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!