A jigger, also known as a sand-flea or chigoe flea, is a parasitic insect found in the tropics. It loves to hang out in sandy areas like deserts and beaches as well as dusty areas in farms and stables. It originated in South America but is now found in sub-Saharan Africa too.
The pregnant female looks for a warm-blooded host, like a dog, a rat, a sheep, a cow,… or a human. It chooses an entry point – usually under the toe or fingernail – and burrows into the skin. Warm and comfortable, she feeds on her host’s blood. After some days, she releases her sac of eggs. Jiggers can only be removed by cutting them out of the skin (with a scalpel, or if found early enough, a needle). If they are not removed soon enough, they can lead to Tungiasis (infestation and inflammatory skin disease caused by infection by the jigger). If left too long, gangrene can occur and amputation may be necessary.
Lucky for me, it didn’t get that far. I had been walking barefoot in Lamu, that sandy beach paradise and ancient Swahili town. One day, I started to feel a strange, unfamiliar pain on my left big toe. My neighbour, Alexandra, laughed and said “Bet you it’s jiggers. Now you can really call yourself a true African child.”
I was horrified when I read up about jiggers and saw those photos of what can happen. “You’ve got to wait a week or two until the white eggs are released,” said Alexandra. “Only then will you be able to see it and squeeze it out. Easy!”
After 3 days, I could see some black under my skin, and the paranoid me decided to get on with it. So I attacked it with a sterilized needle, picking out whatever I could, including a gooey brown-black thing and some blood. 2 days later, there was still more black so I went at it again with the needle for around an hour, until I hit gold – little white eggs! I squeezed them out. Gruesome. Once I cleaned up the area, I could see a little crater in my skin.
A few days later, I was still uncomfortable and so went to a doctor, and the whole clinic had no idea what to do. It’s not a common problem in the big city. Lucky for me, my childhood friend and her husband are both doctors who have worked at the coast, and I happened to visit her the next day. Janan insisted I come back and allow them to remove it surgically. There was something black that was increasing each day, and after chickening out and chickening out I finally agreed.
Surgery at home
That fine Tuesday, I bought a surgical blade from the pharmacy near their house. They sat me down on the stairs, sterilized my toe and got right to it. With no anaesthetic, of course. I gripped Janan’s shoulder while Omar got busy with the blade. “Whatever you do, don’t move,” he said.
I could literally feel the blade cutting through my flesh, slow but sure. “Ow!” I cried out.
I stared at Janan’s slippers with patterns of leaves and tried to imagine myself in a forest. Didn’t work. It was too painful. Good thing I’ve been trained in Vipassana meditation – nothing to do but observe it, I decided. I put all my awareness on the toe (without looking, of course!), and felt every sensation of the blade moving through my skin. It was the weirdest thing. I felt the pain; I gripped Janan’s shoulder tighter; I clenched my face muscles.
After a bit I could feel nausea rising. “I think I’m going to puke,” I said.
“Almost there,” Omar reassured me.
The muscles of my hands were frozen into a gnarled position. I couldn’t move them. This has only happened once before, during an intense rebirthing breakwork session.
“And we’re done!”
“Thankyou,” I breathed, in gratitude.
I sat back and blinked as the room came back into focus. My t-shirt was drenched in sweat.
I’m so lucky, honestly. It could have gotten so much worse. If Alexandra hadn’t told me what it was and since the doctors at the clinic didn’t know, it could have spread a lot more before we realised. And blessings on dear Janan and Omar who insisted on surgically removing it for me. As they fussed about the room preparing their tools for my minor surgery, I honestly felt so loved and cared for that I nearly cried.
I was thinking today about all this time I’ve spent meditating during the lockdown due to coronavirus. In this process, I have been observing my own imperfections and impurities, Vipassana-style, and working on eradicating them. First I identify an issue in my self, then I take conscious steps to eradicate it. Sometimes it’s damn painful.
It’s a bit like taking jiggers out of your foot. It really is a surgical process, as the teacher Goenka ji often says. When one goes for a Vipassana meditation retreat, the shit that emerges from deep within you can be so shocking, and it is such a painful process to realise and then release it.
Just like the jiggers, the longer these defilements stay, the more they spread and manifest in different areas of your life. And the more painful and deep the operation will have to be to remove them.
Am I over-thinking things what with all the isolation? I swear it makes sense in my head..
Advice if you get jiggers
Get them out as soon as you realise you have them. Don’t wait. Ask someone with experience to remove them for you, and ensure they are cut out completely (a needle won’t suffice unless it’s right at the beginning). Make sure all equipment used is sterile, as you don’t want to catch something else as you remove this one. After that, keep cleaning and sterilizing your wound until it heals.
for the gruesome story. Just thought I’d share 🙂