The Modern Common Wind
Leprosy. Amachere. Obukoma. Imbicho.The Old Wind. The Big Wind. The Common Modern Wind. The Disease of the Two Bodies. What can we do? This disease catches you running both ways. If you are afraid of it, they say, then it will attack you. But they also say you must keep away from a person who is having it, or you will be the next one. Don’t be afraid, and be afraid. Fine advice!
Really, this sickness is too dangerous. You are not supposed to speak the name, or the disease is attracted to you. And if any patient should come to you, or you pass one any place, along the road, by the market, at one of our pools or rivers, it makes no matter where, then you must not be rude. You must not. If you let a patient feel somehow ashamed, and leprosy patients, they are easily insulted, why when that patient dies, his shieno will be taking revenge. Then you will find how your own body begins rotting with leprosy in a serious way. That is the reason when old Opilo comes to borrow clothes, shirts, and trousers that cannot even fit him, we do not refuse. That one, the Man of a Hundred Rags, he gives the clothes back without washing them first. As if we were fools. As if we did not know to put them on our bodies like that wouldn’t be the same as kissing his open wounds.
Still, no one likes to die alone! Every misery loves company. That is human. So when we see the old man cut his nails to drop them in our drinking water, we only smile back. We smile and go thirsty.
For the neighbours of a leprosy family, life is most hard. It is most hard and difficult, there is no denying. The heart is heavy always with hidden thoughts. Don’t be afraid, and be afraid. What choice do we have really? Formerly it was better in the country. I am not talking about the English, when they ruled in the Wangas. No, earlier. Before religion came, I mean, the priests on their motor bikes. Those good men with their round faces that turn red in the sun. Or weren’t they the first to insist how in the eyes of God every person is alike. A sick person and a healthy person, rich man and poor, both the same. Before them, people followed the ideas of our ancestors. Ignorant people. They would build huts for lepers away from human habitation, somewhere on the shore of a swiftly flowing river. There along the path you could leave some little raw food in baskets on the ground. Africans have never loved the sight of suffering. In those days no one needed to pretend not to be happy when one died. So quickly the leprosy body was just pushed into a shallow hole, turned over with sticks and covered with ashes. No one cut grass. No relatives, no neighbours were wailing. It was not good to open your lips and take in the air. Besides, wasn’t such a patient dead in life anyway?
That was how the Bawanga near the town were thinking before the priests came. When such a one died it was a time for rejoicing. We buried a leprosy body so far outside the homestead, heaping up thorns and branches there to mark the spot for all time, so no one could walk there by mistake. Leprosy. It is such an infectious disease it cannot stop with death. Did it stop with the death of Asha Makokha? Tell me, if you think I am wrong.
Asumani Tiema, that most famous omufumu of the Wangas, was having seven wives. Together they were bearing him seventy sons. His eldest wife gave him five sons who lived. Shebani was the first born.
Shebani’s brothers have become diviners, too. All of them. He is the number one. He inherited the greatness of his father. People keep coming to see him, arriving from far, even from Uganda and Tanzania. When we are attending to the cows or digging the garden, we may see a man being steered up the path to Shebani’s hut, we hear the visitor groaning as others hurry him on in a wheelbarrow. Later, sometimes on the same day, but sometimes on another day, we see the same sick man walking away under his own strength. Or patients come laid across the handlebars of a bicycle. Babies carried in baskets. Cows are brought, too. Why not? Don’t cattle have stomachs, the breeding place of worms?
Tiema was selecting Shebani as his successor not merely because of his being the first born. Everyone could see he was having a good intelligence. At those times we were all sharing the same ignorance. If you got a letter, you took it on a stick with a split in one end and carried it about the country to find someone who could read for you. There were few schools. Teachers had to write on the clothes of pupils then. There wasn’t much knowledge. Tiema taught Shebani many things. But he was himself so learned that he knew the boy would need other teachers as well. He sent Shebani to study with doctors in all other parts of Kenya.
Shebani travelled out into the world. Wearing a white jellabah, he walked the roads with only the name of his father to help him win friends. That is how it happened Shebani was acquiring his powers. From each doctor he learned some special way of treatment. From one he heard to cure epilepsy disease by feeding the patient the liver of a dog ground up into fine flour, only telling the patient what he has eaten afterwards. From another – they all took him in, the famous healers of that time, welcoming him as a son – Shebani found out that indwasi was caused by jiggers in the stomach, their urine rolling down the legs through the veins so that it thickens the water.He has taught us to be telling the difference between indwasi and the swelling of legs that happens to a thief who is trapped through witchcraft. If you put a finger on the leg of an indwasi patient, the print stays there a long time. With thieves the finger leaves no mark. And it was long ago, too, that Shebani learned medicines to kill. Our African doctors save who they want to. Some, for a high price, will help you from an enemy, too.
Shebani was not yet a man of twenty and his face had already taken on the look it has now. As if some doctor made Shebani sleep and removed his both eyes to pound in a mortar and purify with fire until they were whole again; then trying to set the eyes back, the doctor found they were somehow a bit smaller and so they came to rest deeper in Shebani’s skull. No one who comes to ask Shebani’s help can ever forget the way he looks out of his eyes. The rest of his manners, that way of sweeping his arms when talking, the gestures of his fingers, how he repeats his phrases, speaking so slowly, the rest all developed later. The stare was his own when he came back from his studies. Even a person not believing in the power of his magic has still to be afraid of him. That then was finally the most important thing Shebani was learning from so many other doctors: the gift to overshadow, to convince.
