*Donna Kapira is a final year student at College of Medicine, a constituent college of the University Malawi. She is studying for an honors degree in Medical Laboratory Sciences. She was born at St. Johns Hospital in the city of Mzuzu in Malawi on 16 October 1996.She has been an avid reader of any captivating story ever since she learnt how to read. She loves science but also believes there is a writing streak in her. When she is not studying, she loves to read and write or listen to good music. She also loves meeting and making new friends
The Darknes Still Hovers
I wake up to the sound of rain falling outside. Opening my drowsy eyes in slits, I throw a glance at my roommate’s side. She is fast asleep, mouth wide open, saliva running down from the left corner of her mouth. There is a wet spot on the pillow. I grin mischievously. I could take a picture of her in this state. She always sleeps like this but denies it when I tell her.
The time on my phone reads 6:33am. I cannot shower now, though that would give me more time to get ready. Some showers are probably not running at this time of the day; everyone is taking a bath. The pressure problems. Our shower runs when it wills. And most times, it’s during times of the day when you do not even need a bath at all. I cannot go to the laundry now because, with this heavy rain, the entrance is blocked with rain water. “I will sleep for a few more minutes.”
When I wake up again, it is 8:11am. No. I disentangle from my blankets. The rain has stopped. I notice a copy of Our People magazine I read the previous night, just before I went to bed. The heaviness in my chest returns. Turning to page 37, I take another look at images the better part of me is reluctant to look at again but a tiny part of me is dying to see them again— maybe to prove that they are real or whatever. But here I am, looking at things I vowed never to set my eyes on again.
Reluctantly I raise my hand to my chest. I pause, my hand hovering over my left breast. I move my hand slowly and carefully over all of it. This never gets old at all. There it is. I cup it in my hands, squeezing it. It is as if it grows every day or maybe not. I do not know. Sometimes I think of it as a small ball or stone. Sometimes it is this small ugly creature with claws digging into my flesh. Or it has this tiny, long mouth and it sucks, feeds on the milk that, by the time my babies are born, all the reserves will have been depleted. Maybe it’s not even a creature at all since, if it were digging into my flesh, I would be feeling it every time.
I lie in bed many nights imagining its appearance, but I am scared to death every time I look at a picture. It kills me every time that I can’t figure out how it looks. “Go to the hospital and put your fears to rest,” the little voice whispers. No. That is more frightening. I cannot do that.
Then there are those moments its existence is as real as the b in subtle; when I am so immersed in other things that I forget anything about it. It comes back, more real than before; anytime my hand accidentally brushes against it or on days like today.
“Be optimistic Tionge,” the good voice whispers smoothly. It is soothing, as always. I take a deep breath, pretending for once that things are as normal as they had been before its arrival. I cannot remember how it felt. It is now an integral part, much as my hair is. I need to stop thinking about this. Every time I think of it, it triples in size. The fear paralyses me every time. The prospect of being in the hospital while doctors and nurses put injections into my breast is not welcome at all. There are the tears and I bite my lips to stop them but I cannot stop the darkness looming over my heart. It has two hands which are now gripping my heart and squeezing all my crucial vessels so tightly that I am breathing in short, struggling gulps. I have heard this is common to all cancer patients. Fear. Yes, I am afraid. But then I might not even be a cancer patient; this could be benign. The darkness in my heart is interrupted by this ray of hope. Not all swellings are neoplasms. I hope this is one of them. I cannot remember the exact day I first felt it but it has been my tenant for the past four years, interrupting my good night’s sleep on many nights. If I had a herd of cattle or maize mills, I would be busy writing my will. This might be my last day, month or year on earth. How many women die of breast cancer anyway?
I take the magazine and head to the bathroom. Tearing it into two, then four, then tiny pieces, I throw it into the bin in our bathroom. Let it rot in there.
I look into the mirror as I begin to braid my hair into twists for a perfect style later on after the bath. The girl that stares back at me is a broken 21-year-old. I am a breathing mess.
I got the magazine to read a short story Nathan wanted me to read. After I finished reading it, I began perusing through the rest of the pages. That is how I found myself on the page where survivors of cancer testify. The information contained on the page echoes that of a lecture our pathology teacher delivered when he introduced us to cancers. The woman encouraged fellow women to rush to the hospital after noticing lumps in their breasts; a message I’d first heard in that pathology class.
