Wednesday, November 30, 2011

In memory of Ndapiwa, on Word AIDS Day, 2011

I wrote this poem when I was 18 years old. I had been to a hospital visit, to Mpilo hospital in Bulawayo. My passion for medicine propelled me to catch two minibuses from home to the hospital to potter around the wards and play doctor. I made myself useful by holding newborn babies while their mothers took a bath or ate. On this particular day I held Baby Ndapiwa, who was HIV positive while her mother went to wash and when she came back, Ndapiwa was gone. I remembered her today, and I searched my old notebooks for her poem and found it. Here it is:

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.”

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

On the power of Images : to inform or to distort

The first time I saw this picture in my Face Book news feeds, I saw it as a thumbnail and as with most such images I scrolled on and did not pay it any more attention. The next day I saw it again and I curiously enlarged it, wondering what the little girl in the picture was doing kneeling on the ground. Well I got the shock of my life when I saw that what I thought was a little girl was a woman, bare breasted kneeling beside a tiny grave in which there lay a tiny human being. I started crying. I could not stem the flow of tears and I became really angry. I sobbed and continued to stare at the picture on my computer screen and yet I had a hard time nailing what I was so angry about. I am looking at this picture now, having decided to calmly describe why this is in such poor taste and in my mind a cruel and callous picture.

When I look at this picture and the manner in which I saw it, I realize the fact that poor Africans are so often stripped of their dignity. Here is a woman who has lost her child, probably to hunger or to some easily curable disease. She probably held her child to her dry breast and tried to give it sustenance but had nothing for it to nurse on. Then she decides to bury her child, grief stricken as I can only imagine, and there is a camera clocking away, documenting images of her sorrow, her pain, her vulnerability, her partial nakedness. I ask: as a mother myself, how would I feel if there was such a gross intrusion on my personal grief and loss? How would I react to a camera man, probably unknown to me, taking pictures while I stared at the corpse of my child, lying naked in a hole in the ground? What is the purpose of such a picture I ask?

This picture when I saw it came with no title, no name, and it was not attributed to any photographer or journalist. It has been circulating on Face Book and people have been pasting it on their walls. I have seen many varied reactions: some are mad and feel violated at being forced to see such a deeply saddening picture. Others are moved to tears and cry for Africa. But I ask again: what is the purpose of such a picture? Was this woman even asked if she wanted an image of her kneeling beside her baby’s grave circulated around the word for all to gawk at?  What does she stand to gain from all this “publicity”? Where in Africa was this picture taken and is it right to assume that it is in Africa? Mind you images like this are so associated with Africa and therein lies my problem with it: there is nothing on the picture that says where in Africa this is (That is if it is even in Africa, could be in Haiti or Grenada), and so this leaves room for assumptions that this is happening in the whole of Africa. After all Africa, for many in the West is a country. Because there is no name, no story attached to this picture, viewers are left to draw their own conclusions about what is going on, leaving room for more assumptions: that in Africa, women are left to bury their dead children alone in a hole in the ground and that African women, real African women, not the westernized kind, go around topless.

On another level my anger was an embarrassed sort of anger that we have leaders on the continent who shop at the most expensive stores the world over, who own homes and yachts and diamonds and run the country’s finances as though it was their own personal bank account, while what is in that image is going on. That health care systems and agricultural sectors are in bad shape, while people starve, and die of diseases that are considered eradicated in other parts of the world. That while  governments elsewhere have emergency plans and contingency plans to deal with drought and other natural disaster situations, governments in Africa have the hands stretched out to NGOs and WHO to come in and help.

The images of Africa continue to be images of the kind I have shown here and Africans as a whole are tired of seeing themselves represented in this fashion en masse. Yes the continent has its problems, yes there is disease famine and war, but these things abound in other places and yet we rarely see images so obscene (and jarring to the senses), of these places. Are the victims of Hurricane Katrina any more human than the Africans in refugee camps? Yet the images we saw during that natural disaster were not of dead people floating in the flood waters or half naked Americans sobbing heartbreakingly while clutching a dead child. It is not that these things did not happen, but there was a sense that some scenes were too sensitive to capture on camera. Why is the same respect for human dignity not afforded to Africans?

We have a responsibility to voice our concerns about such images and somehow vulnerable populations need to be protected against this kind of abuse. Yes, it is abuse to take a picture of someone who is mourning and who has not given her permission and then not to even bother to give her a name. She is just another faceless, nameless African in the throes of poverty and disease. It is not right to take advantage of people particularly when they are at their most vulnerable. It is low, empty of empathy and it is in poor taste.

What I really wished for more than anything when I saw this picture was to throw a shroud over the woman and her baby and to shield them from scrutiny and restore to them the dignity that poverty has robbed them of, so that they could say their goodbyes in peace. Surely every human being has that right?


Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Only in America! Vietnam-Zimbabwe, Happy Thanksgiving


I had a fantastic encounter today! My manicurist whom I have known as Jimmy for a whole year became known to me today as Yung Wei from Vietnam. I had not seen him for some weeks and that is because I was too busy to get pampered in a spa. However, since the holidays are round the corner I decided to get spruced up in preparation for the festivities.

 Jimmy greeted me in his usual ‘Wassup Barb!’ as I sat in his wonderful massage chair. I pressed the on button on the arm rest so that the chair could start working its magic on my back. I responded to him and asked him how his trip to Vietnam was. Well if I had known that I was about to be transported to and given a deluxe tour of Vietnam, I would have come better prepared. As Jimmy worked on creating a set of bright pink nails with white tips on my fingers, I listened to the enchanting tale…

“My trip was great. It takes more than 22 hrs to get to Vietnam from here. I was happy to see my mum. She has been sick for some time now. Something in my heart told me it’s time to go. It’s been 15 years since I left. She was so happy she shouted “Yung Wei! You have finally come!”

I watched Jimmy transform into Yung Wei, as he described that first encounter with his mother after so many years. It was not so much the words he used but the manner in which his whole being was able to bring that experience to life for me. His face was rapt as he buffed and filed my nails with the precision of a pre programmed machine. His eyes filled up with tears which made them glisten like shiny black coals.

“I could not believe how old my mother has grown. There are wrinkles on her face and around her eyes. She has lost so much weight from the illness and her cheekbones jut out under her skin. She looks like a small girl, you know? I hugged her, but there was nothing to hug; just bones in a bag of skin. She was crying but no tears were falling. She is all dried up inside because of the illness, she cannot even make tears. I could feel she was so happy to see me but I could see that she felt bad that after all these years, I should find her in this sorry state.”

I felt my own tears well up in my eyes. I put my head back and blinked several times so they would not fall. What on earth did I have to cry about? Here I was getting my nails done and getting ready to party and this poor man has just returned from an emotionally harrowing trip home. I was silent as he placed the white tips and glued them onto my nail.

“I know my mother would have wanted to cook for me. When I was a small boy she cooked my favorite food every other day. It is called Hu tieu kho. Do you know it?”

 I shook my head.

“It is made up of noodles with different vegetables; mushrooms, bean sprouts, green onions, and carrots. You can add chicken too if you like. But when I was a small boy, we were too poor to afford meat. You can make it spicy by adding hot red peppers, you know. My village is in northern Vietnam, near the Ban Gioc Falls. Do you know it?”

 I shook my head again

“It’s the best place in the world. My mother is a great singer, you know. She is sings the Hat Van. This is music for the spirits. She is from the mountains. Mountain people are spirit people. They are very close to nature and they follow what the spirits tell them. I forgot all these things when I came to America. I forgot my ancestors. Vietnamese government stopped all forms of worship in my country. Did you know that?

I shook my head yet again. I had many questions for Jimmy. I was curious as to why he left Vietnam and what the country was like given the fact that it had been colonized by the French in the 19th century. I wanted to find out how Vietnamese people felt about the war particularly because he was from the north, which had been on one side against the south, which was backed by the United States. However, I could see that Yung Wei needed to unburden, to tell his story his way. I did not interrupt.

As listened intently and imagined a hot spicy chicken and vegetable dish eaten under the warm sun listening to the sound of a waterfall. I imagined Vietnamese men and women in nearby rice paddies, planting and weeding their crops, all the while singing haunting melodies to their ancestors. The scene before me was idyllic and calm, and I imagined a little bare chested boy running up a lush green mountain slope and jumping into the frothy waters at the bottom of the water fall. I imagined the Victoria Falls, my best place in the world, and was overwhelmed by sadness. I knew why I was crying. Selfishly, Yung Wei’s story had become my own. The yearning and intense homesickness that he was exuding became my own nostalgia for a home that once was. My home country had changed over the years and so had I. I wondered whether realistically I could continue to call it home. I wondered whether both home country and I could accommodate the changes that time and life had wrought on us and whether we could somehow find a modus Vivendi, a compromise, much like in a marriage where both people learn to live with and accept the quirks and foibles inherent in the other. He had one sick family member back in Vietnam while I had many close family members who were ill.

Yung Wei’s voice broke into my thoughts.

“My mother has never seen my children, or my wife. It’s too expensive for all of us to go.”

Yung Wei has three children. His youngest is the same age as my twin daughters, who are 4 years old. He has a lovely picture of them in Halloween costumes on his work table. He glances over to his wife, who is working diligently on another customer’s hands at a table across the room and he smiles:  “We will soon catch up with you. There is number 4 on the way.”