When Shebani came back to Lubinu from his years of wandering, returning with what he had learned from so many masters, he was prouder than any man we had ever seen. Prouder than Tiema, even. His eyes flashed at us. His robe was whiter than the day he set out. (Not the same robe, he later told, another like the first, washed and washed and worn in the sun until it reached the brilliance of bone, fine as tissue, hanging to his ankles.) Shebani was fully informed with new understandings about the delicate balance of the body. Hardly more than a boy, the heir to Tiema was high and mighty. The story of his life since then has been one of humiliation. So many diseases Shebani can defeat. We know, we are his witnesses. Only one defeats him. Leprosy. What disease runs in the Tiema family?
Still today Shebani’s eyes, they flash at us. No one can doubt that he is a proud man who has done miracles in helping patients recover from so many serious illnesses. At the same time Shebani is humble. He has had to accept defeat. The first time was the day he returned from his travels through the world and learned how things were with Asha Makokha.
Not that anybody told him. Finding out by himself, that increased the shock. It isn’t of course the first thing you rush to say to someone who is being welcomed home. Shebani had only one remark from his old mother to warn him. She cautioned him not to return to the former kitchen. He shouldn’t be going near there, not for any reason. Tiema, too ill to rise up, lay in the dark of his hut calling his first-born’s name. There was joy to see on the old one’s face when Shebani kneeled and kissed his hands. Shebani stayed with his father to describe his studies. Slowly Tiema’s expression began to disturb his son. Happiness, yes, but something more, too. There was distress, defeat really, which Shebani had never noticed before. At first Shebani made a mistake, one that was easy to make. He was thinking his father, Tiema, was struggling to come to terms with death. That was the son in Shebani committing this error, not the doctor. He should have been knowing better. How could death be any cause for concern to Asumani Tiema? Hadn’t he been expecting it, preparing for it? Yes, he had even chosen the very place he wished to be buried.
We all came to see Shebani when he returned. Now he was an important person in our eyes. He asked the names of the new children. Who had married while he was away? He told stories about large trucks carrying beer that he had seen drive off the road and crash in fire on rocks far below. He spoke, too, about vehicles for carrying people through the air. That was before the airplanes came flying over our heads, too, to frighten the children.
There were no special signs, but we could see that Shebani was happy to be back. That first night he went to sit under the trees high above the sloping fields, up where his consulting hut still stands. It is so comforting, true, to see the stars again in the places you remembered them when for so long they have had a different look. The night was cool and all the catties were left out to feed freely. The sounds they made chewing grass were louder even than the cries of our night birds. Probably Shebani had just closed his eyes, leaned back his head so that finally his thoughts might also reach a stop, when the first notes of weeping from the old kitchen reached his ears. We were not used to them yet, either. Each night for weeks now we had heard Asha Makokha’s tears, and already it was as if no night would ever be complete without them.
For long hours Shebani sat up there with open eyes listening to the weeping. It was more whimpering, really, someone weeping from fear of too much silence. During those hours there, paralysed, not moving in his blanket, Shebani grew old. Ever after, we say, he carried Asha Makokha’s weeping in his body.
There are differences of opinion about so many things that have to do with Asha Makokha’s sickness, but everyone agrees about one fact. She was the first. Poor thing, she was the source.
To arrive at a count of the daughters of Asumani Tiema is difficult. Even though daughters are the ones bringing cows into the family through marriage, they are always being forgotten at the time of counting. Asha Makokha, for example, is one who is always omitted. Not from negligence, however. No. There are such good reasons for keeping silent about Asha Makokha. And no reasons for supposing any Tiema has ever forgotten her, not for a day.
Asha Makokha was born in 1926 or 1934 or maybe 1937. A year when the river came over its banks and there was an explosion at the Namulungu jaggery. She died at the Asembo Leprosy Hospital in 1968. She was married at least once, locally. The first husband still lives, and sometimes leaves his bed to walk out in search of beer. At most Asha was married three times. The stories confuse us. Perhaps the stories are naming Asha Makokha by name. Or else they may merely be describing a certain beautiful Luhya woman, one who was suffering from amachere.Then we hope to know who these stories are telling about. Even though we are not forgetting Asha Makokha, it is true that really we know so little about her life. What she was like, where she lived when, how she left the Wangas and died – these are mysteries. Everyone knows, everyone knows everything about Asha Makokha once you ask. Only few people know the same things.
When Asha Makokha took up residence, first in the old kitchen and then in her own round hut on Tiema land and did not go away again, not for a day or any part of a day, at least not until the end, that was when she began to make an important difference to the rest of us. Oh, yes, really. Not the things she was saying or the things people were saying about her. Even what she did, her acts, they were not concerning us either in an important way. Already by that time her disease was limiting her movement. She was always at her hut, sitting there outside, under the eaves. Asha Makokha, who once had such beauty that everyone who looked had to look again, she sat by her door and we knew, all of us, that her head was ever full of things. Things she was thinking, yes, and remembering.
In her last years Asha Makokha was having to suffer most terribly indeed. Even some talk was arising then in the neighbourhood about wanting to get rid of her. Days at a time no one would see her. People were always talking then about her death and finding out later, no, she was still alive. Who can blame her if she preferred to stay inside, in the dark. Still, always alone, feeling so much pain, was it natural for a person to go on living like that? We were wondering very much what we could do. Shebani, he was knowing about his sister as much as anyone, and he just went on accepting.