“I have pictures of some breast cancer patients. Let me show you.” He advances to the next slide in the PowerPoint presentation. There they are. Women! They are really Malawian; I can see their skin colour. One has her breast cut and, in the case of another, both are cut. This could be me one day. I try to swallow the heaviness away from my throat, yet, like a big sweet potato chunk, it refuses to go; choking me. I dig my fingers hard into the desk I am sitting on until my nails crack. Hot tears prick the back of my eyes. And I feel my legs go numb. “Think about something positive Tionge,” the nice voice tells me. I try to picture the day my family will finally move out of the house we are renting. Leaving the sour-mouthed landlord to a better neighborhood where Amama can have her peace back. The happiness this distraction brings is short-lived as the lecturer’s voice brings me to the present.
“You see, most of these women were mature enough at the time they noticed the lumps, but they chose to shy away from the hospital.” He rubs his potbelly absently.
I know why they never showed up. It’s fear. It is good sometimes, to be ignorant of medical knowledge other than to swell your head with worry. I believe a good number of people have been lost because fear paralysed them to death and not due to the condition they were diagnosed with. “But you have nothing to lose if you know the result,” another one of those voices whispers. I close my eyes to distract myself from looking at the images in Mr. Vunga’s presentations. Some of the girls in my class are gasping, hands over their mouths. I know it’s something worse so I busy myself with my phone.
“You only have to see a doctor; it is a very simple procedure that will save your whole life and remember, girls - the regular examination. For the men, please tell, remind, your girlfriends, your crushes.” There is an eruption of laughter. “Or any female person you know,” he adds, moving around.
I know something about the procedure but I do not know the specifics. My best friend, an MBBS student, had told me about the procedure last semester. I’d had the lump for a month by then.
This brooding won’t get me anywhere. There are brighter things to think of. There is Nathan. Such a breath of fresh air as always.
There is a long line of people waiting to buy food from the cafeteria and I am so hungry that I can feel my intestines cry for mercy. Rute is standing in the queue but she is facing me. I am standing cross-legged because I do not want anyone to notice that one of the shoes I am wearing is torn and some toes of my foot are showing through the hole. I am hoping Adada will send me some money this week; otherwise, I might have to miss classes because I cannot keep on like this. My father would laugh in my face at that lame excuse. He would repeat all that speech about how they used to go to school wearing shorts ripped on both buttock cheeks, barefoot and, worse still, on an empty stomach. “Things change old man!”
Rute has been a great shoulder to lean on. I have been living on her money for these past two weeks. I told her I am going to return it but deep down I know she would never accept such. Most days, I wonder how I landed myself such a good friend.
“I don’t really know why these people teach us all these difficult topics, it’s as if they are trying to get rid of us,” Rute comments. “Do you really think all that quantum physics will be of help in my medical career?” she asks, clearly annoyed.
“Maybe,” I answer, shrugging my shoulders. It was a tough morning, but I am never saying it aloud.
“There are people in the final year, the alumni; that means it’s possible to make it,” I try to encourage her.
At that moment, Nathan, the president of the students’ union, comes up behind Rute in the queue with a friend. Suddenly I am aware of my short, dirty and unpainted nails. Playfully, I fist both hands behind my back. We have been exchanging looks in the corridor a number of times since the time I saw him at our orientation program. Sometimes he smiles at me shyly, or is it just my fanciful imaginations?
He says quick hellos to us and resumes his conversation with his friend. Rute and I have forgotten what we were talking about before he arrived.
I grin like a fool. It’s love, and what it does to you.
There is that pimple again. I wonder where it had been all this time and why it is popping up now instead of all these times. And, today, because I am going on a date? Can I just crack it? I contemplate. But it does not look ripe, and cracking it might just create another wound. The last thing I want is some yellow spot on my face. So I will leave it be.
I try to open the shower. It could be working and that will save me the trip downstairs. It comes out full force. “Yes! Yes!” I scream in triumph, stripping off my nightdress as I walk into the tiny shower compartment. Taweni, my roommate, tells me to lower my voice. Embarrassed, I shout my apology. It’s just that things like the shower are things I did not know as I grew up. Sometimes I forget myself.
