at the little thing that could potentially bring down a plane.’ He took pictures of it and transferred them to his laptop. He sent some emails with photos of the lizard attached. He made lots of phone calls too, wondering aloud to himself all the time, ‘How did this thing get on board? How did they allow a sick person to travel?’
The next day, the station manager received some emails. The first one had the ill traveller’s Ebola test result. The next was a report explaining how the lizard got on board the plane.
Some days later, 25M received an email.
We are writing to apologize for the unfortunate incidents that happened to you on King Airlines flight TI 237. We affirm to you now that we have investigated the matter. First and foremost, the ill traveller tested negative for Ebola. He was only suffering from a bout of malaria. Also, video-surveillance cameras at the Douala International Airport captured images showing how the lizard got into the food trolley. It happened in the airport catering department. One of the food trolleys hadn’t been closed properly, so the lizard crawled into it.
We assure you that we have tightened up security at our catering company and check-in desks so that such incidents will not happen again. To fully express our apology, we have granted you a free return ticket to any country of your choice that we fly to when next you travel on King Airlines. We regret any pain the incident may have caused you and promise to deliver the impeccable service that King Airlines has been known for as The African Airline with a Difference.
Mr Et-puis Koi
King Airlines Representative
“Wahala Lizard” originally published in the Caine Prize anthology, Lusaka Punk and Other Stories: The Caine Prize for African Writing 2015 published by New Internationalist, courtesy of the Caine Prize. Nkiacha Atemnkeng was born in Cameroon and is based in Douala. His work has appeared in numerous publications, including the 2014 Writivism anthology, Fabafriq, Munyori. Follow him on twitter.