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A Scorpion’s Welcome to West Africa

One evening, an amazing sequence of events occurred. I was stung by a scorpion and, while looking skyward, I vividly saw the constellation Scorpio for the first time.
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Mark Powell
Burkina Faso 1973-1976

In 1973, I arrived as a Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV) in the small town of Boulsa in Upper Volta (Burkina Faso), West Africa.  Boulsa is in the Sahel region of West Africa, a narrow band of land along the southern edge of the Sahara Desert, which was experiencing a severe drought.  Livestock carcasses dotted the landscape. People and their cattle, sheep, goats, and donkeys migrated south in search of pasture and water. The drought also caused more camel caravans (hauling salt) to travel from the desert through the Boulsa area.  

I was one of three PCVs assigned to help Dr. Gary Epler from the US Center for Disease Control conduct a nutrition survey of children in 27 villages suffering from drought. Our task was to measure the weight and length of babies and ask about food and water supplies in the village. 

As we approached, it seemed the entire villages gathered, perhaps in anticipation of food distribution or medical aid. We were likely the first white people many had ever seen.  Most striking was the absence of adult men in most villages, which were mostly populated by young boys and girls, women, and elder adults. Besides moving south with their livestock, men also moved to cities in the nearby country of Ivory Coast to find work. Remittances from their work sent home sustained families in many parts of Upper Volta. 

One evening, while on this nutrition survey, an amazing sequence of events occurred. I was stung by a scorpion and treated by a nomadic medicine man, and while looking skyward afterward, I vividly saw the constellation Scorpio for the first time. Here’s what happened. We were returning to our base camp in the northern town of Dori as dusk settled in.  The road was obscured. We struggled to find tracks left by previous vehicles in the shifting sand. Eventually, we lost the road and had to get out of our truck to help find it. I plodded through the sand wearing flip-flop sandals and was stung by a scorpion!

Immediately, I retreated to our truck as the searing heat of the scorpion sting engulfed my foot. Lying in the back seat, Dr. Epler administered Benadryl. Delirium obscured my memory, but I remember him saying, “I think it’s OK for more.” 

The fire crept rapidly up my leg. I remember the commotion of many people and the bleating and smell of the camels. From somewhere, a ‘medicine man’ appeared. He withdrew a mixture of herbs from a pouch and said I should chew them. He asked me to point out where the pain was most intense in my leg. Starting just above my knee, he slowly massaged my leg downwards, softly praying and chanting. He said the pain would intensify as it descended back into my foot. As his massage continued, I could feel the pain moving and growing in ferocity!

He took the herbs from my mouth and put them on the sting as a poultice to draw out the poison. My foot was bandaged, and we were shown the road back to Dori. We arrived in Dori after dark. I went straight to a clinic, where I was given an antivenom injection. 

Back at our camp, lying in bed outdoors, I gazed upwards. The constellation Scorpio appeared so obvious, prominent, and clear! This was my first time seeing this constellation! I gasped in awe while tears welled up in my eyes; how coincidental!

Roads were seldom marked; cattle and camel trails crisscrossed the region.
Mark Powell, upper center, Cynthia Moore, right, David Miller, lower center, Dr. Gary Epler, left.