Friday, December 24, 2010

Christmas under African Skies

December 24, every year,
we piled into my father’s blue Datsun 120Y for our annual Christmas visit to my
mother’s village in Berejena (Chivi). We would have been preparing for this
trip for several weeks prior. Cans of Olivine cooking oil, nestle powdered
milk, Sun jam, loaves upon loaves of bread, bags of rice, sugar, flour salt and
Stork Margerine. We would set off for the four hour drive at 4am in order to
beat the suffocating heat which would melt the margarine, leaving the rest of
the groceries and luggage besmirched in an oily yellow mess.

 Once we were all settled in the car, my mother
in the passenger’s seat with two year old Vimbai on her lap and my other sister
Nancy sandwiched between Dennis and I in the back seat, my father would lock up
the house and we would take off. The excitement we felt would wipe away the
last vestiges of sleep from our eyes and we would look out of the car windows
and play ‘I spy with my little eye’. We would remark at the change in landscape
as we drove along the Bulawayo- Beitbridge road towards Mbalabala. Sharp
escarpments sparsely populated with shrubs would give way to huge grey/green
granite formations, some of which looked like baby elephants lying on their
sides with sinewy trees growing on them. If the rains had been good, there
would be sprouting green grass and muddy potholes on the sides of the tarred road.
If there had been no rain, the landscape would be dry, parched and desert like.

 At Mbalabala we would make a left turn towards
Zvishavane and wave good bye to the over loaded minivans or kombis headed
towards Beitbridge, the border town and conduit into South Africa. My brother and
I would start to sing quietly at first then loudly as my mother joined in
harmonizing to whatever song we were singing. Our favorite song was “Lean on
me”, originally sung by Bill Withers, which we would do in three part harmony
with my father improvising the guitars and the drums. The miles would fly by as
we entertained ourselves and before we knew it, we were in Masvingo Town and
the sun would be beating down relentlessly from clear azure skies. We would
stop to refuel the car and to get some crates of Coca Cola, Fanta and Cream
soda which would be placed on the floor of the back row so that our feet would
have to rest on top of the bottles. The discomfort would only be for an hour
before we finally arrived home –kumusha,

The drive from Masvingo
to the turn off which would take us to Berejena was my favorite part of the
drive. The huge grey mountains that flank the wide tarred road always made me
melancholic. I would look at the isolated trees along the slopes and imagine
helicopters during the war dropping solder’s who would hastily make their way
down and into the surrounding villages. I imagined the freedom fighters camped
at the base of these mountains singing their songs of freedom and
indoctrinating villagers at the pungwes
(all night vigils) on the need to be loyal and steadfast in the struggle. I
imagined them eating chickens and goats and mountains of sadza prepared under cover by the village maidens and
surreptitiously carried from the homesteads, through the bush to the base camp
at the foot of the mountain. My mind would wonder as I imagined the spirits of
dead soldiers and comrades restlessly roaming across the valleys and mountains.
We would drive past burnt out buildings, relics of the recent war which had culminated
in Zimbabwe’s Independence in 1980, and I would wonder whether there had been
anybody inside while the fires raged. I would add their lamenting spirits to
those of the wailing dead soldiers and comrades and I would get goose bumps as
I imagined all these spirits joining their voices with those of the heroes of
the first war of liberation-Chimurenga
. I imagined those early heroes who fought against British
colonials, Nehanda and Kagubi leading a vibrant song with a million harmonies
as they flew across the eerily beautiful, magical, rugged landscape of Zimbabwe.

Our arrival would be
heralded by the sound of ululation from my numerous aunts and grandmothers. My
motley crew of twenty or more cousins would appear from nowhere and run behind
the car, swathed in plumes of dust as the car thundered up a small hill towards
my grandfather’s homestead. My siblings and I would turn our heads and shout
out the names of the friends we were soon to meet again. “There’s Sheki, and
look at Hazvinei and Ndaka and Mainini Judy!”