Cautiously, I place my left leg under the shower and the water is really hot. The good type of hot. I immerse myself in the healing, warm water. I have forgotten about everything and the only thing that exists right now is me and the hot streams of water. I finish and I towel myself dry, from my legs up. As I circle the towel over my left breast, I feel the mass and my dark mood returns. I wonder bitterly whether this will ever end. This feeling has not gone since that class on cancers. My life had been perfect before that.
I am looking down at my laptop trying to re-watch All for Love, my favourite Hallmark movie but all I see in my mind are cancerous breasts, mammaless dark chests. I try to stop but I cannot wipe the images from my brain. They are permanently etched at the back of my mind like an imprint. I look down at my breasts and imagine myself without one or both. The mental image is not clear in my mind because I do not want to capture all of it, wanting this happiness longer, but the blurry one I get still frightens me. There is no better option. What would people think of me if I am to have my breast removed? Who would still find me attractive? “Stay positive,” comes the smooth reminder from the good voice.
“Mesho, are you alright?” Mara, my roommate, asks, interrupting my train of thoughts.
I nod. Am I that obvious? Most probably. I feel like the life has been stolen from under my feet. I am usually buoyant and talking non-stop but, soon after that class, all the stories, jokes and laughter seem to have gone out of my mouth. My fate hangs in a certain ball of cells swimming happily in my mamma. Whether it opts to be benign or malignant will determine the re-appearance of my life.
“This could be benign and not dangerous at all,” the good voice says. That is right. What if it’s benign and here I am, wasting my precious hours over a mass that is not planning any battle, just basking in the warmth of my flesh. I do not feel any pain. I have not had any unusual discharges from it. It is just a lump that will do me no harm. I cling to that possibility. “Cheer up Tionge,” Yes. I smile to myself.
“Let us go get lunch mesho,” I tell Mara, closing the lid of my laptop. The positive energy is back.
My mesho narrows her eyes down at me. She must be trying to gauge the source of the abrupt change in my mood but, being the wise person she is, says nothing. She is so wise that, sometimes, I could use her head and return it. She knows when to speak and when not to. Me, I just speak anytime I want to. Mara is well mannered and people in our class usually wonder why she is still single. “Don’t decent men want women who are that well behaved?” I wonder this as well.
“It is well. It is well,” I repeat to myself the favorite words of our pastor, Abusa, as we fondly address him. I had told him about it a week after that scare in the pathology class. He called me to the front, told me to kneel and began to speak in other tongues as he moved around me. The perspiration from his sweaty skin fell on me but I did not mind. I wanted the mass gone, at any cost.
He had cried as he spoke in tongues. I began crying also as I thought of how agonised my life would turn if this lump were malignant. The tears went straight into my mouth and I cried louder, my hands lifted up. Everyone must have thought I was hit by the anointing of the holy ghost because the women stood still, their hands covering either their lips or heads while men whistled in victory.
He instructed usherettes to take me out and check on me, but the lump was still there.
They went and reported to Abusa and he just smiled, patted my back and said: “Go, Jesus has healed you!”
During the few weeks that followed, I felt peace as I believed in my pastor’s prayer, but all the peace vanished into the dark on the day I revisited my notes as I prepared for that semester’s pathology exam. All the images that had silently been put to sleep after his prayers came back; worse than before. They were so real that some nights they gave me nightmares after which I would wake up feeling like I had just undergone mastectomy. Then, when months passed and nothing happened to it, I stopped going to church. It is recently, thanks to Amama, that I am now back to church. We had been talking about my sister’s wedding. Amama complained bitterly of how she had been telling my sister to start attending church, but Selina did not listen. On her wedding day, there was only our family, her husband’s family and a handful of their friends.
“You find friends in church, not in books,” Amama told me.
I do not want 40 people at my wedding. I want anyone who is anyone to attend the occasion of my wedding. I am now back to church and I have even joined the choir group. That means more friends, hence increased attendees at my wedding.
I finish applying the lotion to my body. My mesho is still asleep. Good. That will save me questions as to why I am so nicely dressed on a Saturday. I do not want her to know I have a boyfriend yet. Maybe I can tell her after a year. I need to see how this will go.
