TINTÉLOT, Mali. The first time it happened was backstage at the University Theater after a final dress rehearsal for The Taming of the Shrew. I was Petruchio, and dressed in some ridiculous Elizabethan garb: tunic and tights, buttons and bows.
A piece of unfinished scenery was on the stage floor, a nail sticking out of it. As I walked behind the set, my eyes adjusting to the dark, I stepped and felt a stabbing pain. The nail went into my heel about an inch.
That’s the last I remember – though I must have screamed out that I had stepped on a nail – before I passed out.
When I came to, flat on my back, I looked up to find a cluster of the cast and crew pulling down my tights to see the wound, my tunic pulled up over my belly. Luckily I was wearing modern underclothes, not a “full regimental” Elizabethan getup, or it would have made a ridiculous costume even more humiliating.
We dressed the wound. And with some extra padding in the big lumbering boots I wore on stage, I was able to perform the next night with only an occasional wince when I stepped on it the wrong way.
I recall the actress who played Kate seemed to enjoy seeing me in pain.
* * *
The second time, I’m here in Mali. It’s a blisteringly hot Tuesday afternoon. I take my shoes off to enter a village community center where a group of women had gathered to talk about their success with a program called “Trickle Up,” an NGO that trains and supports small businesses (really small businesses) in the poorest areas of one of the world’s poorest countries.
As I step one foot into the room I feel a shock like a lightning bolt shooting up my leg. I look down to see a four-inch needle poking out of my foot just behind my left big toe. I pull it out – about an inch of it went diagonally into my foot from the pad behind my toe, grazing the bone. I hobble and hop to a seat in the corner of the room.
The needle is for the woven crafts the women make to sell in their artisan craft business. Before it found my foot, it was stuck in a little round grass weaving a woman was working on.
“Don’t pass out,” I say to myself. I take deep breaths and pull off my sock. Judith, the director of the NGO begins to tell me about the women and their project, and I stop her and explain about my foot.
I start to feel faint.
“What a wimp I am,” I think to myself, as I consider the hardships these people have gone through in their lives. And I don’t want to lose face with the village chief who has just entered the room.
But there’s something about a puncture wound that makes me very queasy.
I remember as a teenager meeting a kid on crutches, and he told me he nearly lost his foot to an infection he suffered after stepping on a toothpick.
I start to think where the needle might have been before it lodged in my flesh.
My mind flashes with the worst-case scenarios: filmmaker survives Arctic cold and Iraqi bandits only to be taken out by the germs injected in an African puncture wound mishap.
I see a POV camera inside my bloodstream: all those microscopic workings, fighting infection, attacking the bad bacteria and keeping my body healthy. I say a little prayer and wish the antibodies well.
Seeing stars (you wimp!), I lie back and elevate my feet, hugging my knees to my chest. Feeling as ridiculous as a young actor with his tunic hiked up and his friends all gawking at his exposed, tight-clad upper thighs. I must look like a total goofball to these villagers.
One of the benefits of the work Trickle Up and other NGOs have done in this community – a tribe that was once nomadic, but now adjusts to village life – is there’s a health clinic here. And the president of the group has had some nurse’s training. She comes in with a gallon jug full of alcohol. The chief takes a cotton swab and dips it in the disinfectant. He takes care of my foot, and, feeling the sting on the wound, I lie back again, so I don’t get dizzy.
After a few minutes, when the dizziness passes and my foot stops throbbing in pain, I sit up and get back to work. I’m here to shoot part of a video the help Trickle Up get the message out about its work here in Mali and around the world. Everyone has been incredibly gracious and kind, and I’ve been mighty impressed by the work the group has been able to do with the entrepreneurs over the past few years.
I pull my sock back on, pick up my camera and try my best to ignore what just happened.
A woman sews on the machine she was able to buy with her $100 Trickle Up grant. The others work on their handicrafts. But none of them smile. They all look down as I shoot.
This is not what I’ve seen elsewhere in Mali, where women usually greet a foreign guest with dancing, drumming, clapping and smiles.
I try to get a reaction from them with a broad smile, my universal clownish body language, a jovial wink. But they all continue to look down.
I later discover they are all in mourning. Someone in the village died hours before we arrived. They apologize that they cannot greet us in the usual way. I feel even more foolish that I made such a big deal about a punctured foot.
After we shoot outside for a while, we come back to the center before leaving the village. I do an oversized scan of the floor, searching for anything sharp, and mime a John Cleese-like silly walk to joke with the women about my earlier needle exchange. It brings a few smiles to the mourning faces.
Judith reminds me that in Africa people believe everything happens for a reason. She is particularly interested when I tell her this is the second time it’s happened to me. All the more reason, she says, that there’s something more to it than coincidence. There’s a message to me there somewhere.
It might be something simple. Like appreciating what I have – the access to health care, nutrition and antibiotics that will let me keep my foot should an infection set in.
Or, with all the good will I’ve witnessed here in Mali this week, it could be to know for certain that a positive attitude makes all the difference. To paraphrase Shakespeare’s erstwhile shrew-taming Petruchio: “this is the way to kill [a germ] with kindness.”