As soon as the car came
to a complete stop, we would bolt out of the doors and into the arms of our
beloved family members. The comforting smell of wood smoke from the cooking
fires which was the signature scent of my aunts and grandmothers would envelop
me and I would sigh in happiness with my head against the bosom of my maternal

It was Christmas time
and we were home with family! My cousins would drag us away from the adults
once the formal greetings were over and we would head out of the home stead
towards the stream and the bush to play and to catch up on what had gone one
since our last visit. The terrain was very familiar because it had been my
playground since I was three years old. I was now 10 years old. We would head
out to the stream and dip our feet in the murky water. Tales of njuzu (mermaids) would flow and gossip
about who had recently been labeled a witch was plentiful. We reveled in the
stories of fights and which teenage cousin had fallen pregnant and eloped before
the elders found out about her disgraced state and meted out justice.

That evening after our
bucket baths behind the pit latrine, we would enjoy a supper of Sadza and curdled milk sprinkled with
brown sugar. The children would be placed in age group categories that would
all eat from the same bowl using our hands, chatting all the while and making
fun of one another. It was a simple meal but one made so special because we
partook of it communally. We basked in one another’s presence as we appreciated
the still quiet night without fear of gunfire or the frightening intrusion by
soldiers or comrades.  The sounds of
muted adult voices emanating from inside the huts imbued us with a sense of
security as we ate our meal under the star studded black velvet sky.

After the plates were
cleared away, the drums would come out and the merriment would begin in
earnest. We would sing old songs which I remembered from the time I was three
years old and perform the traditional dances that accompanied them. The city
dwellers would be taught the new songs and the latest dances. We celebrated
Christmas with Shona Roman Catholic Rythms, Dutch Reformed church hymns and
with old Karanga folk songs led by my
grandfather and his five wives. We danced the Mhande, the Shangari and the Bira,
and we learned the Dhikondo. From the
oldest grey heads supported by their walking sticks to the youngest toddler
running on the spot and falling on their backside, everyone took their turn
dancing, while the drummers feverishly pummeled their instruments till sweat
poured down their faces in rivulets. This was Christmas under the stars, with
the fire burning for illumination, and the mysterious mountains standing guard
on all four sides…

By the time the
children woke up on Christmas morning, the homestead would be abuzz with activity.
The carcass of a newly slain goat would be dangling from a Siringa tree at the
back of the yard. There would be three or four cooking fires with big iron cast
tripod pots bubbling away and the smell of goat offal filled the air. My mother
would be bent over her underground oven where she baked her pink, green and
yellow cupcakes- zvitumbuwa. My older
cousins would be sitting on grass mats, with trays of rice on their laps
getting rid of small stones and chaff. Brenda Fassie’s “Weekend Special” or
some other hit would be blaring from the gramophone planted on a chair outside
the main house.

After a breakfast of
porridge with peanut butter, thick sliced bread with margarine and Sun jam and
sweet, milky Tanganda tea, all the children would bath and get into their brand
new Christmas clothes. That was our Christmas present, a brand new dress and a
pair of shoes. We would parade in front of the busy adults in our pink, green,
blue, red orange, purple and yellow attire and then we would dance, kicking up dust
and laughing as we ate toffee sweets, Bazooka and Dandy bubble gum. We would
drink Fanta, Cream soda and Coca Cola from the bottle. One of my favorite aunts
would bring over a plate of grilled meat and we would eat while dancing. This
is what I grew up experiencing: that when people get together at Christmas,
they eat and laugh and they dance.

Sometimes we would take
a stroll to the nearest dry goods store, where there would be a gramophone
outside on the verandah and people dancing. This gave us an opportunity to see
what the other children in the village were wearing and to see who the best
dancer was. We would twirl, gyrate and stomp to the sounds of Yvonne Chaka
Chaka, Sipho Hotstix Mabuse, Safirio Mazdikatire, Yellowman, Solomon Skuza,
Lovemore Majaivana and Oliver Mutukuzdi. There were at lease thirty children
engaged in dance and we would all get sweets from the owner of the store
because we attracted customers, who came to spectate, to participate when the
beat became overpoweringly irresistible and ultimately to buy beer to quench
their dance induced thirst.

Hot and tired, we would
head back home to more drinks and lots of food: Rice and chicken or goat, with
salad (coleslaw). This time each person would have their own plate and we would
eat with a spoon. It was Christmas, a special occasion which warranted special
eating etiquette. We would eat cup cakes and more drinks and eventually we
would end up lying on grass mats under a tree in a semi comatose state from
gorging ourselves. No one would speak but we would lie in a comfortable silence
absorbing the sounds around us, each in their own world. My thoughts were
always about how lucky we were to have such a huge family. Of my age group we
were about 12 of us, girls and boys and we all got along most of the time. I
would think about how perfectly we all fit together and how special we were all
made to feel by the adults. This for me was what Christmas really meant: being
with family and being made to feel special.