I rummage through my newly ironed clothes and I cannot see where I placed the dress I plan to wear. I search quickly among the hangers but it’s not there either. Frustration builds within me and I’m on the verge of tears. I take out all the clothes and throw them on the bed. There it is. I let out a long sigh of relief.
He bought me this pink dress and I am sure he would love it if I wore it today. I will fold the clothes back into the wardrobe later. I am not like my perfect mesho whose locker is neat and tidy at all times. I wonder what Nathan would think of that. There is a saying that no one is perfect. But I fear that my imperfections would be too many to tolerate. “Positivity Tionge!” There goes the feel-good voice. I smile and dash to the bathroom to apply my make-up, which is nothing serious. Just powder and lipstick. Most times, I find myself wishing Adada had a lot of money so I could afford all that expensive makeup. “That is why you are in school,” says one of those voices. Quickly I style my hair.
It is 8:45am and he said he would come at 9am. “It’s a surprise,” he told me yesterday. I feel giddy like I just got new Christmas clothes. Last night, I lay in bed thinking about all kinds of possibilities. What could it be? A photoshoot? Maybe he wants to give me cash, like one million kwacha. That would be the best surprise in years. I love money. Or maybe the surprise would be a dog as a gift. But he knows I hate dogs so he would not try it. Me and dogs were done the day our neighbour’s dog ate two pieces of beef I had left on my plate when I was in the toilet. When I got back, I found them all gone. Me and a dog can never sit down and have a nice friendly chat or else I might just cut its neck into two hemispheres. Well, since it is a surprise, I will keep an open mind and stop giving myself unnecessary headaches. Dating Nathan has been the biggest surprise of my life.
I shall never forget how this began…
“Hello, is this Tionge?” asks the person on the other end of the line.
“Yes, this is Tionge,” I answer in a shaky voice. Let this not be another death message. I got news of my brother’s death over the phone and that is the first thing the man had wanted to know. “Is this Tionge?” My heart drums heavily in my chest and the speaker hesitates for a few agonizing seconds and that is enough time for my bladder to release the fluid I have been holding.
“Yes, this is Tionge. I am listening,” I repeat trying to sound calmer, but it’s the last feeling my brain can contain right now.
He clears his throat. No.
“Well, this is Nathan, uhm. err. Hope you remember me. I was a fourth-year student when you were in Foundation,” he explains hesitantly.
Oh thank God. I breathe; releasing the breath I have been holding as he stuttered. After the relief passes, I grin. Nathan, my first college crush, has called me and he sounds nervous. Good.
I smile at the memory from two weeks ago and, every time I think about it, no other problem on the face of the earth seems real. His short but, oh, so romantic message on my birthday. “Tio, I know there is no other for me. Your passion for what you love inspires me. You have added light and meaning to my life. Happy birthday. I love you.” I try to stifle my grin, but it is unsuccessful.
Nathan, the man who walks like he owns the world, loves me. Me!
“You sounded so insecure when you called. For someone that has been the president for the students’ union of the prestigious College of Medicine, you are timid. How did you manage to lure the students to vote for you?” I tease as he hands me a glass of water.
“Those are two different territories Tio,” he says solemnly, sitting down.
Taking my pink hustle bag, I dash out of our room. I am in a good mood today and I say hellos to everyone on my way to the library. Sitting on the stairs by the front of our library, I watch as people come in and out of the library carrying huge books and laptops. I wonder how people manage to study on Saturdays. For me, Saturdays are supposed to be spent in bed watching movies. Books are during the week.
One of my classmates, Godfrey, approaches me and he is about to say something when I notice Nathan standing close to the gate. He is wearing a black casual golf-shirt and black jean trousers, coupled with his smile of course. I raise my hand to Godfrey and swiftly move towards the source of my permanent grins.
“Hey, you look beautiful in that dress, I have beautiful taste.” His infectious grin threatens to split his handsome face into two.
He is capable of making me blush till the colour of my dark face turns red.
“Thank you. You look also great in that casual attire too,” I give him a brief, Christian-like hug.
“I thought we were going on a formal date or something. You should have told me it was casual,” I hit his broad shoulder-blade as we exit the gate. He laughs.
People are giving us strange looks as if we are the only couple they have seen in their entire lifetime. People fall in love all the time. Nathan takes my hand and he smiles down at me, oblivious to the fans we have.