No one is denying that Asha Makokha was the first. Also we are agreeing that Emmanuel, son of Asumani Tiema’s brother Wattako, followed her soon after. Even though the two of them were living somehow apart. Asha Makokha was not yet returning from her first husband when Emmanuel was showing the early signs of his disease. No one is suggesting that Emmanuel was catching his leprosy from Makokha. Still, you can’t help what people are thinking for themselves. We are so careful always in determining the order.
After learning to tell weeds apart from our good Luhya crops, Emmanuel became a good farmer. He was having many friends, too. That was a natural thing. Such a good dancer as he was, and a maker of songs. At the time he was achieving his maturity, there were always flowers in the ground on all sides of Emmanuel’s bachelor hut. As we were passing, it made a very pleasant sight for the eye, the flowers. Bougainvillaea was even growing up over the door on to the grass roof. Emmanuel had his cuttings from the wife of the missionary. Chickens he was having, too, and a dog. Some people are not remembering about the dog, but I do. That dog always looked like it was sleeping or maybe dead except for one ear that stood straight up so you could know he was all the time listening to hear if any wild cat might be coming for a meal of chicken.
If any woman from around here claims that when she was a girl she did not see the inside of Emmanuel’s hut, then probably she is wishing she had. Him standing in the doorway, the flowers at his feet, with his good temper and a girl knowing, too, how hard he was always working, of course she had to be curious. If it was a woman approaching, that dog never even lifted its head.
Emmanuel wasn’t one to go talking about how he played sex, either. Other boys his age, they were quick to tell. No one remembers Emmanuel having many words about anything, in fact. Even before the time he was meeting Margarita. Laughing, yes, and greeting everyone, but for the rest very private.
Church people are sometimes not very Christian. I am thinking of those who keep saying that what happened to Emmanuel was his own reward. By that they are not meaning his catching the wind. God, after all, decides who will have a disease, who not. No, their remarks concern how his illness developed in such a serious way. For that, they say, Emmanuel can thank only himself. Many people here. According to their thinking, Emmanuel was trying to hide his disease!
Hide leprosy? How can you hide the Disease of the Two Bodies? How, tell me, how could Emmanuel try to be hiding leprosy? Impossible with those Luhya shirts and trousers we poor people are mostly wearing. So full of holes, from far away you see through to the muscles. To my mind, he was having other things to be thinking about then than leprosy. A young man and a bachelor. So many visitors to be entertaining. And his farm – only with so much work could he be making a good crop on that soil. Also with a leprosy that is just showing itself in patches there is no pain. Nothing is alarming at first, only the skin is a different colour – like when you have scratched a bite from an insect. Who is going to notice such? Unless other people, they do first. Who is going to become afraid and go running through the country like a mad person? A woman, maybe, but not a man. Leprosy is not a disease that kills in short days. It is slow.
Emmanuel’s condition was changing when the disease developed around his eyes. He was looking then like a cow with large white or brown spots around its dark eyes. About that time, visitors to his hut began to be less. We would see Emmanuel with more spare time to be improving his flowers. They were increasing in their number. Orange and flame-coloured, also low purple flowers, the favourites of bees. That must have been when Shebani came to Emmanuel with the logongo to be talking about leprosy, the time they were trying to give Emmanuel their advices in a kind way to go to Camp Lepra in Kakamega Town. Instead they only made him to be running away.
After the day of that visit, Shebani pointing out to the village head ‘he different kinds of flowers, praising the character of Emmanuel, the logongo, who is dead now, turning his hat just so, and so, in his hands, Emmanuel changed. Fear changed him, not the leprosy. The disease changed him, too, but not so much as the fear.
He did not know, you see. He wasn’t hiding, not at all. Shebani was probably doing his best to be so kind, but at that time he was already so proud. At first not, but later we could be seeing the change in Emmanuel. It was there deep in his eyes ringed around with those patches. Emmanuel! Can’t you imagine how his heart was just pounding so loud. ‘People in the country have been complaining about your disease. Please, for your own and the benefit of neighbours, you should be going to Camp Lepra.’ Can you imagine hearing those words from the visitors you have welcomed? No threat the first time. Only friendly advices. Please, tell me, it is too much to accept, isn’t it?
Did you ever see Camp Lepra? So many patients living so close together, hundreds and hundreds. That was the terrible thing. To see them together. Better than the huts on the river, more Christian, but how can we not be knowing fear at the sight of so many? Though really, it was just the same as anywhere else, Camp Lepra. By that I mean people just married and made children, only there was a fence and when you went one time behind the fence you didn’t come out again. People there had chickens, too, and dogs, and flowers. Wicked people were saying these chickens, dogs, and flowers were having leprosy, too. I don’t believe that.
Shebani and the logongo, that one was an old man with a medal from the English for fighting in their army, the two of them came out of Emmanuel’s hut then and walked away. They walked quickly, up the hill, not smiling to us or looking to the left or right, not speaking to each other either, each keeping busy with his own thoughts. Emmanuel we didn’t see again all that day. In the morning he was ploughing his fields again, walking behind his cattle, working hard. The same as the day before, and the day before that. But that must have been a different Emmanuel already, one with fear inside. When fear is new, then it is the most difficult to be living with. Like fear before a first child is being born, not knowing how it will happen. So we were not surprised when later, after the medicine failed, Emmanuel disappeared. He ran into the bush to live.
The cases that meet with success, those are the ones our African doctors are always for remembering. The patients who get better, they can tell you all their names. Who can blame them for forgetting the others? Even Shebani has some weak points in his memory. Still, before Emmanuel ran away, when Shebani was wanting to cure him and the medicine did not work, he was not the doctor giving treatment himself. No, Shebani has never known the leprosy medicine. Instead he was recommending the doctor.