I smile through my tears, which despite my best efforts have started to fall in rivulets down my cheeks, smudging my eyeliner and leaving trails that resemble dry riverbeds in my foundation. These are tears of joy, because despite the cloud of cold melancholy enveloping Yung Wei and me, his news of a new life in the making infuses the grayness with a soft, warm yellow light.

“America is the country of forgetting and remembering, he says with a sad distant smile.

“You can be so happy that you forget the hard times, the old country, the hunger and the poverty. But America can make you think about that country you left behind, the people you miss, the smells and the sounds. Do you know that?”

 I nod my head. “Yes Yung Wei, I know that. America is the place of forgetting and remembering”

He has done a perfect job with my nails and as I get up to leave, he comes round the table, gives me a big awkward hug, laughs heartily and says, “Yeah Barb, of course you know that! You’re from Nigeria, right? You and me are the same right? Old country to New country!”

I laugh with Yung Wei. “Old country to New country, Yung Wei and it is Zimbabwe I come from!”

“Oh!  Jimbabwe? Ok! Still, same thing! Jimbabwe- Vietnam, still Old country!”

At this both of us are guffawing and bumping each other like old friends sharing a private joke, as we make our way to the cashier.

“Happy thanks giving Yung Wei! Have a great time with your family.”

He looks into my eyes and says “Happy Thanks giving Barb! Thanks for listening. Oh, by the way, next time, use my New country name, Jimmy. Otherwise my customers will get confused. Old country name makes me remember too much!”

I blow a kiss towards Jimmy’s wife and their ‘bun in the oven’ and take my leave. As I walk to my car with the icy cold wind shredding my face, I think to myself: “This Thanks giving, I will take time to remember and time to forget and as I do this, I will have gratitude in my heart and a glass of Merlot in my hand. HAPPY THANKS GIVING to those in the Old country and those in the New, and to all those who straddle both Old and New!



Thursday, September 22, 2011

On the state sanctioned killing of two men, one white one black on the same day in America the land of justice and freedom


Troy Davis was killed by lethal injection yesterday in Georgia for possibly having been the murderer of a white police officer in 1989. Yesterday, white supremacist gang member Lawrence Russel Brewer was also killed by lethal injection in Texas for tying up James Bryd Jr., a black man, to the back of his pick- up truck and pulling him along a rough asphalt dirt road until he resembled road kill. Incidentally the officer who found his tattered remains thought he was road kill until he realized he was a decapitated, mashed up, human being.

The differences between the two cases are glaring: In the case of Troy Davis, he has over the last twenty years pleaded his innocence and asked that a fresh investigation be launched. In the absence of the murder weapon (a gun), no finger prints and no DNA evidence, the case rested purely on the testimony of eye witnesses, 7 of whom have recanted all or part of their story.

In the case of Brewer, he and the other men involved in the case were picked up and the blood of Byrd were found on all of them. He has also never ever denied that he killed Byrd.

Byrd had no final words to say to anyone, while Troy Davis told the family of the slain officer that he was sorry for their loss but he had not killed officer McPhail. He also asked his family to keep searching for the truth and he forgave those who were about to kill him and asked God to forgive them too.

I am tempted to dwell on what I perceive to be a gross miscarriage of justice in the Troy Davis case, but I think we all know this and those who have followed this case over years, as I have will no doubt be feeling hurt, angry and bitter, as I am. However I think there is a bigger issue here, which is that of state sanctioned killings. I refuse to use the term capital punishment because to my simple mind, what is the punishment in terminating a person’s life? What punishment does a dead person feel? Unless of course you are a believer in the eternal inferno called hell and you believe that sending someone to an eternity of being fried or roasted earlier than his maker planned, is the ultimate punishment, I really don’t see how killing a person is punishment for him. Punishment is for his family members maybe, who despite everything may still love and value the person. Or maybe you are also a believer in the biblical an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth? Or Live by the sword, die by the sword?

Whatever the case killing a person because he killed another will not bring the dead person back and while some say justice is served, for whom is justice served when the injured party is dead? No one has any way of consulting the dead guy if he wants his murderer killed so what justice are we talking about? Worse is the case where there is a possibility that the man who is killed is the wrong man. Does it matter at all that Troy Davis may have been innocent or is it a case of witnesses saying they saw a thin black man kill the officer and so it doesn’t matter which black man goes down as long as one goes? I have often heard people say all black people look alike to white people and all white people look alike to Asian people. So is it possible that there was a case of mistaken identity? That this was the wrong black man and he has become the fall guy?

