By Dr Surafel K Gebreselassie
Part I : Bezabih’s Illness
The late Haddis Alemayehu was arguably Ethiopia’s best novelist. He is primarily known for his classic work, Fikir Eske Mekabir (later translated to English as Love Unto Crypt by Sisay Ayenew) which is widely read in Ethiopia. The characters in this classic work are house hold names. I took upon myself the challenge of analyzing the illnesses that the major characters had in Fikir Eske Mekabir in the hope to understand the diseases of the era in Ethiopian history covered in this master literary work. This is based on the original, Amharic version.
Bezabih is one of the lead characters in Haddis Alemayehu’s Fikir Eske Mekabir. Bezabih was the only child of Wudinesh Betamu and Bogale Mebratu. Bezabih’s illnesses during infancy and childhood defined the flow of the story. The story depicts a loner Bogale who had lost his parents when he was very young and lived most of his life poor who would marry in his later years a woman of rich back ground, Wudinesh who had her own tragedy after all three of her previous husbands died. It took a lot of convincing by priest Tamiru to bring these two lonely souls together hence begin the story that becomes Fikir Eske Mekabir.
Two years later they were blessed with a boy and named him Bezabih ( means too much), to describe the many illnesses the boy faced until he reached his 5th birth day. At the end of his 3 months, he had a childhood disease named “Ankelis”, at age 6 month he suffered from a respiratory ailment called “Kuwakuat” and then at the end of the year he had measles. He was weak and fragile. These diseases almost killed him.
What did Bezabih actually have?
The stories tell us that when he had “Ankelis” the symptoms started with high grade fevers followed by short fast breaths. He would shake and move his hands and legs with his eyes rolling from his father to the roof then to the kitchen as if trying to escape from death. His stunned father would scare away flies from his face and later would check his breath to see if he was still alive but his frightened mother would pray loud afraid that her only son was dying. His movements would slow down and he would go in to a deep sleep. After about two hours he would wake up, yawn and laugh as if nothing happened.
The above description of Bezabih’s initial illness “Ankelis” fits with the symptoms of a febrile seizure. The clue here is the onset of high grade fever followed by what appears like a convulsion. The deep sleep following the episode and the back to normal description clinches the diagnosis of febrile seizure.
Febrile seizures are convulsions induced by fever in infants and younger children. It often starts at 6 month of age, even earlier, and very unlikely to occur after age 5 years. A child would often have high fever, loses consciousness, and shakes, moving limbs on both sides.
The child can also have twitching or rigidity in one portion of the body. It is very frightening to parents but is often brief and harmless. Febrile seizures are very common; as much as one every 25 children would have it. It doesn’t cause long term damage or progress to epilepsy.
I was impressed by the detailed description of what appears like a febrile seizure. One would have to witness one to describe it in such detail. So I suspect sometime before the book was written Haddis Alemayehu might have witnessed an infant, perhaps as old as 3 months, suffer from febrile seizure. It is also safe to assume that if indeed he had witnessed one he might have been frightened but what was he thinking ?
What Haddis Alemayehu described in Bezabih’s Ankelis is possibly his own encounter of a child near death…a child that will outgrow two more diseases including measles to become Bezabih, the lead character.
On my next blog I will look at the cause of death of Bezabih’s parents.
(To learn more about febrile seizures please refer to febrile seizure fact sheet / National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.)
Dear Dr Surafel.
Thanks a lot for trying to bring out the medical aspect of the ‘Fiker Eske Mekabir’.
In your narration you used the word “Inkesis”. Though the description is right the disease name seems wrong. The correct one is “Ankelis =አንከሊስ “.
In the region where Addis Alemayehu grew up, this is a well known disease entity. Other famous childhood disease description in Bezabih’s area include: ‘Kuwakuat’, Wotete = ወተቴ’.
Thank you. I have made the corrections.
Thank you Surafel for bringing up such an interesting topic. It is amazing how Haddis Alemyehu gave a detailed and consistent account of his main protagonist’s sickness that you (Surafel) were able to make diagnosis almost 50 years after the book was published. Please enlighten us with similar posthumous diagnosis on historical figures.