“So what is this surprise you have for me?” I ask, trying to start a conversation for once in this relationship.
“It’s not going to be surprising if I tell you. Be patient babe,” he winks at me.
I nod in resignation. No more pestering. Patience, however, has never been my middle name. But I seem to be needing its company a lot since I met Nathan.
We walk hand-in-hand along the Mahatma Ghandi Road. Now I’m really curious but he distracts me with questions about what I intend to do soon after I graduate. I tell him I will go into full-time business. He laughs and asks why I came to study Medical Laboratory Science when I could have gone straight into business. I laugh too and tell him it happens to most students. Then we begin talking about houses in Mandala. How sad it is that Indians or other foreigners are the ones who have built most of them. These they will rent to our people. He thinks most Malawians are afraid of taking risks.
Before I realize it, we are walking towards Bakayako Centre for Malawian Research located within Mandala, a few minutes away from our campus. I have been here before for attachments. Well, let us see what surprise I can get from a building concerned with viruses, bacteria and all that. I grin to myself.
He leads me to the reception room where a cheerful middle-aged woman greets us. I wait as Nathan tells her something I don’t get. Nathan then leads me into a long corridor which, I presume, leads to laboratories. He knocks on one of the doors along the corridor and we hear a resounding “Come in.” The accent does not sound Malawian. A mzungu? The surprise has something to do with a mzungu?
Nathan senses my unasked questions and squeezes my hand, smiling down at me reassuringly.
We walk into the room and, as I thought, a white man is sitting in a chair. He looks like he has been awaiting our arrival all of this morning. He stands as he extends his large hand in greeting. Nathan takes it.
“Hello, Nathan,” he says as they shake hands.
Okay so, obviously, they know each other. My heart is racing quicker than before and I am taking deep breaths to calm myself but it does nothing to ease the turmoil that is slowly building in my intestines.
“Hey George, this is Tionge,” he introduces me.
I manage a small, fake smile.
George holds out his hand and I take it. It feels warm in my cold one.
“Please sit,” he gestures to the blue plastic chairs in the room. I desperately need to sit down; otherwise, I might make a big fool of myself. Nathan sits too and he’s grinning. What is it about the laboratory and this white man that he feels will make me feel on top of the world?
“Did you already explain it to her?” The white man asks Nathan.
“No, I wanted it to be a surprise. She loves money,” he says, almost jumping from his chair. He is so excited.
Okay, maybe if he is that excited then it’s nothing to crack my head over. “Money?” I ask, looking between the two of them.
“Do not get too excited Tio but, yes, money!” My God; his grin!
“Nathan, you were supposed to explain to her. These are complicated things. And the money is just a way of saying ‘thank you’.” George shifts in his chair uncomfortably. Danger detected.
“Okay, just tell me already, I am not a patient being,” I try to joke but it does nothing to calm my nerves. This is not good.
“There is a study that requires us to work with HIV negative people. Of course, we will have to test them as a confirmation. There is an amount of money you will get for participating; 40,000 kwacha. But you have to make the decision,” he explains quickly.
Things are heading south sooner than I had envisioned.
I swallow the lump in my throat and I feel a stab of hot tears.
I try to take deep, short breaths but fail miserably. The air trapped in my lungs is begging for instant release. I look at the white man and he nods his head, getting the silent message.
He clears his throat. “I will be outside,” he rushes out of the room, not waiting for a response.
I fist my hands on my lap and cannot describe what I am feeling. Panic? Fear that my secret is finally out? How did I ever think this will have to go unresolved?
I remember I’m in this room with Nathan and I raise my glance up to his face. I fail to decipher his emotions.
“Tio, what is wrong? Why are you worried?” There is compassion in his eyes.
I just look down at my fisted hands on my lap. I have run out of words.
He stands from his chair, pushes it backwards and the chair makes a noise against the concrete. He squats in front of me so am looking down at him. “Tell him already,” the voice wills me. But I have no strength to.
“Is this about that incident that happened during your rotations? Tio, you took the post- exposure prophylaxis; it is very effective,” he assures me
My fears go beyond that incident. Okay, it’s now or never at all.
“I have a past Nathan,” I tell him almost as a whisper.