Christmas day would end
with more eating and dancing and invariably one or more of the grey heads would
get totally inebriated and regale us with escapades of their youth. We would be
rolling in laughter at both the stories and the story teller, who would slur
his words or repeat the same sentence three times, thanks to my grandmothers’
potent home brew. The stars would wink at us, a glittering canopy above our
heads, and the fire would jump and flicker in mirth, while the mysterious
mountains stood guard.  

The best Christmas gift
for me was watching the rapture in my 10 and 7 year old daughters’ eyes today
as I read this piece to them. I kept my 4 year old twins engaged and interested
in the story by doing the dances for them and acting out some of the
scenes…they liked the eating parts the most- they are truly their mother’s

Merry Christmas to all
my friends and family who observe this special holiday. And to those who do
not, I hope the story was a good read anyway!!!


Thursday, December 16, 2010

On Roasted Bread and Fried Groundnuts- Childhood Comedy

My uncle Marufu
was the most tolerable of my father’s half brothers. His visits to our house in
Killarney were occasions for great entertainment for my brother and me. You see
uncle Marufu, as he insisted on being called, aspired to a greater social
standing, one which he envisioned as being commensurate with his educational
attainment as a primary school teacher amongst subsistence cotton farmers in
rural Gokwe. What better place to acquire the necessary social graces than  in our home and who better to teach them than
his esteemed elder brother, who was the embodiment of class and style. Our
source of amusement was my father’s source of chagrin, and father’s display of
irritation added another dimension to our live comedy shows.

Uncle Marufu (heforbade us to call him babamudini-small father) had faced many challenges in his life. He had suffered a bout of
poliomyelitis in his childhood which had bequeathed him a shorter left leg, a
shortened left arm with a curled up left hand and a left eye which was
determined to look in the direction diametrically opposed to its mate. The
result one might imagine was a bitter, perhaps self pitying individual who was
beaten down. However this was not at all the case. Uncle Marufu was the epitome
of a self assured man. He seemed totally oblivious to the negative attention
that his physical disability drew from those around him as he hobbled about his
business, shouting loudly and always in English. He also seemed unperturbed by
my father’s impatient sighs and rolling eyes when he sat with him on the
verandah asking all manner of questions which my father had absolutely no
interest in answering.

One Saturday afternoon,two days after he arrived, from Gokwe, Uncle Marufu limped his way to the
verandah where my dad sat, glass of wine in hand, legs crossed at the knees and
blowing rings of smoke from a Kingsgate cigarette. It was a warm Saturday afternoon
and my father was enjoying his time at home with no pressing appointments to
attend to. He looked relaxed in a short sleeved cotton shirt and a pair of
khakhi shorts. Otis Reading was crooning his song ‘stand by me’ through the
French doors. My brother and I were playing ‘crazy 8’, one of our favorite card
games, on the floor next to his chair.

“Tisvikewo”. My uncle
announced his presence. I looked up in time to see my father roll his eyes
upward. Uncle Marufu noisily pulled up a garden chair very close to his
brother’s and planted himself into it. I could tell from my father’s body
language that he felt his space was being invaded. However, he did not say

I suppressed a squeal
of laughter when my brother unwittingly said, “Uncle I like your tie.”

“Thanks my boy!” he
replied puffing up his chest to better show off his bright yellow tie. It was
one of those very short but wide ties and my uncle wore it against a pin
striped red and white long sleeved shirt. Tucked into the shirt pocket were a
red Afro comb and a pen. His Khakhi trousers were well ironed with knife edge
lines running down the front. There was a high polish to his ox-blood shoes and
his hair was combed into a neat 2 inch Afro with any unruly tufts of hair
patted into place. I looked up and my eyes met my father’s. He smiled
imperceptibly at me and I quickly looked away.

“Barbara, go and fill
my glass and bring your uncle a drink please.” As I got up and took the glass from my father’s outstretched hand, my
uncle’s loud voice drowned out the music.

“I will take a Scottish
with some stones please!”