My idea of punishment is keeping the person alive to serve out a jail term even if it is life in prison. Confinement is punishment, lockdown is punishment. Waking up every day to the knowledge that you are a murderer, deplorable and not fit to walk the earth freely, is punishment. Having nightmares about the person you killed is punishment. State sanctioned killing is not punishment, it is gratuitous violence, open to abuse by flawed officials and flawed institutions of justice. I am sickened by the deaths of Troy Davis and Brewer, but for different reasons:

 I wish Troy Davis had lived, and that a proper investigation would have been carried out to determine whether he was guilty. Instead he was presumed guilty, convicted based on flimsy testimony, and was saddled with the burden of proving that he was innocent. Now he is gone.

I wish Brewer had lived, so that his hideous crime would be with him every single day he breathed, as he marched his hours away in a prison yard. Now he is gone.

And both their deaths did not bring the victims back to life. So where is the justice I ask?

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Remembering September 11, 2001

I had just finished changing four month old Chichi’s diaper and was nuzzling her and enjoying her giggles and chubby legs kicking at my face, when I heard the CNN commentator announcing that a plane had just flown into one of the towers of the World Trade Center. Cyril had turned on the television to listen to the headlines before taking off to the hospital. It was a beautiful September morning with clear blue skies. I picked up Chichi off the floor and sat on the couch next to Cyril and began nursing her, eyes glued to the screen. Then I watched, totally numb and devoid of feeling as another plane flew straight towards the second tower, next to the already smoldering one. I heard the commentator, like a soccer commentator excitedly announcing that a player was about to score a goal, yelling that a second plane was headed to the world trade center. It struck. Chichi tugged at my breast, agitating for the attention she was so accustomed to getting during her feeds. Her first teeth were out and she nipped at me a technique she knew was sure to elicit a yelp. I sat there staring at the TV screen. Mute.  In the background of my numb mind, I could hear the commentator saying something about it not being an accident but a terrorist attack. I continued watching as fragments of humanity hurled themselves out of windows and went flying through the sky, gravity drawing them rapidly towards the earth. It was like watching a horror movie, only with the knowledge that none of what was unfolding on the screen was make- believe.

Today marks the day of that ugly event, an even that was condemned the whole world over. An event which changed America and Americans in a way they could never have imagined. As I reflect on the events of that day, I am listening to the role call of all those who perished on that day. There are many. I can hear tearful commemorations from family members of those who were on the planes, the fire fighters and the paramedics, the pedestrians going about their daily business. I hear the loss in their voices still fresh as though this event occurred yesterday. It occurs to me as I sit here, that while America remembers its collective losses as a result of that event, there are those who remember personal losses and harbor private grief. While collectively America remembers the sacrifices that have since been made in order to secure the homeland, there are those who reflect on the loss of sons and daughters of mothers and fathers of brothers and sisters in wars fought on foreign soil. While there are those, who on this day are criticizing American foreign policy and are talking about “how the chickens came home to roost” there are those who are puzzled by the fact that there are people so hateful that they would destroy innocent lives in order to make a point, which to many is still very unclear. It occurs to me too, that while this attack was on America, it took with it people from all over  the world and today a family is without a member, somewhere in the world, thanks to that attack on 9/11. Whether it be loss of life due to the subsequent wars that have been and are being waged, or due to the first terrorist attack, human life continues to be wasted. In Afghanistan and Iraq, innocent civilians are casualties of air strikes and suicide bombings. It makes me think about the fact that grief knows no geographical boundaries. Grief has no color. Loss knows no religious affiliation or ideology. Grief comes to all humans and today I remember with all those who grieve their loss, in America and abroad. I remember too all those who continue to suffer under tyranny and reflect on the waste of human life the whole world over, due to unnecessary, man made wars, famine, environmental degradation and political instability and the lunacy of fanaticism.

I remember too, that no one is invulnerable to death and to the vagaries of living on this planet, and hope that with remembering comes some action, to stop the killing, the bombings and carnage that has made a graveyard out of this earth. I hope that 9/11 will not be just another day to indulge in melancholy and sadness, but a day on which individually we purpose to do whatever we can to secure a better world for those coming long after we are gone. Whether our purpose is translated into action is a topic for another blog, but for today, let us all reflect with purpose as we remember all those who fell on 9/11 and those who have fallen since.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

On Diseases and Disparities and my Moment of Utter Despair

I recently attended a public health residency/conference in the laid back friendly city of Minneapolis. It was a vibrant affair, full of sharp minded types with big hearts oriented towards social change. Social change, at its most basic definition in public health, is the transformation of communities (and therefore societies), through the engagement in scholarly research that is applicable in the form of effective policy and prevention programs. So here we were, all bright eyed bushy tailed idealists in a lot of ways, sitting through session after session of stimulating discourse. 