“You told me you never had a boyfriend, that I was your first. So what kind of past has you so worried?”
That is true. He is my first official boyfriend. I had given up on the hope of getting one until I met him.
“Tionge, talk to me please; what is it?” His fear is evident in his eyes. Okay!
So long suppressed, those images come back...
I am rushing towards home. The sun is long gone and now darkness hovers over our village. There are tiny lights from paraffin lamps in all the houses. I run home, my heart in my mouth. I wonder where those men that cut little girls’ heads are hiding in this dark night. Maybe in the dilapidated building close to our house? I begin singing loudly in a trembling voice as I rush past it.
Large hands grab me from the back and I am lifted into the arms of a man that smells like our toilet. No. I am one of those unlucky children. I almost start screaming but I look at the face of my captor and I recognise him. AMayuni! I let the relief wash over my tense body and I ask him to put me down. He laughs.
“You’re my wife; tonight we are getting married,” he smiles down at me. I have to look away; the stench from his mouth is unbearable. He carries me into the unfinished building and my heart begins racing again. This time it is not due to fear. Excitement maybe? It is dark in the building. Dropping me on my feet, he cups my face. He is smiling.
You are now Mrs.Mayuni, he growls, licking his lips.
I look up at him and wait for his next move. My heart beats loudly in my ears.
He moves his hand over my chest, over my tiny breasts. I do not want him to stop. I have heard the big girls talk about this many times. Usually in loud whispers. I want it.
Touch me too, he pleads hoarsely.
I exhale the air that has been begging me for release. This time, tears fall, mingle with the mamphina from my nose and make their way down into my open mouth.
I cannot deal with the compassion in Nathan’s eyes. I should have been forthcoming when he first approached me. We would have avoided all this heartache.
“And is that why you think you have AIDS? Tio, you have learnt about AIDS. Sexual activities are not a guarantee that one is infected,” his voice is choked. He pulls his chair back, throwing himself in it. If the chair had nails, he wouldn’t have noticed it; he seems taken back. Gently, he takes my hands and encapsulates them in his warm ones. A good man this one is.
“No, there is more,” I whisper freeing my hands from his. I might need a long bed rest after this conversation.
Those images again…
We are sitting in the living room watching television. I am sitting close to my parents. Adada bought petrol, which we put in our generator. There are children from neighbouring houses. They do not have TVs at their homes, so Adada makes them pay.
“Did you find out what caused his death?” Amama asks as she swirls Derere round and round the piece of nsima.
I know who she is talking about. AMayuni. He’d collapsed in his room last week Friday. We had had one of our secret meetings the night before. I did not know that was the last time I would be seeing him. I felt relieved when he died because I had begun to feel like a piece of dirt. His wife was sad, but I was relieved.
“It was AIDS; that is what the doctors said,” Adada responds, chewing noisily.
I choke on the nsima in my mouth and spit onto my plate.
Amama slaps me hard. “Go clean that plate right now.”
The other kids laugh and I resist the temptation to cry in front of them. I can already feel the hot tears at the back of my eyes. But maybe they are not due to the pain of my mother’s slap.
“I am going to bed,” I think to myself as I drop the plate into the big, blue basin with the other dirty plates.
I climb into bed and pull the blanket over my head and finally give in to the tears.
Nathan seems lost for words. He opens his mouth, closes it. Opens it, closes it again.
“Anything you might want to say, I want to hear it,” I will him silently.
“Why didn’t you tell your parents? They would have taken you to the hospital.” His voice is an agonized whisper.
“I didn’t want people talking about it. Nathan, I had kept the whole affair secret for three years and how would you have felt if it were your daughter? I lied to them and I had seen how such stories were handled back then, I didn’t want the ridicule.” There, I said it. It is people’s opinions that made me afraid the most. Even my parents’ opinion.
“But you are still lying to them till this day; they still don’t know,” he challenges me.
That is true. I have not thought of this in that way. I have been a good girl and made it to the most prestigious college in this country.
He is right. As long as they still don’t know, I am lying to them.
But now, after this day in hell, I just want to lose myself in my blankets. What a romantic surprise!
“Nathan I just need to go now,” I rise and walk out of the room. I am grateful that it is quiet, with no one else in the corridors.