We do not know if Shebani sent for this doctor or if the doctor was travelling in this part of the country by chance, the way it seemed. He was a man who had a reputation for being such a good one to manage amachere. Doctors for leprosy are mostly treating only that single disease. The visitor had come about the middle of that day. He supported himself with a walking stick. (I say it was just the handle of an old umbrella.) He was a short person and so very old the skull bone could be seen pressing out against his skin. Half his teeth were somehow rotten and his tongue was covered in a dark substance which he had been chewing in his mouth during safari for strengthening the body. His eyes had so many threads of blood running through them. To be telling the truth, this doctor had only an ordinary appearance, even shabby. Still Shebani was acting very pleased to see him. They shared an embrace like that of true friends.
Shebani and the visitor, they were talking together a long time. They sat apart in Shebani’s hut. Even Shebani’s wives were bringing beerto drink up there, as an exception. Shebani was not sharing in it, though. I don’t think so. All of the afternoon was spent like that, just the two of them, until Shebani sent for his first-born, Sebastian, to invite Emmanuel to come up to the top of the hill. When Emmanuel came, it was night. He was not willing then to move about just by day. Under the moon which was full, Emmanuel’s eyes looked like someone had drawn circles around them with chalk.
The treatment came in two parts that the visiting doctor was giving Emmanuel. First they were taking him to the very farthest edge of Tiema’s property, to a place where there was a large ant hill. The one with three towers, the tallest one half broken and in ruins. It stands there still, only another tower has been trying to crumble. Shebani walked holding his friend’s arm. There was evidence that the visitor had enjoyed much beer. Emmanuel followed them, walking behind by a few steps. Really he was giving the impression that he wanted to be running in some other direction!
It was all supposed to be happening in secrecy. As we were knowing that a stranger had arrived, however, and what with the moon shining so brightly, well, the secret was a few sizes smaller. If I am to reveal everything, then, that stranger, he was also singing in a loud voice. Songs in the language of the English. Perhaps that was for keeping away harmful spirits, but, honestly, it did not help with the secret.
There at the ant hill Emmanuel was given a hollow bamboo filled with medicine to drink. That medicine, okhutaba, is for making a patient begin to vomit and it causes diarrhoea. With leprosy they are doing this to clean the blood, to get rid of the leprosy eggs. Without okhutaba, no curing is possible. That is why the modern doctors with their pills have to fail. They can cool the disease down, but not cure it. If you are not believing me, ask Shebani.
At night, even with a moon for seeing things, when you accept drinking medicine, you must know for yourself what you are doing. You must be drinking at least enough that it will do its work, but a little too much can be very fatal. It will just make you keep vomiting and diarrhoeaing until you fall dead. And it is mostly so that African doctors measure with their fingers!
Before Emmanuel was given the bamboo with medicine to drink, seven swallows, first he had to be using the hoe they had him carry to break the ant hill open. The patient had to dig until the ground was open. The hole was so that after swallowing the medicine, there would be a place for burying the waste that would pass out of his body. In the moonlight, you could not see the red colour of the clay, but everything was turning just white or black. Sometimes Emmanuel stood right up so we could see the sweat then that was shining on his face. Most people don’t remember how happy he used to be for a chance to work.
The best way to be swallowing okhutaba is right away, all at once. Even without breathing, it has such a bitter taste. It is an ash medicine, made by burning the roots of some certain trees and boiling the remains in water.
It is never long before okhutaba will begin having its effect. Emmanuel soon started to shiver and then to clutch at his stomach. From where we stood watching he even looked to be doing a dance. He went some steps in one direction and then turned back, his upper body rocking, and then he would bend over and finally be crawling. All the time the short doctor went on singing his songs, waving his umbrella stick in the air.
For the working of the medicine it was most important that the moon was full. If a hen is still laying eggs and you are forcing it to incubate, they will not hatch. The same with leprosy eggs in the body. When the moon is not full, shining like day, the eggs are scattered. When it is full they will heap together and come out. The moon is the same to the disease as a hen to her eggs. That is one reason why we are believing the doctor’s arrival was by secret plan – the full moon.
Emmanuel son of Wattako! Sometimes he was climbing off his knees, holding on to a tower of the ant hill, and we could hear a gagging noise. There was vomit on his chin, silver it looked, with no one wiping it away for him. And he was fouling his legs. Okhutaba makes you a baby again. You cannot be controlling your own body.
Shebani stood to one side. His face stayed the same except sometimes he appeared to press his lips harder against each other. He had his arms folded across his chest and in the moonlight, with his jellabah, he appeared to be floating even a short distance above the ground. The leprosy eggs in their sac, Shebani was waiting to see them coming out. Or else he was standing there without moving because really he was not believing at all. In his mind, there is always something moving.
When a patient has emptied himself completely, then okhutaba will slowly be wearing off. Afterwards the place must be covered over with loose earth and marked with thorny branches so no one can come there by mistake and be infected by the leprosy eggs. Even under the ground they are keeping their power. It was the doctor who buried Emmanuel’s waste and put down thorns. Often he was sticking himself, and crying out in excitement.
On the way back Shebani carried the hoe. He would even swing it at bushes he saw. Emmanuel was being helped to walk by the visitor who was not singing any more. Really, I think they were helping each other. Emmanuel passed close to us, no more than an arm away. He looked so young and calm, like a new infant.
