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Multiple food poisoning


Gossip went around fast in the Karen suburb of Nairobi that someone had mistakenly poisoned her husband and son with some dodgy pork last weekend and they were both subsequently admitted to hospital. I extended my sympathies to the friend and told her that, if it would make her feel better, when I lived in Dar es Salaam (Tanzania) I managed to poison approx. 35 people, not just once, but twice! She said; ‘how awful, at least mine was family!’ – which was not really the sentiment of solidarity that I was hoping for.

It’s a long story, but writing it five years later is something of cathartic process for me now. The agony and embarrassment I endured at the time, has slowly morphed into simply; ‘blushes in the night’.

When we arrived in Dar we were totally bereft of friends and leafing through the local ‘going out’ guide, we spotted the Hash House Harriers ‘drinking club with a running problem’; a group who met at various people’s houses every Monday night. The ‘HHH’ are a worldwide ‘expat’ phenomenon, but the concept was new to us. Not being remotely fit or interested in fitness, for me the idea of running in 100 percent humidity at the end of the day with a bunch of strangers, followed by ritualistic drinking, was the ultimate in killer nightmares. In fact, my husband shared my feelings to an extent, but after endless evenings of staring at one another, with no tv or other diverting social life, the prospect of 'joining the hash' got more and more tempting.

It was with trepidation that we ‘met the hash’ but everyone was friendly and ages ranged broadly from children to oaps, with Tanzanians and expats whose occupations varied from heads of international businesses to embassy staff. We all mucked in together. The six kilometre run was excruciating as we poured with sweat ‘following the trail’ of shredded paper and shouting ‘on, on!’ along roads, beaches and rough tracks. Grudgingly I will admit, the scenery was stunning at times and weaving through villages and shanty towns with Tanzanian kids running after shouting ‘Mzungu! Mzungu!’ (Swahili for foreigner/white man) was kind of uplifting.

When the sun went down, the mosquitoes came out in force and the drinking began. There were drinking games involving standing (rather humiliated) in the centre of a circle, being awarded ‘hash’ nick names, singing songs and drinking ‘down downs’ (ie. Shot gunning cans of Tusker lager). The ‘down downs’ were meted out as punishment for wearing new trainers, or delaying the run….. or poisoning the hash….

After drinking, supper was traditionally provided by the host. Usually it was a chilli con carne and rice, or a curry, or bangers and mash with anything up to fifty people eating off plastic plates. When we could not avoid hosting the Hash any longer (for we actually became Monday night regulars), I was put in charge of food whilst Mr W planned out the run, laid the trail and organised the printing of 50 t-shirts. ‘Paella!’ I thought… something different, what a brilliant idea! Rice, cooked chicken and prawns mixed up.

Well, to cut a long story short, the run was a roaring success and in fact, so was the dinner and everyone came back for seconds. Until that night, when we were gripped by stabbing stomach pains. After several midnight loo dashes we woke up on Tuesday morning feeling not too clever. ‘I wonder if it was the paella.’ I mused, or just an unfortunate bug. Then the phone calls came in. The British High Commission consular secretary was off work, the managing director of the largest import/export company at the time had called in sick, the head of Tanzania Development Corporation (who must have been in his late 50s) spotted my husband from across the office multi story car park and simulated a ‘doubled over in’ pain stagger.

Living in Dar es Salaam, on the humid African coast line, we were no stranger to the odd stomach upset, but this was one social faux pas that I found difficult to live down. I spent two weeks dashing in and out of shops hoping that I would not see a familiar face. I felt like taking the first plane out of there and never coming back. Instead, we endured the humiliation, further endless ‘down downs’ and the dubious reputation of hosting the most memorable Hash… ever.

The second time was just as bad. Two years after our last attempt at entertaining, we planned a big house warming party in our new ‘sea view’ residence that we were very proud of. I hired a cook to cater for us all and bought kilos of the biggest freshest prawns from the local fisherman (or to be more accurate fish dealer) who regularly came to our house. ‘What are you cooking this time?’ asked my Mum thousands of miles away over a crackly telephone line; ‘prawns again Mum, but it will be fine, we’re hiring a cook!’

I’ve since learned that prawns are bottom feeders and those fished out of the polluted Dar es Salaam natural harbour mouth are pretty toxic as they feed on the capital city’s effluent filled estuary. They can be delicious, but must be thoroughly de-veined and washed before cooking.

To cut a long story short, only non seafood eaters were spared that night. Many were admitted to hospital the following day. Our friendly ex-pat GP who was out racing his catamaran on Sunday, was called into the surgery due to the terrible outbreak of food poisoning. Mr W said he was dying. I said, ‘shut up, you can’t be that bad – just drink some more re-hydration salts’. On Sunday evening our gardener who lived on our plot collapsed at our front door looking near to death. We rushed him to the local hospital bewildered as to what was wrong. It was discovered the following day that he was also suffering from severe food poisoning having eaten some left over prawn kebabs. I don’t think he was the only one put on a drip that night.

The fact that I insisted on hospital for the gardener and would not even call the doctor for my husband, has been a bit of a bone of contention in our marriage and often alluded back to. Also, I now shy away from entertaining and keep a ‘head in the sand’ mentality whereby it’s fun to go to parties, but not at all fun to host them.

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