Dark empty pools staring into space
Small pinched lips wince slightly in pain
Nostrils flare in an effort to draw air
She turns her head on a thin frail neck
Veins, a dense network visible
On the side of her head
I spot a tiny pulse at her hot, hollow temple.
Tiny chest heaves and sags,
Ribs stand out like antlers on a stag
Her swollen belly is rounded and hard
Her twig legs lie limp across my arm
She cries a little, a hollow forlorn sound
No tears fall save those from mine eyes
She turns her head towards my face
And fixes me with an expressionless gaze.
Look at me, she screams.
Look at me and do not wince!
Look at me and love me!
Don’t turn your face away in disgust
You have to look at me, you must!
I look upon her countenance
And cringe as fear seeps slowly through my bones
Tenacious twig fingers encircle one of mine
And I wish I could flea
A noose tightens painfully round my heart
As she flutters her eyelids. Now closed.
Barbara Mhangami (1990)
The next piece is an excerpt from a work in progress. It was inspired by the many many people, friends and family that I have personally held or walked next to as they journeyed on and out of this realm because of AIDS. We have a Heroes Acre at my grandfather's village in Chivi with over thirty family members who died from AIDS. Whenever I visit home, my grandfather takes me to throw a stone on the graves of members who have passed on in my absence. He cries and asks why he should have lived so long to bury his children, grandchildren and great grandchildren, losing them to this hideous ailment called AIDS. Here is my story:
On World AIDS Day-2011
“Er, Sister Kuku, my daughter, a calamity has befallen this family… you see life"
"Is it one of my sisters or their children? Is it uncle Obert, Uncle Hazvi, Uncle Mhike.."
I am rattling all my relatives’ names starting to feel panic rising in me when my father cuts short my litany.
“It’s your Aunt Melody. Er, you see, she..”
I have snatched myself off the mat and am outside running, tripping on a piece of wood, losing a sandal as I make my way towards the sleeping hut we shared. I hear my mother’s cry, "Kuku wait!” but I am at the door of our hut. My heart is beating so fast I feel as though it will explode out of my chest. It hurts to breathe. I fiddle with the latch on the door, but it swings open with ease. It is dark in the room and I peer inside before stooping low and getting in.
My nostrils are assailed by the sickening stench of urine and feces. I try to breath but I gag and step backwards as though I have been physically shoved by an invisible hand. I steady myself against the mud wall and put my hand over my mouth, willing myself not to retch. I search the room frantically in the dimness and my eyes land on a small bundle of blankets in the far corner. I scour the room again, desperately trying to find my aunt. There is very little in here and I am compelled to take a second look at the small bundle on the floor. I look hard, then I see a tiny movement.” Vatete Melody!” I call out, teary now. I feel lost all of a sudden! Where is my aunt? Vatete Melody! My voice cracks and I exhale hard. Its sounds more like a groan. My eyes have now adjusted to the light and I cannot remove them from the bundle with the tiny movements, up and down rapidly like something breathing shallow breaths, in–out-in-out. More movement this time and I hear a mewing sound, like a kitten. I see a pile of bones in a loose bag of brown skin trying to sit up. I move closer, propelled forward by some unseen force. I feel light and numb as I fix my eyes on the shrunken piece of humanity before me. ‘Kuku. She mews and sounds as though her voice is projecting into the back of her throat rather than out towards her mouth. I keep looking. She has no lips. Her teeth and red- raw gums are bare. Her nose is two holes in her head. That aristocratic bridge is gone. She has reddish fuzz on her head and her cheekbones jut out like rocky outcrops on a hillside, with deep hollows beneath them. I see a pulse jumping under the skin on her neck. There are two swollen lobes, ugly and obscene-looking, behind her ears, dwarfing them. She pants from her effort to sit up. I move closer and kneel down beside her. I feel a hand on my shoulder. It’s my mother who whispers that I should not touch her. I slap her hand away from me, feeling a violent, volcanic anger.
“If you touch me again..” I mutter through clenched teeth.
I am alone with my Aunt, I sit beside what is left of her, feeling ripe, hot tears flowing down my cheeks in a steady stream. I do not take my eyes of her for a second. She searches my face, her black fiery eyes sharp, alert and focused, their whites whiter than ever. She is out of breath and asks for water. I reach over to the green metal cup next to her and I put it to her lips. Her teeth make a clanging sound against the rim of the metal cup as she swallows gulps of water thirstily. I am astonished to hear water trickling and gurgling down her throat, into her stomach, through the rest of her digestive system and out with a squirt onto the make shift napkin between her emaciated legs, fashioned from pieces of an old bed sheet. I look at her in a white vest and a napkin. She looks like an old withered baby.
“She cannot keep anything in even for a few minutes, whispers my mother’s co-wife.” She is kneeling next to my aunt and I. My aunt winces in pain as she tries to lie down again, wiped out.
I stroke her head. It is damp and the fuzz feels like baby hair. I touch her face. It feels hard and cold. Like stone. I take her hand in mine, slowly, deliberately. I take each of her fingers one by one, gently feeling the joints. The tears keep flowing and the front of my habit is damp. My nose is running but I make no attempt to wipe it. How is it possible that a person could be eaten from the inside out, like a house infested with termites? Nobody knows they are there until the house collapses in a pile of dust. That is my aunt. She has been eaten, sucked dry until she has collapsed in a pile of bones. I hold on to her hand as I did when she came from her city jobs. I hold onto it the way I did when we took a bucket of warm water to the back of the compound at night, to wash and giggle under the stars. These hands scrubbed my back. These hands plaited my hair and clapped enthusiastic encouragement as I tried to dance. My aunt told me about periods and showed me how to keep myself clean. My aunt giggled with mirth as she teased me about my budding breasts. My aunt laughed at my derogatory descriptions and imitations of our family members. She taught me how to blow bubbles from Bazooka bubble gum.
Now here she is. Hollow, with a faltering heart beat and gurgling breath. The death rattle.
She moves stronger this time and sits back up. “You must write about me. Write it all down.”
She heaves, “Tell them about me Kuku.” She heaves again.
My father says, that’s enough, she needs to rest, but she persists over his protests.
“I am too much, too beautiful, too loud, too vibrant to be forgotten.” She heaves and coughs and falls back on her blankets, totally spent. I am still holding her hand. “Kuku, she says panting,
“Yes Vatete, I respond calmly,
“This is not God’s fault. Do you hear me?”
Yes vatete, I hear you.
“Good,” she sighs. “Tell them about me.”
My grandmother’s younger sister, my father’s and my aunt’s mainini, has been summoned to come and take care of my dying aunt. She comes into the room and firmly asks everyone to leave so she can wash vatete. I do not move, and she does not ask me to. Mbuya Anna washes my aunt, talking soothingly all the while. She sings a tune I do not know, and after she is done, she rubs her with sweet smelling Johnson’s baby lotion and sprays her body with impulse body spray-musk. “It’s my signature scent. It says Melody is on her way here, has been here or is around here, somewhere, somewhere.” I smile in spite of everything. That is what she would want.
My Aunt Melody is dead and we have buried her.
“Nematambuzdiko, our condolences” is all I hear at the bus stop as I wait to board the bus and head back to Bondolfi Mission.
I heard them whispering at the funeral, “How else would she have died, that one? It’s that terrible disease of whores. She was so thin you could count her ribs under her skin. What a shame on the family. And such a beautiful girl too.”