For some days afterwards he was just keeping inside his hut. Shebani sent a daughter down to him bringing some porridge and tea. The first time she went back up the hill again without even removing the cloth that was covering her tray. Only the second day was Emmanuel agreeing to sip some tea. Also she gave water to Emmanuel’s flowers.
There is no doubt that it would have been better to wait before going any further with the leprosy cure, but Shebani’s visitor preferred not to delay. He was impatient to be continuing his safari. That is what Shebani was saying.
At the time the doctor was going to Emmanuel for application of smearing medicine, Emmanuel could still not walk better than a small child. Such medicine is a powder mixed with pounded bananas and fat from a cow. It is rubbed over the body at the places where the skin has been trying to change its colour. Then for two days a leaf from a banana tree is tied tightly to these same places where medicine has been rubbed. Afterwards the skin of the patches just falls away, the way sometimes you see the old skin of a snake hanging from the branch of some low bush. The snake has been there, you can know, and now it is gone. The same with the patch.
After the bad skin falls away, this is leaving the body pink. The meat to the body there is also somehow tender. To be healing the pink spots there is another powder the doctors are using, one which they brush on with a chicken feather. Then slowly by slowly the whole skin becomes brown or black again like the rest of the healthy body.
With Emmanuel there was a special problem when the doctor came for applying his smearing medicine. Namely, Emmanuel’s eyes. The round patches there. The smearing medicine is so strong. You cannot use it, for example, on the stomach. It will eat through the muscles there. When the doctor came to Emmanuel’s bachelor hut the afternoon was almost ending. The man was drunk and also singing. Always the same. Later Shebani was saying that doctor had not been sober for long years. Ah! he was even fearing that if he became sober he could be forgetting everything he knew about medicines.
The smearing medicine was prepared in a mortar outside Emmanuel’s house. We could hear the pounding from our own compound. The small children went to be sitting in the shade where they could have a good sight of everything even as it was happening. Emmanuel sat on the ground. He watched Shebani who was walking first one way, then back again, his arms folded across his chest. Perhaps Emmanuel was wishing Wattako, his father, was still alive or his mother, but we cannot decide who lives and dies, that is God’s work.
The doctor was careless in the way he was making the medicine ready. Powder was sometimes just spilling on the ground. This frightened the children from coming too close. For the rest the doctor was not noticing anyone, just pounding. Not the way a woman pounds who saves her strength, no, he was attacking the powder. When the pounding finished, the doctor’s face was shining with his perspiration. Then he placed some folded cloth on one hand and piled up a heap of the medicine there. With his other hand he went ahead smearing medicine all around Emmanuel’s eyes. He moved his hands so quickly for someone old. Next he was tying a strip of banana leaf over the eyes and sewing it at the back with sisal thread. Emmanuel just sat on the ground not moving. The doctor called for water to be washing his hands, but Shebani’s daughter was already there with everything he was needing. The whole time Emmanuel was not saying any word. He was licking his dry lips sometimes, or reaching his hand to chase away some insect from his knee. He could not any longer try to see. The children were excited and whispering to each other but their words were not clear. Sure, Emmanuel’s fear must have been rising again from where he had put it away.
That night we were sending the boy soup made from a young hen. Good soup, strong, but Emmanuel wasn’t of a mind to be eating. His land was then only half ploughed. He was not ever working there again in a good way.
When a cure fails, we know it is not right always to blame the doctor. He was only trying to help the patient, wasn’t he? In the case of Emmanuel, however, we are finding that the doctor should at least have stayed behind until the time of removing the leaves. Instead Shebani was doing this. When finally after three days of waiting Shebani was releasing the leaf bandage from Emmanuel’s eyes, oh God, Emmanuel was by way of being a blind person. And much skin peeled away sticking to the leaves. The air had to be burning Emmanuel’s face most painfully. We cannot blame him for crying out then.
All the neighbours were gathering there. Mostly we had come hoping to share in Emmanuel’s happiness. ‘Aie, aie, aie!’ The children were laughing the way they do when something happens they do not understand. A grown man crying out in pain! Then Shebani had his second wife be pulling away so many small pieces of skin that were weaving the eyelashes of Emmanuel together, keeping them shut. The whole time she was being so gentle and talking to Emmanuel like a mother to her child. No, I think you are only catching amachere if you are afraid of it.
At last Emmanuel could open his eyelids. He sat without moving in Shebani’s arms. Water was leaking out from the corners of his eyes. He could see nothing.
‘Of course not,’ Shebani said. ‘It is too soon.’ We could see he was frowning himself, so hard. ‘In some days you will come back from the darkness.’
For the next week we were hearing every day that Emmanuel could see nothing yet. Only some grey shapes. Everything was shadows. He walked on his own flowers. He called loud to his dog when the dog was there next to him. Because of God’s teachings, we were bringing food for Emmanuel. He sat and ate under a black umbrella. We waited the whole time he was eating. How could we talk to him when he himself was not saying any word?
During those days we were not seeing anything of Shebani. Or if we saw him it was at a distance, on top of the hill, his face turned towards Emmanuel’s home, a hand shading the top of his eyes. Shebani was keeping to himself, not at all in a good humour.
Only when Sebastian came running up to his father, bringing the news that Emmanuel was seeing again, did Shebani recover his smile. Sebastian was explaining how it happened that Asha Makokha was coming to sit at the side of Emmanuel. She just sat with him for some time. They were talking together, words no one else was hearing. Then she reached up a hand to touch on Emmanuel’s eyes. From her touch, he could see! At first he was like a mad person. He was by way of shouting then and thanking God.