I froze on the spot and
waited with baited breath for a response from my father. It came in a tightly
controlled growl through clenched teeth.

“It is Scotch on the
rocks, Marufu.”

My brother got up from
where he had been watching intently and we both ducked into the house. We got
to the kitchen and burst out laughing, falling onto the floor and soliciting a
sound scolding from my mother.

“You two are very
foolish! You are always giggling and cackling like a pair of hungry hyenas!
What is wrong with you?”

The more she scolded
the greater the loss of control on our part. I could not even pause long enough
to explain to my mother the reason why I was in the kitchen. While my brother
and I were guffawing and spluttering at my uncle’s turn of phrase, I knew that he
was out there, leaning into my father and asking a million questions earnestly.
The thought of my father’s facial expressions sent me into another bout of
hysteria. My sides ached as I lay on the kitchen floor with my brother next to
me going through rigors of his own.

Suddenly Dennis sat up
and asked, mimicking my uncle’s deep accented voice. “Eh Bhabra! May you please
make me some more roasted bread?”

At this, I let out a
squeal and rolled over onto my tummy in an effort to ease the spasms that were
mercilessly squeezing my middle. No matter how many times we told Uncle Marufu
that toast was called toast not roasted bread, he obstinately continued to
request his favorite breakfast: roasted bread with Sun jam!

My mother turned away
from us but I could see her shoulders shaking as she tried to hide her
laughter. My brother was relentless and he addressed my mother as uncle Marufu
would: “Maiguru, I see you are frying groundnuts a.k.a Arachis hypoaea!”  (My mother
dry roasted peanuts in a wok- like pan and my uncle decided she was frying them.
Nothing would make him change his mind on that).

My mother started
laughing, a deep rumbling laugh rolling out of her through the kitchen and out
through the French doors onto the verandah. My father, desperate to be saved
from my uncle’s endless chatter yelled out, “Barbara! The drinks please!”

I stood in the door way
to the verandah and was alarmed to find Uncle Marufu coughing up a lung,
clutching a cigarette in his hand with tears streaming from his blood shot
eyes. Apparently he had asked for a cigarette from my father all part of his
quest to become a cultured gentleman. He heaved and jerked in an alarming
manner and I, forgetting that I was carrying a tray of drinks, jumped back a
little in consternation. The stones in the Scottish clinked against the glass
alerting my father of my presence and of the fact that his precious whiskey
(the elixir of life as he called it) was about to be given to his plebian
brother who would not appreciate the searing heat from its amber depths. I
handed the glass of whiskey to my uncle, who took a huge gulp in an effort to
stop the coughing. I watched with pity as he gasped for air and let out a
bellow as though someone had surreptitiously pinched him. He leaned forwards
and held his hand to his chest muttering, “That is very strong stuff. Yes it is
strong for sure! One has to get used to it. Yes I will get used to it.”

One would think that my
father would have been flattered by the extent to which my uncle went to become
more like him. However he was rather contemptuous of my poor uncle and what he
saw as a fickleness of character. I understood my uncle because I too could
have been accused of wanting to be like my father. I was not allowed to indulge
in cigarettes or drink, however his taste in music became mine and the books he
read would ignite my own passion for reading. I also acquired his drive for
perfection and his discerning eye for good quality in all things from food to
clothing and furniture. I felt empathy for my uncle because, where as I had
accepted that there was no way I could ever be this man, who loomed larger than
life, my uncle had decided he would die trying to be like him at all cost. Even
if it included imbibing what he later on admitted to our gardener was the most
foul tasting, toxic smelling liquid he had ever had the misfortune to drink.
How his brother could stomach Scottish with stones was beyond him.

I thought of my uncle
as I made toast with grape jelly for my girls this morning and thought I would
pay him tribute by sharing a comedic piece about him.


Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Reflections on World Aids Day

Back in Zimbabwe behind my grandparents homestead in Chivi, in the Masvingo area, there is a sacred burial ground which is named the hero’s acre. I guess this is in reference to the National Heroe’s Acre in Warren Hills, Harare, where Zimbabwe’s national heroes are buried. I guess my grandfather thinks his children and grandchildren are heroes in their own right too.
 Anyhow, the hero’s acre in Chivi is strictly devoted to our family members who have died of HIV/AIDS. In 2006 there were 22 people ranging from ages 6 months to 49 years old. To put that number into some sort of perspective, I come from a huge family, some of whom were born after I left Zimbabwe. However 22 people in the space of 10 to 15 years is pretty sizeable for only one family. It is these deaths and the devastating effects that HIV/AIDS has had in Zimbabwe that I decided to specialize in HIV research when I first came to America. Initially I was interested in HIV vaccine development and so I enrolled as a doctoral student in the department of molecular biology and immunology at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of public health. After completing the didactics I wrote a proposal for my research project which would see me in Hauna district in the Manicaland Province of Zimbabwe.
There I conducted an HIV prevalence survey with a sample size of five hundred. My analysis would later reveal a 25% prevalence rate in that particular region of the country which borders Mozambique and Malawi.
While all aspects of this project were important for my thesis, the part that touched me in a transformative way was the different groups of people I got to interact with and to talk with about their perceptions of HIV/AIDS. There was a lot of denial in Zimbabwe and early on in the epidemic the denial was institutional where hospitals did not give a diagnosis of HIV/AIDS. Rather they would write the secondary infection the patient had presented at the hospital or clinic with, such as Pneumonia, or tuberculosis or cancer. At the time I went to do my study, in early 2001, the situation had changed drastically, with the influx of international aid agencies and other nongovernmental organizations spearheading prevention and education campaigns.
I lived in Hauna very close to the hospital where most of my study sample came from. I also drove to outstation clinics to conduct my interviews and do HIV tests on those participants who consented.
I met a group of commercial sex workers (15 of them) at one of the outstations. They were part of a peer education group and wore T-shirts with slogans to encourage their fellow commercial sex workers to get tested. This was one of the most vibrant, generous and wonderful group of women I have ever had the privilege to work with. They were a lively bunch who danced for us  petted my protruding belly, massaged my swollen feet and brought me yams and avocados to “feed the baby”.  I drove out to where they were based in the foothills of the lush Katiyo tea Estates and listened to story after heart breaking story. One woman in particular spoke of how she had no choice but to become a commercial sex worker and risk getting infected with HIV because she had children to feed. The thought of watching her children starve to death is what kept her going in this trade, playing Russian roulette with her life. There was no negotiation of condom use in most cases.
Because of the main road that passed through Hauna to Mozambique, I had the opportunity to meet and chat with truck drivers who ploughed the cross border route, stopping at growth points for refreshments and “adult entertainment”. Hauna was one such growth point. They were rather amused to see a heavily pregnant woman who had the audacity to question them about their sexual behavior, which was still a very hush hush subject.
What I came away with from this experience was that while an HIV vaccine was definitely worth working towards, it would be a long time in coming. I also realized that I needed to be where the people were, to try to figure out why it was that, despite knowing about HIV/AIDS, knowing also that it could easily be prevented with condom use, people continued to engage in high risk sexual behaviors. There was a fatalism that frightened me as I listened to people say they would rather not know their status and some of this was due to the fact that people knew there was no cure. Therefore the knowledge that one was HIV positive was in essence a death sentence many people did not want to live under. Drugs were available but at such exorbitant prices that only the very wealthy could afford them and even they soon succumbed to full blown AIDS when their wealth was eroded by fantastic inflation rates. At that time there were very few government programs for HIV drugs and these were mainly in the urban centers.
Women whose husbands refused to use condoms yet went around philandering were the most vulnerable. We looked on helplessly as husbands would get sick and die. A few years later the widows would succumb to AIDS and die, leaving behind orphans in the care of grandparents or other family members. Not long after this the grandparents would die of old age or fatigue or both, leaving behind child headed households. The 10 or 12 year old would drop out of school in order to fend for his or her siblings. All this was unfolding and the AIDS epidemic was ravaging the country, which was also falling apart at the seams politically and economically.
 At the peak of the epidemic Zimbabwe was experiencing hyper inflation as never before seen in history. There was a mass exodus of doctors and nurses many of whom were fed up with working under frustrating conditions. There were no drugs to treat patients. Patients had to buy their own surgical paraphernalia (sutures, medication, antibiotics, gauze) and place a huge down payment before they could be attended to.  Public health became nonexistent and those with family members in the Diaspora fared better than the rest.
I will never forget the faces of my study participants who tested HIV positive and had opted that I tell them their results. I hated what I was doing because here I was delivering such news to someone and having absolutely nothing to offer them except, that hopefully my research would advance the quest for a vaccine, and a cup of Mazoe orange crush for their time.
Often I would go home in the evening with my nurse Memory, and I would ask her how she was so adept at leaving her work out in the field.
‘We are so used to this. We are at funerals every weekend and sometimes as they are lowering the coffin in one grave you are rushing off to another graveside for another relative. We have become accustomed to the walking dead among us. You can pick them out as you walk along the streets: pink lips with blood vessels almost bursting under thin membranous skin, the huge lymph nodes behind the ears, the dull ashy skin covered in a fine rash that refuses to heal, the thinness that does not respond to any amount of food and the babies that are born but never grow and mew like kittens. I guess after a while we have become numb, desensitized from living in this society. We don’t even cry at funerals anymore. It’s so sad because it is as though we have lost our souls and we can no longer mourn. Or maybe our grief is so huge that if we allow it expression, it will annihilate us.’
Many a night I cried myself to sleep, thinking of the young woman married to a soldier deployed in the Democratic Republic of Congo. She had come for a test, confident that she was HIV negative because she had recently delivered a healthy baby boy. She had emitted a dry hollow creepy laugh when I told her she was HIV positive. Then I saw the curtain of despair fall over her eyes. Later that week rumor circulated at the growth point that a young woman had been found hanging from a tree, behind her sleeping hut leaving a baby boy sleeping in there. Her mother in law had discovered her. Apparently her husband worked out of the country…
Today as I reflect on my own journey I realize that HIV/AIDS has touched my life and the lives of many people I know. As I write this post I am thinking of all my family members, who thanks to medication are alive today and living their lives to the fullest. I will continue my work in the field of HIV both In Zimbabwe and here in the United States where my research is within the African American community. This disease knows no borders and knows no barriers. It is no respector of persons, it is aggressive and  it will take a great deal of ingenuity, patience and great passion both in the primary prevention, the drug development field, and vaccine research to dominate it and hopefully render it a disease in our history (much like the plague), rather than in our present.

