Incomincia la quarta, nella quale, sotto il reggimento di Filostrato, si ragiona di coloro li cui amori ebbero infelice fine.
Maria’s love was her job. It was a love she felt her entire adult life, something she dedicated her entire self to. A love that, ultimately, led to her death. I suppose it’s a story that fits the canons set by Filostrato: even if it doesn’t strictly adhere to the he-loves-her, she-loves-him formula I’m sure that Boccaccio, that old romantic, would let me add it. Because, at the end of the day, it’s a story worth telling.
I’ve never met Maria. But I met her mother, Gabriella; and I’ll be honest, I behaved pretty much like an arse every time we did. In my defence I can only say that I was 12, press-ganged into attending her catechism lessons on Tuesday afternoons. You’ll excuse me for behaving like a dick.
Gabriella was her name but everyone in town used her surname, Bonino, and not only that; owing to a particularly annoying local custom, we added a determinative article before it, so that she was La Bonino. She was the ideal type of that kind of Catholicism that is so common in North-western Italy: scouts, guitars at Mass, church camps in the mountains, kids sent to the local denominational schools. I grew up immersed in it and you’ll pardon me for developing a deep distaste for it; even now, 20 years later, you won’t find me trusting a scout, anybody wearing a cardigan in the summer or those living in a house with hortensia growing in the garden (bone-headedness is also a characteristic of my lands).
I digress. Gabriella – la Bonino – was a retired teacher, Greek and Latin, at the local posh high school (which I did not attend). She had a mass of wavy silver hair coiffeured in a utilitarian way, bifocal lenses and a well-intoned voice tuned hoarse by years spent teaching the vocative case to generations of students. She was courteous but also straight as a die, one of those old Piedmontese that are now rarer than pandas.
Gabriella had one son and a daughter, Maria. As I said, I never met her but it’s as if I did, for her photos suggested that she shared more than half her genome with her mother: the same lineaments, the same rimless glasses, the same no-frills attitude towards attires or hairstyles. Maria, however, wasn’t as big on cardigans: perhaps because she was a doctor and because she worked in Africa.
I remember la Bonino dropping that fact during our lessons, often as a prelude to a bollocking. The notion surely impressed us: those were the years of the Rwandan genocide, war in Zaire and the first appearances of Ebola. To our uneducated eyes it seemed that the entire continent was boiling into a cauldron of chaos; catechism was a pain in the neck, we all agreed, but la Bonino was cool because of her gutsy daughter.
Maria, I was later to know, always worked in Africa. Hers wasn’t a day job, it was a calling, a passion. She lived and breathed it. Freshly minted from med school she headed the paediatric ward of Ikonda, Tanzania. There, she wrote, “I’ve been able to experience the purpose of my job. The thought of returning to Italy doesn’t appeal to me in the slightest. What I’d love to do is to stay here… despite the inevitable difficulties, I feel that here my days have a meaning”. I sometimes thought at how many, in the Tube cars that brought me to work, could say the same of their jobs. I definitely can’t.
And so she did, working in Burkina Faso, Tanzania, Uganda, Angola. When she wasn’t there she was head paediatrician in Aosta, possibly the one place in Italy where people are more obtuse and impenetrable than in our city of birth.
Fast forward to 2005. It’s spring, I’m fast approaching the exams that mark the end of high school. One evening I met my father for dinner and found him in a sombre mood not exactly in character with his usual, ebullient persona. La Bonino, whom he knew from the charity scene in which both volunteered, had just lost her daughter. Maria had died in Africa.
Marburg sounds like a shitty Eastern-Block car built somewhere in the DDR but its true colours are a lot more terrifying than a drab dashboard and wheezing engine. Carried by bats, Marburg is a virus related to Ebola. Its symptoms (high fevers, deep malaise, severe diarrhoea, lethargy, vomiting and bleeding from the nether regions) aren’t anything I would wish onto anyone and its lethality puts Covid-19 right back in its box: outbreaks of Marburg have killed between 22 and 88% of those infected. On average, one in two of those who get it will die from it.
Maria was in Uige, Angola, 350 km to the capital and even less to the DRC border. In late 2004 she began noticing a new haemorrhagic fever cutting down her young patients. Quickly she sounded the alarm, requesting the help of the Angolan authorities and of the World Health Organisation. No one came until February ’05, when samples were taken and brought to South Africa and the US for investigations. On March 22nd came the response: Ebola was discounted but Marburg was confirmed. It was too late: she’d been struck by the illness six days earlier and would die from it on the 24th, aged 52.
She was buried in Angola, we were told, because the Italian health authorities didn’t want to take the risk of the infection coming over here. Later it transpired that it’d been her request all along: Africa was the place she loved, where she loved working and it made sense for her to be staying there. It made sense, for me at least.
In the intervening years I sometimes saw Gabriella in town. She lived in a handsome building in a cobbled street behind the Rosminian convent, an area that my dog loved to inspect whenever we didn’t venture into the woods. Years had passed and I was only a face in the ocean of youngsters she’d taught. And I’ve always been too shy of telling her I was sorry for her loss.
Perhaps, if I ever did, she’d given me an earful. Restrained, polite, free of theatrics for she was and remained Piedmontese to the core and we don’t exaggerate, but a bollocking nonetheless. Marburg, she remarked more than once – even during a Papal visit to Angola to which she’d tagged along – was a city in Germany. The virus had been isolated there when it came riding on the back of some lab monkeys in the 1960s. Fifty years later, it was still killing people and Europe didn’t do much about it. “Because it’s an African virus, what does Europe care about it? There’s no need for a cure” she lamented to the Corriere della Sera.
Gabriella died a year ago, aged 91. Her daughter’s example lives on, in the foundation that carries her name. You can help here (Italian only).