Sure, Emmanuel was a happy person then, with light coming inside his eyes again. He made promises to Asha Makokha to be visiting her each day. It was his mistake not to have been visiting her before. Devils had been misleading him, he said, making him too too afraid. He would even plant food for her. Still, Asha Makokha told Emmanuel, ‘No, it is better for people to be leaving me just alone.’
Where the raw wounds were on Emmanuel’s face, close to his eyes, the skin gradually grew normal again. It wasn’t, however, a complete success. His sight was staying damaged. From a distance he could not see well. Also the colours he could see were somehow different from what he remembered. We were always testing to see how far away we could stand with Emmanuel being able to tell us apart. Like a game. Poor Emmanuel, he was bumping into many things, especially at the beginning, bruising himself. Yet even that was so much better than mere darkness. He was keeping a very good nature about it. Besides Emmanuel was seriously thinking that the leprosy was gone from his body. Even some of us were believing the same thing. Emmanuel was accepting his suffering as the price for his being cured. He renewed his flowers.
We cannot be sure, but I think probably Shebani was also convinced that Emmanuel was cured. At least he was talking so openly about the great skill of his doctor friend. Today that man is still drunk all the time. He has been seen falling into gulleys and almost walking in front of motor cars. He was so old then that I am not even guessing at his age now. It is a pity for old people to be acting so.
Emmanuel was a constant guest in Shebani’s home. Shebani was even instructing one of his wives to travel to Kakamega Town for buying a pair of sunglasses from the shops. This was a gift for Emmanuel. These glasses had a silver frame. Many children in our villages took turns wearing them – before Shebani presented them to Emmanuel. Some the dark glass frightened, by the way it changed the world that they were seeing. Others it made more serious. Myself, when I put on the glasses, really, I right away was expecting heavy rain!
Emmanuel and Shebani were having a close friendship. To Emmanuel Shebani was telling his stories of travel and medicine. Everything changed when a new patch came out on Emmanuel’s face. Really, like some cloud so thin and slow no one can be noticing it at first, not until it drops down to cover the sun. The patch appeared on the forehead, here, high up, by the hairline. When Shebani was first seeing it there, the evil thing was seeming to spread under his eyes. Himself, Emmanuel learned something was there because the first time Shebani was seeing it, he stopped talking. Even in the middle of his sentence, Shebani stopped. That is something so unusual for him. And such a look came on his face. He was even looking like Tiema at the moment Tiema died.
‘What has happened?’ Emmanuel asked.
Of a sudden he had to understand that his leprosy disease was not cured. Things were the same as they were before the visit of the doctor – only now Emmanuel no longer had the pleasure of seeing things sharply. And in his body, he was always somehow tired. Otherwise he would have been working as he used to, not spending such long hours visiting Shebani. Emmanuel was not lazy, not like today’s patients. Those ones, they receive good medicine but how can they expect it to help them if they do no work? Work makes the blood move through the body so the medicine in the blood can reach every part. There were also new patches appearing on Emmanuel’s thigh, but he could only barely feel the raised edges. He could not see the difference of his own skin.
‘What is it?’
‘What did I say?’ Shebani replied him. ‘If she had not touched on you, this would not have happened!’
Possibly when afterwards Emmanuel was running into the bush it was to be escaping any new medicines which Shebani might be wishing to give him. Also, by sleeping about in the open country, taking his food like a thief, really, except that people here knew about him and we were leaving some food in baskets where he could be getting it without showing himself, Emmanuel was delaying the day when he would be having to disappear behind the high fence of Camp Lepra. He must have been knowing that day would come, but what man likes to be giving up his freedom – not if there is any helping it. Still, sooner or later, it was a sure thing. They would find him and take him. One of the people out hunting Emmanuel with the others was the logongo.Even some were saying he was carrying his rifle with him, the same one from the English war.
It was Sebastian who one day found Emmanuel’s sunglasses. They were lying not far from the flat rock where Tiema’s ancestors used to bathe themselves, leaving their footprints there. Shebani was so angry when Sebastian brought home the glasses. If Emmanuel went back to search for where he dropped them, he could no longer be finding them. It was late in the dry season, too, so the dust was even like a hot mirror to the sun. People with just normal eyes were having to complain, so what must it have been like for Emmanuel then? Unless, of course, he was sleeping in the day like some animals do.
There is also another possibility. Did Shebani suspect that Emmanuel might have been throwing the sunglasses away? Did Emmanuel wonder if Shebani’s gift and not the touch of Asha Makokha was behind the return of his wind? Shebani took the sunglasses from his son Sebastian and put them on to his own face. This was by way of showing he was meaning well with his gift of them. These are the same glasses Shebani is wearing still today. He only removes them now when he wants a closer look at people.
When finally the askaris, those brave policemen, went into the bush after Emmanuel, they brought him in wearing iron bracelets. The whole time the police were leading Emmanuel in, Shebani was wearing the dark glasses. He stayed on the hill. First they went into Emmanuel’s hut for collecting his personal belongings, a few poor things. Then they were riding him in an army car to Camp Kakamega. All the children watched him go. The sight of the askaris and the car which stood the whole time with its motor running, made it for them so like a feast day. They were cheering. In our hearts, we were sorry, but what could we do?
The hair of Emmanuel had grown long from the weeks he was hiding and was filled with bits of leaves and grass. His eyes were so red with weeping, not tears of sorrow, but from simply trying to see. His body was also covered all over with spots then, like a salamander. On one knee Emmanuel was even having an open wound. Flies were coming there to walk and he was feeling their feet in his blood. To be brought like a captive back to his hut, it was ashaming. And for us to be staring so while they accomplished their preparations of going. Emmanuel stood looking so sadly at his neglected, scorched flowers. When the car went away, Emmanuel’s dog was having to run after it. It is true that dog never came back. Some people here wanted to kill it.