On diseases of Affluence and Diseases of Poverty- Perspectives

It was in January of 1994 in Glasgow Scotland. I was sitting at my desk in my damp cold room, with a space heater on to try and chase away the frigid cold. I was wrapped in a blanket with just my right hand sticking out because I was trying to write a biochemistry assignment. It is extremely difficult to focus on glycogen breakdown in the liver when your own liver and other vital organs are under threat of freezing within your body. I alternated between picking up my pen to write, and picking up a mug of hot tea which was rapidly becoming tepid as it lost its heat to my ice box room.
 Suddenly my phone was ringing and I tried to ignore it. I was loath to get up from my spot and to let the cold air into my blanket. However the incessant ringing got me onto my stockinged feet and went over to the side table to answer it. I barely got my “hallo” out when through the receiver, sobbing as I have only ever heard at the news that someone had died, bombarded my ear.
“OK. It is OK. I am on my way!”
I put the phone back on the cradle and scoured the room for my scarf and gloves. I hurried to the hall way shouting to my roommate that I had to dash out for an emergency.
“In this horrible weather?” she shouted from the kitchen from where warm comforting smells of soup and baking bread were diffusing to the rest of the house.
“Yep! I should be back in a couple of hours. I am just heading to Byres road.”
I pulled my boots on hurriedly hoping my roommate would be too preoccupied with her cooking to pay attention to what I had just said. There was no such luck. Instead she came to the kitchen door and leaned on the door jamb, with a knowing smile on her face. She flicked her blonde hair off her face.
“Off to tend to our neurotic Viking friend, are we?”
I kept my head down and my eyes averted and mumbled something unintelligible about needing something from Safeway. I yelled “see you later” as I closed the door and faced the icy wind, which tore at my scarf and fought for control of my hat. As I hurried down Great Western Road, past Leo’s hairdressing salon (where I braided hair on weekends), towards the underground tube station, I asked myself why it was that my Danish friend always seemed to be falling apart for one reason or another. We had been friends for the two years I had been in Glasgow. We met in a pharmacology class and bonded over our lecture’s indecipherable Scottish brogue. That first time, our eyes had met after he said something that sounded as though he had just burped while talking and we burst out laughing. We spent lots of time together, sometimes alone and most times with other friends. We frequented our favorite pubs together or sometimes took turns cooking and holding dinner parties for our perpetually hungry friends. My friend, whom I shall call Lisa, seemed a very well adjusted young lady who was independent attractive and extremely charming. She came from old money and therefore had a stylishly furnished two bed roomed loft apartment in which she lived alone.  However, unbeknownst to our friends she had a very needy side. I have no idea how it happened, but I became the figurative and sometimes literal crutch that would prop up her limping self and self esteem every now and then. This day was such an occasion and as I trudged through the dirty slush, praying that my boots would remain dry, I realized that the role of crutch was one I was getting very tired of.
I ran up the two flights of stairs to her apartment and rang her door bell. She came to the door clad in sweat pants and a long sleeved baggy shirt, tissue box in hand. She crumbled in my arms, sobbing and uttering incoherent words. This was the worst I had seen her so I started to feel a little alarmed. I assumed my crutch status and helped her into the apartment, kicking the door shut behind us. I led her to a couch and settle her into it, as one would do with a child.
Lisa sat for a full two minutes, sobbing and contorting her face with her eyes closed. Her nose was beet-root red and congested, so that when she started to speak she sounded as though she had a horrible cold. The suspense was unbearable so I asked her what was wrong.
She started to talk as though to herself about how she had been sitting trying to study and she had had a flash back of her first boyfriend on the night he told her it was over because she was too fat. She was crying because that breakup and the parting statement from her first love precipitated what would become a life long struggle with anorexia. This was a new twist to our usual “I feel worthless and want to die” theatrics. I had in passing, read about celebrities battling anorexia and bulimia. However I had never met anyone who had suffered from these two very alien conditions. As she explained how she had started out by binge eating then purging by sticking her fingers down her throat, I felt a revulsion and horror at the idea that one could gorge until their stomach could take no more food, and then voluntarily induce vomiting.