One would think that since public health is one of my many passions, I would be happy, excited and energized! Yet as I went from session to session sipping on my skim milk caramel latte from Starbucks, I felt like a balloon with a pin hole leak, and air seeping out imperceptibly but feeling heavier and heavier. Now I will have you know that my caramel latte alone is usually enough to put a spring in my step no matter how the world may conspire to ‘bring me down’. But it was just not having the usual effect on me. 

My AHA! moment collided head on with a feeling so overwhelmingly bleak I can only describe it as a moment of utter despair. It suddenly dawned on me that my source of wistful sadness was due to the fact that while we were dissecting the disparities of health in America, looking at the at HIV/AIDS, diabetes, hypertension, cardiovascular disease and obesity on in the African American community, the Hispanic community and the native American community, my own community in Zimbabwe did not even have basic public health infrastructure. In this country, the USA, a sophisticated public health infrastructure is in place: there is infectious disease surveillance, chronic, occupational, genetic and environmental epidemiology. In my own community back home these departments may exist in name only, but they are not fully functional   units that take care of these various aspects of population health both rural and urban. For example, one of my papers was looking at how DDT may cause breast cancer, congenital abnormalities in fetuses and sterility in both men and women after chronic long term exposure to high doses in the USA. I immediately thought of the thousands of men women and children who are exposed to high levels of DDT on the African continent due to indoor residual spraying for malaria. A substance that was banned here in 1970 is in use in Africa and while our beloved governments and the esteemed ministers of health all wonder the globe attending meeting after meeting. I wonder how many of them are concerned about the health impact of DDT, asbestos, which causes lung cancer and lead paint, which causes neurological deficits? Granted DDT has saved many lives but I wonder how many more will be adversely affected in the future.

As we discussed the fine tuning of surveillance systems so that there become more efficient at picking up disease outbreaks in order to implement containment measures before they reach epidemic proportions, I kept wondering about why we, in Zimbabwe couldn’t set up a surveillance system that involves a network of cell phones which are used by rural hospital staff to text a central district location all the new cases of say, cholera, so that if there was any sign of an outbreak then containment and treatment could take place before hundreds of people died. Then I remembered that in order to do that you would need money, a health ministry that cared and of course a doctor at every rural hospital or clinic. That is when the despair really set in. Along with it was the frustration of having acquired so much knowledge over the years, hopeful that one day I would go back to Zimbabwe and ‘give back’, I am finding myself less and less hopeful as I grow older. My desire has always been to serve my country and put my knowledge to use for the benefit of those who need it most. Now I am looking forward to a time when my girls are older and I can get a job that tackles health disparities in America….while my own Zimbabwe continues to tackle the issue of not enough doctors, doctors who charge an arm and a leg, making obscene profits on the backs of the poor, disease outbreaks that kill hundreds in a week due to lack of medication and IV fluids, oh, and chemicals that will give children cancer and cause men and women to become sterile…

It gets worse: On the evening following my darkest hour I felt compelled to switch my caramel latte for something more analgesic. I sat over dinner alone in a quiet corner of the restaurant with a bottle of Merlot, the contents of which were dwindling alarmingly fast. I was greeted out of my maudlin reverie by a brother from Somalia, who was also at the conference. He happily pulled up a chair and I felt my heart sinking even further into a drunken darkness. I really wanted to be alone, but my ever smiling African hospitality would never have allowed me to follow my inclination to ask him to kindly leave me alone. Besides he had broad shoulders and I figured he was strong enough for me to unburden my sorrows over my homeland. After my long slurred monologue, the brother decided I was too deep for his festive mood and he got up. His parting words to me were:
 “I don’t know why you are here crying over Zimbabwe healthcare. Your country is great place and I wouldn’t mind living there. If you cry over Zimbabwe with government, what must I do about Somalia with no government and millions of starving beoble?”

On that note he left me, feeling scolded, and I signaled to the waiter for my bill and another bottle of Merlot. To go.