I do not turn to look at Nathan or his reaction.
I am a walking mess. I dash past the receptionist who enthusiastically waves at me, but I have no time for enthusiasm right now.
Nathan does not follow me and I don’t blame him. I need to sort myself out first, then maybe I can face him again.
As I walk back to school, the trees and the shrubs seem to be laughing at me with their invisible mouths wide open. For my childhood sins. “You are a whore! You had an affair with a married man when you were not even in your teens,” they seem to be saying. The heaviness in my throat reappears and I will my legs to carry me faster back to school, but each step takes extra effort.
Now I will be eclipsed even more by Thoko’s saintly living. Thoko, the second-born, is the holy one in the family. I am the prostitute and she is about to become Amayi Busa (pastor’s wife). “Look at your sister and how she loves the Lord, I pity you my daughter because hell is waiting for you,” Amama’s constant praises of my sister rattle my mind. I had made them proud by going to college, but I am sure all that will pale in the face of this shocking revelation I am about to make.
How do I even begin telling them? AMayuni was my first boyfriend. No, it doesn’t sound right. Maybe, AMayuni used to rape me when I was young but I did not know how to tell you because I was afraid. No that would be lying. That was definitely not rape. Bringing back to them memories of a man long forgotten.
“Tionge, I need to get some of your dresses for the daughter of the man that will be helping us in the tobacco farm.” Amama is going towards the room I share with Selina and Thoko, my two big sisters.
I know this man. AMayuni. He arrived a week ago and cried in front of my parents, asking for any type of job as long as he could feed his family. I still see him approaching, carrying a small sack bag as he limps towards our house, wife and children in tow. His wife seemed tired and sweat soiled the white, worn blouse she wore. She quickly sat down, spreading her two legs before my parents could tell them to sit. She did not wear any shoes, just like her husband and her kids.
Later that night I heard Amama argue with Adada about whether they should take him or not. Adada said we do not have money to hire a help. “We still have debts from last year. The tobacco prices are still bad. How do we pay him?” he’d wanted to know.
“He doesn’t need money, only food for his family and we can do that AMoyo,” Amama had pleaded.
His wife is expecting another child. Why won’t he just stop having more children? Are five not enough? Now they have moved into the small storeroom adjoining our kitchen. I wonder what their sleeping arrangement is like. His little children have limbs sticking out of their flesh. They delve into the nsima Amama gives them as though they are soldiers on duty.
I run after Amama into our room. I have some torn clothes that I no longer want and I can gladly give them to her. The dirty skirt that I sleep in and wear when cleaning pots, the faded pink dress Agogo bought me when I turned eight. I don’t need them. She can have them.
Amama throws all my clothes on the mat and begins picking out the best clothes. She takes out the white China dress with its matching hat, the blue skirt that I got last Christmas, my green Sunday school blouse. She is taking out the best so she can take the rest to the girl. But, as I am about to find out, it’s the exact opposite of what I am thinking. She leaves the room with my best clothes; three dresses, one skirt and one blouse.
“Amama, where are you going with those? I wear those to church!” I cry as I follow her out of the house.
She slaps me hard on the cheeks and tells me to go back into the house as she proceeds to Mr. Mayuni’s room.
Back at school, the only thing I want to do is sleep and never wake up. With a brief hello to my roommate, who is taking breakfast, I get into bed. I close my eyes, pretending to be asleep.
I wake up again around 4pm and my roommate tells me she bought me lunch. I look at the container of food but I don’t have an appetite for anything. My whole body feels heavy and I cannot drag myself out of bed. I murmur my words of gratitude. I turn so I am lying on my chest, face on the pillow. I close my eyes. I want out of the real world, for a while at least. Taweni is surprised by my behaviour but, right now, I don’t really care.
He is pinning me to the ground, his lips to my ear. I try to push him away with my hand but his leg is holding me down. I stare up at him helplessly.
“You are my wife; tonight you become mine,” AMayuni rips my dress.
His hand runs up my chest.
“What happened?” He stares at me, wide-eyed. He is shocked.
I had a mastectomy. Then it’s Nathan on top of me.
“Why didn’t you tell me about this Tionge?” I hear concern and pain in his voice.