My shock I believe was due to the fact that I had come from a country where food was an everyday obsession. Where would we get it, would we have enough and  whether we could  afford it, were questions constantly on the minds of many Zimbabweans who were thankful if they managed a couple of paltry meals daily. Snacks for the majority had become an unaffordable luxury. Therefore the idea that one could have enough excess food around to gorge oneself and then waste it by throwing up before it was digested was something that I could not get my head around. I tried to empathize, to place myself in Lisa’s shoes and to try to feel what she was feeling. I failed dismally because firstly I really had not experienced the kind of love for a man that would induce self destructive behaviors at its withdrawal. I therefore had no understanding of what it felt like to love in that self sacrificial way. My view of love between men and women was that it was too much stress and offered very little benefit. I was too busy exploring the world to be engaged in what I viewed as frivolity.
While I was focused on trying to empathize, Lisa had retrieved a photograph which she threw onto my lap with one hand while she wiped her nose with the back of another. As she settled back on her couch, I gingerly picked up the picture and got the shock of my life. There before me was an emaciated female sitting on a hospital bed, with an intravenous line running from the top of one hand and into a packet of fluid on a stand. All the bones on her face stood out like rocky outcrops on a craggy mountainside. Stick-like arms protruded from her white singlet and one could see the swollen ball and socket joints where her arms joined her shoulders. There was hardly any hair on her head.  I felt as though someone had punched me in the stomach and I could feel reverse peristaltic movements trying to move the contents of my guts upwards to my mouth. I suppressed the urge to retch but stared at the picture, unable to look away from the skeletal figure before me.
“That’s me.” Lisa announced in a matter of fact tone. ‘I almost died. I stopped eating and eventually I could not eat. I still thought I was fat even at the time that picture was taken.”
Suddenly I felt hot volcanic anger in the pit of my belly. Here I was sitting with a woman who had voluntarily starved herself into a skeleton because she thought, no, believed that she was too fat. At this time Niger in West Africa, was experiencing a drought induced famine and I saw pictures of thousands of human beings just as emaciated as Lisa was in the picture, but for exactly the opposite reasons. The people in Niger were nothing but skin and bone due to the lack of food and its nourishing properties. Lisa was skin and bone due to being surrounded by too much food and therefore having an irrational fear of what it would do to her body. My anger was at the absurdity of it all, the irony, the sick joke.
Anorexia-  a disease of affluence. That anorexia was a disease, I did not doubt, because I imagined how painful it was to go without food and to allow one’s body to consume itself until almost nothing was left. It was a powerful disease of the mind and my anger was directed at the root causes of this disease and the societal pressures under which it flourished. The obsession with weight and being skinny and western constructs and standards of beauty were superb breeding ground for this awful disease in which food becomes an enemy rather than an essential source of sustenance.
I wish I could have been more empathetic back then. I tried, however my life experience and the values from which I operated made it impossible. As I watched her sobbing, her hair in her face I came to the realization that the countless hours I spent listening and clucking in sympathy and soothing and hugging were not doing Lisa or myself any good. She needed professional help.  I left Lisa’s apartment having made a firm decision that I would no longer be the sponge that absorbed all her negative experiences. I left feeling very angry that while I had been there for her all the time, she had never been there for me.
As I trudged home, feeling cold and carrying the picture of anorexic Lisa in my head,I recalled an incident  when one day she stopped at my place, all broken down because her 11 year old cat that was riddled with tumors had finally been put down. That was the same day I had received a phone call from home telling me that my cousin, a childhood playmate, had died of AIDS leaving behind three orphans. I suppose the fact that I was not howling and ripping my clothes of my body in an outward exhibition of grief was interpreted by Lisa as meaning that I was alright. As she finished her story about poor Toby the cat, I interjected with my own tale of woe. The response I got was a perfunctory I am sorry, en route to her launching into how she wanted to fly home for Toby’s burial. I had taken this show of insensitivity in stride, but had never forgotten that incident. Here I was mourning a human being, with no financial means to go home for her burial and my friend was making plans to fly home to Denmark to bury her cat.
As I look back now (with the wisdom of age on my side!!), I realize that while we were both fun loving students who found a basis for a friendship, we came from very different worlds which informed our perspectives on life, our values, our goals and probably even our perceptions of each other. Lisa often commented on how serious I always sounded. She saw me as too preoccupied with the state of the world, my world, Africa and its myriad problems. I often wondered how she could be so consumed by materialism and the superficial things in life, like her body, her number one obsession, clothes, her hair color or a pimple on her chin! I was struck by how petty things could initiate a chain reaction, which usually started with complaints about her parent’s inattention to her needs. It would reach the very predictable climax of sobbing, snotty nose and wringing of her hands. All this would be because her mother did not call her that day. She promised!!  