Friday, May 6, 2011

On the Power of Mother

As I heaved over the toilet bowl, retching because there was nothing to bring up, I felt a warm hand on my brow. My mother. This twin pregnancy was taking its toll on me, on all of us, on mother. Having never experienced any kind of sickness with my previous pregnancies, this morning sickness was new and I have to say mine was all day sickness. Every morning I opened my eyes, I was convinced that I would be dead by the next day. Such was the misery I felt as I carried my twins. I was sick from the day I conceived till the day Shami and Tendo were pulled out of my body kicking and screaming. I was in a world of my own and felt so debilitated I just could not function. My mother took over the running of my household throughout the entire 36weeks gestation and long after the babies came.
 My mother cared for the other two children and made sure that the transformation of their mother from an energetic, lively, laughing being to a morbid, perpetually scowling recluse was bearable. Ninety percent of my time was spent in bed or on the couch. If I spoke it was to complain about my aching back or my pathetic state of inertia. The nausea was so distracting I could not read, write, listen to music or even smile. I felt as though everything I did exacerbated the impulse to regurgitate the contents of my stomach along with said stomach. My mother was always even keeled, consistently positive and consistently loving all of us. My husband found in my mother a valuable resource in trying to deal with this alien creature that his wife had mutated into. They formed a team in order to cope with the unpredictability of moods, dietary and emotional demands.
Looking back on our life with my mother as we grew up, it was the consistency of her being that I recall the most. Therefore you knew where you stood with her at any given time on any given day. This gave me the confidence to venture forth even as far away as Europe, with no idea what awaited me or what would happen next. The only assurance I had was that mother was there and it was all the assurance I needed to dare, to dream and to hope. I knew that if all else failed, Mother was there. I can therefore honestly say that I am who I am and where I am because of my mother. All that I have done has been done with the knowledge that there is one who loves me, has loved me and who knows me in a way no other human being can ever know me. The fact that there is one from whom I do not try to hide any part of myself because she already knows all there is to know, the good the bad and the ugly and loves me anyway, is what has birthed my own self belief and self acceptance. Her being gives me the audacity to be fully myself and even as I grow and evolve, I welcome the changes and the different facets of myself as they manifest, because I know they have already been loved and accepted by the one who gave birth to me. Not only did she physically give birth to me, but she has facilitated the birth of qualities that may have otherwise never have been allowed to flourish. I am like the three year old who jumps from a high place without fear or hesitation but with exhilaration and enthusiasm, because she knows that there are strong arms waiting to catch her and she will not fall. My mother is my safety net, my security blanket, the arms that will catch me if I fall. And if I fall, she is the one who will pick me up, dust me off and tell me to keep going.
This Mother’s Day, I will reflect on my own mother and all she has been and is to me. I will reflect on my own journey as the mother of four daughters, praying that I will be to them, what my own mother has been to me: The wind beneath my wings, the mirth behind my laughter, the wit within my humor, the resolve in all my decisions and the power in all my passions. Thank you Mother and happy mother’s day! Here is one of my favorite poems, which beautifully describes the power of Mother.
The Hand that Rocks the Cradle is the Hand that Rules the World.
Blessings on the hand of women!
Angels guard its strength and grace,
In the palace, cottage, hovel,
Oh no matter the place;
Would that never storms assail it,
Rainbows ever gently curled;
For the hand that rocks the cradle
Is the hand that rules the world.

Infancy’s tender fountain,
Power may with beauty flow,
Mother’s first to guide the streamlets,
From them souls unresting grow-
Grow on for the good or evil,
Sunshine streamed or evil hurled;
For the hand that rocks the cradle
Is the hand that rules the world.

Blessings on the hand of women!
Fathers, sons and daughters cry,
And the sacred song is mingled
With the worship in the sky-
Mingles where no tempest darkens,
Rainbows evermore are hurled;
For the hand that rocks the cradle
Is the hand that rules the world
(William Ross Wallace-1819-1881).

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The Dance

 I am passionate about dance, particularly of the Congolese hip shaking, waist twirling kind. I will dance to almost anything that has a solid rythm and I am a sucker for drums and a good bass guitar. How ever I am a self confessed slave to Congolese music, which seems to have some sort of mystical power over my body. It is my love for this music that inspired this piece. By the way, you will have to wait to read the whole story in my collection. Suffice it to say that : DANCE will make a worrior out of a mouse!!!! Enjoy!!
The Dance
Stella parked her car outside Kumbi’s gate. The driveway was already packed with cars lined up bumper to bumper. She reached over to the passenger’s seat to retrieve her hand bag and the gift she had picked up at Miekles Department store. As she looked into the rear view mirror one last time to check her makeup, she smirked at the image that stared back at her. No amount of concealer and foundation could camouflage the bile green bruise that smudged its way around her left eye. She pulled the compact of foundation out of her bag and hurriedly dabbed at the insolent green ring coaxing it to fade and blend into nothingness. The eye stared back at her, fiery red and inflamed. In frustration she threw the compact against the dashboard and sent crumbs of brown powder flying from the compact as it hit its target with a loud crack.
She hissed as she tried desperately, with a shaking hand to wipe off the front of her white linen top. The crumbs of powder dissolved and left streaks of brown across her shirt. Stella could feel herself unraveling and the tears fighting their way through ducts swollen from overuse the night before. She swallowed hard, fighting the anger that threatened to explode her head and the water works that seemed determined to ruin her makeup and her contrived enjoyment. She took several deep breaths and eased herself out of her car. She took out her sunglasses and hid the evidence of her abusive, unhappy marriage behind them. She adjusted her black skirt, which obstinately kept riding up her thighs as she strode purposefully in the direction of the pulsating music. She wished she had not put on all this weight, which, like her marriage was choking her.
With one last big breath she summoned her party smile, plastered it on her face and flung the door to the living room open. The vibrations of Soukous music enervated her and she walked into the packed living room to the rhythm. Kumbi walked over to her and shouted above the music.
 “Stella, hi! So glad you could make it! Come on this way. You have to see this!”
Kumbi grabbed Stella by the hand and pulled her towards the circle of women in the center of the room. She recognized most of their mutual friends who gave her a quick smile and a nod but quickly turned their attention back to the center of the circle. Stella’s eyes turned curiously to the circle and her lower jaw dropped as she watched a nubile girl dressed in black yoga pants and a cropped white T shirt. Stella stood transfixed as the girl’s waist twirled round and round, her back ramrod straight. She held her head aloft, and rolled her hips languidly and effortlessly in perfect time to the intoxicating base of the rumba song. She recognized the song immediately. It was the very popular Koffi Olomide’s “Loi”, a scintillating three part number which transported you across the three stages in the journey of a river, in reverse. It began as a wide, leisurely meandering body of water, through a tranquil landscape with an unhurried tempo. It branched into a narrower, faster flowing tributary, with a quickened but controlled tempo, steadily gathering momentum. Suddenly the tributary fanned out into shimmering rivulets fast and forceful, sparing nothing in their paths as they race up mountain slopes to climax at the pinnacle and be sucked up as vapor into the clouds, totally spent.