From the main road there was a dirt turn-off leading to Camp Lepra. The place was marked with a sign. Kakamega Leprosarium, Danger. The name, that was in white letters. Hatari was in red.
Emmanuel and his escort of police reached there in the hottest part of the afternoon. He was told to sit on the grass in front of a small stone building. There were other arrivals waiting to see the doctor, too, with bundles of belongings just beside them. They shared a nervous way of not looking into each other’s faces.
For so many months Emmanuel had been in a state of confusion. At last he felt somehow calm. First he picked all the debris out of his hair and pulled at the knots. It was too hot. Instead of just sitting, he walked back and forth a little bit, surveying. Some things he could make out, in blurred outline. There were small groups of people sitting together in front of mud huts with grass roofs. Like at home, some were making music with different kinds of stringed harps, others were stirring food in charred cooking pots above smoking fires.
‘I thought they were having a fence,’ Emmanuel said to no one in particular. Some new arrivals looked up at him, nodded, smiled. The fence was so much part of people’s idea of Camp Lepra, it was a surprise not to be finding any. There was no barrier. Nothing separating what was in from out.
There were guards, however. They stayed at some distance, under trees. Men in uniform: a kind of medal on their shirt front, high socks to the knee, boots. Also they had rifles. Most of the time the rifles were stood up against tree trunks and the guards sat playing at cards with each other, or trying to repair their radios. Even when there was too much static, the guards had to blame this on the leprosy patients. Emmanuel learned there was even a barber there, cutting the hair of the guards, first one then another. The barber was himself a leprosy patient.
‘Your name? Age? Are you married?’
Inside the doctor’s office the air was also very bright. The walls were clean and freshly painted. Photographs under glass hung on all the walls. The doctor had a kind voice. He was a frail man from India, with thick eye-glasses. Also he had extremely large hands with fine fingers that he drummed on top of the desk. Emmanuel answered the doctor’s questions with good will. He wanted to say answers that the doctor would be pleased to hear.
‘Emmanuel, have you ever taken traditional treatment for your disease?’
‘That is good. In your family, is there anyone else suffering from this wind?’
Then the doctor was coming out from behind the desk where he had been sitting to record Emmanuel’s answers on a large pink card. He led Emmanuel by the arm towards the window. It was not unusual, really, for there to be bars on the window. So many houses in the Wangas were having bars, too, to protect against thieves climbing in.
The Indian’s face was so close to Emmanuel’s own, he could feel the man’s breath warming his cheek. He had to struggle then not to pull back, not to close his eyes, but he could tell the doctor was being especially interested in them.
‘How long have you been having the disease?’
This question Emmanuel could not answer with yes or no. He swallowed and remained silent.
‘Short days only, or long?’
‘Good,’ the doctor said. There was sweat Emmanuel could feel running down his body everywhere, even the back. ‘Now I want you to hold my wrist with your hand, so, and squeeze as hard as you can. Come, don’t be afraid. Harder. Harder. Now with the other hand. Fine.’
Emmanuel could not tell why, but it had pleased him so much to hold the Indian’s thin wrist in his grasp and to hear the doctor be pleading for him to squeeze harder. He did not know then that people who had leprosy disease in their hands, they couldn’t help from slipping when trying to grip with all their strength.
‘If you have any difficulties, please, do not hesitate to come to see me.’ It was over, the interview of intake. Already there was a new patient standing in the doorway. For seven years Emmanuel was remaining in Camp Lepra and he never saw that doctor again.
It was not that the Indian doctor left, either. Word of his going would have spread too quickly among the patients. No, all the days of the seven years he was still there at his desk greeting new patients in his kind way. Some sixteen hundred patients were living then in Camp Lepra and he was the only doctor. There was not enough time for everybody.
Emmanuel was directed to a small cement building behind the doctor’s reception room. Here the different camp supplies were being kept. Inside he met a short, heavy man whose face was swollen with leprosy nodules. No one could like to look at him.
‘Some people in camp will be glad to see you,’ the man said. His voice was just ordinary, even coming from such a face. ‘I mean the women.’ Then the keeper of the stores chose a set of green pyjamas with a black stripe down the trouser leg. He held them against Emmanuel’s body to satisfy himself they would be a good fit. Then a small bottle of baby oil was lifted down from the shelf, and a package of soap. Later Emmanuel learned that the animal on the soap package was a kangaroo. Whenever he used that soap on his body, Emmanuel slept so soundly. It had a lovely smell. And it was, after all, from the smell that even veterans of Camp Lepra now and then had to grow nauseous. The first time, the soap was a gift from the government. Other times patients had to pay.
Somehow a little bit self-conscious in his new green clothes, Emmanuel wandered towards the direction of the huts and the groups of people that were living close together in the centre of the camp. No one had told him what to do or what to expect. What had presented itself as such an ordinary picture from a distance changed slowly as Emmanuel, with his damaged eyes, drew near. Now he began to see the signs of their disease in the people who were sitting, eating, smoking together. One way Emmanuel knew he was in Camp Lepra was from how these people were looking at him. No one tried to hide that he was staring. That was so different from the outside world. They stared, too, but not if they thought you might catch them looking. And on the outside they were staring to find some small sign of the disease. In Camp Lepra people were looking past the disease.