Now, in 2010, as I go about my daily activities I often find myself looking at my surroundings and identifying diseases of affluence or those due to poverty, depending on one’s cultural perspective. I am a public health professional and I am therefore fascinated by disease patterns in populations. Where I come from being skinny is a sign of disease, here in America, it is a sign of good health and a healthy lifestyle. In Zimbabwe being fat (but not morbidly obese) is a sign of affluence and good living. Here in America obesity is associated with low socioeconomic status, poverty, lack of education and poor lifestyle choices.
In Zimbabwe, fresh garden grown greens (organic!), beans, fresh tomatoes and naturally grazing livestock are cheap whereas here in America, one pays an arm and a leg for organically (naturally) grown produce and grass fed beef. In Zimbabwe back when I was a teenager everyone who was someone, wanted to eat hamburgers and fries, which were expensive relative to the organic produce one grew in one’s own back garden. Therefore rich kids tended to be more overweight than poor kids who ate home cooked meals. Here in the States the cheapest food you can get is at MacDonalds, Kentucky fried chicken and Burger king. Therefore poor people are in general overweight and obese.
It is all about perspectives. The same way an American might go to Zimbabwe and be appalled at the conditions under which some domestic animals live, is the same way I cannot get used to walking through the pet isle in my local grocery store. It is an isle that is totally dedicated to the well being and sustenance of people’s domestic pets, replete with toys and cookies and cute little coats. My frame of reference prevents me from attaining any great level comfort in spending money on a pet when I could cater for the needs of three or four children for the amount I would pay for the upkeep of one domestic animal. Yet I am able to understand the value that domestic animals have for many of my friends and I am able to enjoy watching them interact with the canine and feline members of their families.
It’s all about perspectives. And the world has room for them all and is a more interesting place because of them all!