 Despite the energetic thumping of the music, the girl was like a tightly coiled spring, controlling her movements, teasing the crowd as she lowered herself onto her haunches, undulating her belly like a snake slithering through grass.
Stella was mesmerized by the whole scene before her. The girl’s facial expression was of one who was not aware of her surroundings. Her glistening almond eyes seemed glazed over and it was as though she looked without seeing. Her half smile would occasionally widen into a full pearly toothed smile as she threw her head back, stepped forward as though about to fall and pulled herself back into an upright position, all the while twirling her waist and keeping her waist beads in hypnotizing circular motion. The tattoo at the base of her spine danced to the percussion of the waist beads, creating a sensuous mix of sound and sight. After a while the distinction between dancer and music became blurry. The dancer was the music and the music was the dancer, the two fused in an intimate lover’s embrace, caressing each other to greater and greater heights of pleasure.
 As the tempo of the music shifted to the highest gear the dancer beckoned provocatively to Stella from her spot in the center of the circle. Enthralled and without thinking, Stella dropped both bag and gift onto the floor and moved through the passage created by the other women. The dancer smiled seductively and kept her eyes on Stella’s. She moved with the confidence of a woman who is mistress of her domain as she circled Stella, forcing her to turn around in order to maintain eye contact. To Stella’s surprise, the dancer pulled her gently but firmly towards her, turned around quickly and placed Stella’s hands on her waist. She started to move to the tempo speeding up and gyrating the very soul out of the music and infusing it with her own. The dancer started moving round in a circle, small quick steps all the while winding her waist and her hips so that Stella could feel the firm relentless rhythmic movements in her hands. Suddenly Stella felt her waist respond, her thighs moved as though suddenly wakened from slumber and she too started to rotate her hips as she moved round the room. Before she knew it, Bertha had her hands round her waist and was frenziedly moving her hips as Koffi’s cooing voice became an urgent raspy wail through which the electric guitar and the base drum frantically ducked and wove, daring the dancers, now four now eight, then18 of them, to face, embrace and  give full expression to their primal nature. Each woman’s waist hips and buttocks interpreted the rapid rendition of rhythm and sound in their own unique way but all unified in the irresistible, raw  potency of the dance.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

For Mzu...

This story has no real title yet but it is called for Mzu because it is inspired by one of my amazing big sisters called Mzu. She is an amazing human being who has made me laugh on facebook more times than I can recall. In fact, Sis Mzu is my go to big sister when I need some comic relief. She has a huge heart and that rare gift of being able to find humor in the simplest of things. This and the fact that I treasure her wise words and her encouragement made it the most natural thing to write a story with her in mind. My friends, do keep in mind that this is fiction! Pure fiction, even though those who know us may have seen me call her “Pumpkin!” This story is not her biography. She was the inspiration to it. So Sis Mzu here is your story, with tons of love!!! I really appreciate you!