I wake breathing hard, looking at the surroundings. Oh, hallelujah… It was only a dream. My breathing slowly returns to normal. Dazzling light fills my eyes. For a moment, I think it is Sunday but the time on my phone is 11pm, Saturday. Taweni is fast asleep. I close my eyes again. My head is heavy. AMayuni’s name comes into my mind. The knife in my belly twists, slicing my intestines. How long does this last?
I rise, walk to the window and stare outside. It’s strangely quiet outside, as if creation is mourning with me, acknowledging my mood.
“The confidence, the good grades are just a cover-up. What is the point in being educated and well-off when you are not pure? No one wants used goods,” I hear another one of those voices again; this time, not as a whisper but loud words that linger in my ears.
Maybe a bath will do. I walk as quietly as I can to the bathroom. I just want to feel the hot shower down my body. I turn on the shower and get in. The water is very warm. As the water trickles down my stressed body, a memory from when I ‘d been eleven pops into my mind. Amama found one of the many letters I wrote to my first primary school crush.
Amama is angry. Very angry with me. I am afraid. I can see the fire in her small eyes, the grim lines on her face.
“Iwe ndiwe chihule (you are a prostitute!),” she spits out each word as she lashes me repeatedly across my thighs.
I sob quietly at first, then increase the sound as the pain becomes unbearable. She tells me to shut up, whipping me once more on the same spot. I place my hands over my mouth to keep from crying out loud.
She asks me if I will do it again and I hold my hands in surrender as I tell her amidst sobs that I won’t do it again. She leaves our room satisfied.
I put my face directly under the showerhead, letting the hot water wash off the fresh tears. It cascades over my body, washing away everything but the heaviness of my heart. Now I wonder what her reaction will be. What the reaction of the rest of my family will be.
I feel exposed. Like taking a bath in an open place. I have been living in comfort until today. At the back of my mind, I had always known this was on its way. I just hoped it would happen later on in life. I hoped for longer.
I leave the bathroom, toweling myself dry. After I finish, I slip back into my blanket.
I have played the possible scenes over and over again in my mind. These were all way after college. My husband or child requires a donation and all those donor tests are required and then boom! Or we go for HIV testing before marriage and then it turns out I have HIV. But in my fourth year in college? This came much earlier than I expected. Too early.
For a moment, I help my troubled mind to a vision where I tell my mother all this and she takes me into her arms and says, “Oh Tionge, that must have been painful for you. You should have told us. We love you.” But I know that is too fanciful. I have watched too many movies.
Can I keep this pretence up? It would be so much easier. “But you are still lying to them till this day; they still don’t know.” Nathan’s words from earlier today ring in my head. That was the most uncoated truth I have heard in my life. Right in my face.
My phone rings. It’s my mother.
What if Nathan called to let them know I am in danger. He doesn’t have their number. Maybe he got it somewhere. Numbers can be found anywhere these days. My index finger hovers over the answer option. “Just pick up.”
I answer and manage to keep the anxiety out of the way. We say our greetings. She tells me she was hesitant to call. She thought I wouldn’t answer because it’s so late at night. She called because Yanga discount is highest at this time.
I just want her to stop talking and get to the point. The uncertainty is slicing me in two. I don’t respond to her pleasantries. I hold on, waiting for her to tell me why she has called.
She tells me they are sorry they haven’t sent any money but will do so tomorrow morning. Adada just managed to sell some of the maize we harvested from our farm last season. My body sags with relief. I have had enough already. I quickly say goodbye to Amama and switch off my phone.
She sounded cheerful, as always. It is unforgivable to lie to her. To my family.
Maybe I have been worrying over nothing all these years and I don’t have the virus in my blood? You had an affair with him for three years and the man died of AIDS; do you really think you are safe?
There is only one way to know now. Go for a test. Do the same for the lump. Let a doctor examine it and rest your fears. And let your parents know.
Can I tell them over the holiday? No, that would be having too much faith in them.
Maybe I could explain it all in a text, send it to both parents, then switch my phone off for several days to let them process it. It could work. It does work every time I ask for ridiculous amounts of money.
Sleep eludes me as the angst that has been gnawing at my heart since morning still looms over my heart. The uncertain tomorrow that awaits me in the face of all this. “Have a little faith.” I sigh as I stare at the ceiling.