For Mzu
There is something exquisite and poignantly beautiful about a father openly lavishing affection on his daughter. It is something magical to observe. It is a sacred thing that one only dares to look at in awe, but from a distance. Ntombi was her father’s world. The sun rose and set with her in his eyes. She was the fourth daughter and last child of her parents, who had been born when they least expected her. Her mother had been told that she could no longer have any more children after the third cesarean section and had had her tubes tied. Ntombi was a huge surprise, an unexpected a gift.
On this particular occasion, Seka Ntombi stood in the front door way looking out onto the gold tinged evening. The sun was setting, hurtling quickly towards the horizon, turning from bright yellow to a deep orange, where it would dissolve like an egg yolk, staining the fluffy clouds with its fiery hue. The air was perfumed with the warm musky scent of damp earth and the isolated chirping of an overzealous cricket added to the magical quality of the evening. There was a stillness that even the commuters jumping out of kombies and whistling as they hurried home with newspapers under their arms and a loaf of bread in a Lobel’s plastic carrier bag could not disrupt. There, just outside the gate, to the right of the house, sat Ntombi on top of an ochre-red termite mound.
Seka Ntombi looked on with tenderness in his eyes and a piercing anguish twisting his heart.
“She is beautiful. Like my mother.”
Ntombi was trying desperately to mould small farm animals from the rain soaked red soil of the mound. To her frustration, the animals kept falling apart. She sighed as she disgustedly hurled the rear end of a red pig across the street.
“Nxa!” She muttered: “Wrong soil”. She sucked her breath over her teeth for good measure, eliciting a protracted hissing sound.
Seka Ntombi observed his daughter, and a deep longing to protect her blanketed him. His desire to see her always happy nudged him forcefully and he found himself swearing an oath:
“Before my dead father and mother, Ntombi I will protect you at all cost. I will even kill for you if I have to. Let no one cause you suffering in my life time, because I will cause him the worst kind of sorrow. Let no one cause you suffering after my death because in his sleep, I will be his worst nightmare. I have spoken.”
Little did Seka Ntombi know that the day would come when he would have to fulfill his oath in the worst way possible and in horrible circumstances.
 Oblivious to her father’s intense gaze, Ntombi played happily on the termite mound. The rays of the setting sun kissed her rich, light brown skin, infusing it with undertones of gold. Everything about Ntombi was round. At seven years old, she had a delightful round face with deeply dimpled cheeks. She had a round, pert button nose set perfectly between almond shaped eyes. Her plump pink lips always quivered with a smile, threatening to break wide into loud infectious laughter. If she was upset they would quiver and pout, slightly curling down, a signal that big ripe tears would soon be trailing their way down her cheeks.
Ntombi was the epitome of every mother’s ideal child. She ate well and therefore she was round and chubby.  Neighborhood mothers would sometimes be heard chiding their children:
“Eat all your food so you can become big and strong like Ntombi! “
All her features melded together to create her unique charm, which was accentuated by her good nature, kind heart and a keen sense of mischief.
Ntombi knelt on the termite mound, peering down the gaping hole at the very top of the granulated hill.
“Hey wena!” Growled her father, feigning harshness he had absolutely no capacity of feeling towards her.
“Be careful. A snake might just crawl out of there and bite you between your eyes! Worse still, he might wrap his whole self around you in tight coils all along your body and drag you down that hole!”
Ntombi looked up her face a mask of sheer pleasure, as she jumped back from the hole and slid down the short but steep slope. She squealed as she flew down the side, leaving a trail of deep red mud in her wake, while totally soiling the back of her pale blue sundress.
Ntombi continued to scream as she ran barefoot round the corner, into the driveway and into her father’s out stretched arms. Seka Ntombi laughed heartily as he scooped her up and twirled her in the air before settling her on his hip.
Mantombi! Thanga lam’! How come you did not come to meet me at the bus stop today? I was disappointed when I did not see you!”
Ntombi giggled: “Baba sorry! But it was raining and umama would not let me go out.” She wriggled in his arms.
“Then after the rain stopped, I wanted to check to see if izinhlwa are coming out tonight. That is why you saw me over there.”
Ntombi turned her torso to better point at the anthill.
“Then you said I would be eaten by a snake. Then I ran to you so you can save me!”
Seka Ntombi’s heart melted and he suddenly felt weak. She had this effect on him.
“Yes, I will save you thanga lami.”
Ntombi had earned herself the nickname pumpkin as a baby and it had stuck. The soft roundness of her stature and her sweet nature had kept the nickname relevant. Even her grandmother would call her ‘pum-kee’ when she visited from the village in Empandeni. The house would reverberate with Ntombi’s peels of laughter as she tried to correct her grandmother’s pronunciation:
Gogo , it is pump-kin, not pum-kee!”
In mock seriousness, Gogo would take a deep breath and look at Ntombi as though in deep concentration. Then she would slowly enunciate, “pum-kee!”
At this utterance, Ntombi would roll over on the floor howling and clutching her sides as she laughed uncontrollably…

The rest you will have to read in my short story collection of which you will be hearing about very very soon…..Big love!!!!!