That first walk was making Emmanuel afraid in his heart. Too many sick people, too many poor cripples. Really, he filled with horror at the sight of so many leprosy patients close together, for he had only seen here and there an isolated case before in his life. He began to feel a loathing for himself for the first time, too – wasn’t he one of those who belonged here, who could fill other healthy people with horror? For the first time the air of Camp Lepra, in the close damp of the early evening before the rain, struck him full in his senses. Without wishing to appear to run, he quickened his step. If he could reach the edge of the area that was smelling so bad, he thought, he could step outside of the circle and catch his breath, but everywhere he turned the air was the same. That was why some people kept a small fire burning all day and night. They never failed to add new wood in time because sitting close to the coals at least the air had a smoky quality. Really, Emmanuel had never before seen how terribly leprosy could be eating the body. Asha Makokha, she was having only patches to see. His own body was not much damaged either. How could he live here? No! He thought of his hut, of his family that had helped to bring him here. Were these people even having a God?
‘Boy, come here. Yes, you.’
A voice arrested Emmanuel in his slow-motion flight. That voice was grave, commanding, but warm. Emmanuel saw a man in a wheel chair, someone unlike other people, beckoning to him. This was Nicodeme Khaeri, his first friend in Camp Lepra. People called him an old man, but that was not his real age but because of what he had suffered from the disease. Nicodeme sat in a wheelchair made from the planks of a packing crate. There were two wheels on each side, the outside one a little bit smaller. The tires were from old bicycles. Nicodeme’s legs were both ending just below the knee. When he sat talking, smoking a chain of cigarettes, Nicodeme always crossed and uncrossed these stumps, rubbing their rounded bottoms at times with his free hand. He wore a beret, one that had started out red but which years of sun had bleached to pink. Sunglasses, too, which he sometimes removed to reveal raw, bloodshot eyes. The corners most of the time were oozing white pus. Also Nicodeme’s ears were looking like they had been laid on a rock and hammered flat with a stone.
‘Here, boy. Yes, that’s right.’
There was never a minute of doubt for Emmanuel, however, not from the first moment Nicodeme called to him, that Nicodeme was an important person, worthy of much respect.
‘You’re new? Any cigarettes? Doesn’t matter, they only make me cough. Come, I’ll show you around. Pretty horrible place, isn’t it? You’ll get used to it, sooner than you think.’
It steadied Emmanuel, having Nicodeme to push along the crisscross footpaths that wound through the camp. He learned a great deal that night, some of which made him laugh and some of which made him grateful that his passenger Nicodeme did not look back and see the fear in Emmanuel’s eyes.
‘The air? What can we do? It comes from the cuts. And we are so careless, too. At least you must be one who washes himself properly.’
Really, it helped Emmanuel to have someone to talk to. Even a crippled person, one who had to be wheeled helpless from place to place. The poor patients Emmanuel saw everywhere, at least they weren’t always trying to get away from you. They weren’t pitying you, either, and thinking themselves better.
‘Here it is not so bad. Sure, we are the outcasts. We are the rubbish. That makes us strong, you see.’
Soon Emmanuel had a life of his own in Camp Lepra and many friends. Friends are a difficult thing for Africans. Family, we know. And neighbours, too. But many new friends at once, new faces and backgrounds that are new, or not being known? Still, the time of hiding in the bush, living like a hunted creature with envy for others as he peered out at them from behind cover of a thicket, envy because they could walk together, talk, sleep, share their lives – that was the worst time! In Camp Lepra there was always something social to be doing. Emmanuel did not talk too much and people liked him. He was young, strong. Nicodeme always had time for him. That patient knew so much about the country. He was often telling history in the evenings, even describing the first arrival of Wanga who came from Egypt with his walking stick and struck the waters of Lake Victoria with it, saying, ‘I am Wanga, open for me.’ For the first time Emmanuel was thinking there were more clever people in the country than just Shebani.
Outside visitors to Camp Lepra, they came and went. Relatives of some patients paid regular visits, bringing food and tobacco. Everyone shared everything. What Emmanuel missed most at first was work. To work, that was what he was knowing best, even from childhood. Sex was there in plenty. It replaced work.
For Emmanuel the day was even coming when Camp Lepra became home for him. He began to talk about ‘newcomers’ and to help others learn the life there.
‘Yes, the people are so helpful to each other here,’ Nicodeme said. ‘It is our natural African socialism. Why? It is because we have no hope.’
Sometimes if Emmanuel was to understand what Nicodeme was trying to teach him, he would have to stop pushing the old man, and walk around to the front of the wheelchair and sit and listen.
‘We are merely thrown here. They give us some aspirin kind of tablets and washing with cold water so the body shrinks again to normal condition, but there is no curing. Here we belong together. Without hope, who is going to be rude?’
‘Mzei, is no one going to get better?’
‘Some. With some the wind disappears by itself. Maybe you, maybe not. That is why we can be friendly. Even our African doctors, they cannot manage this disease.’
‘If I told you the sheep I have wasted in payment, even the cattles. Run here, run there. Nothing helps.’ Nicodeme coughed. ‘So we go on living.’
The first time Emmanuel noticed Margarita was at a prayer meeting which was held in Camp Lepra by a travelling minister of the Pentecostal faith. She was a girl then of about fourteen years with very regular white teeth and a shy smile. Margarita had a round face and her body was somehow round and full, too, without being heavy. Emmanuel tried to move close to her in the crowd but by the time he reached where he had seen her standing, she was gone. Days of rain and more rain followed. Emmanuel had some headaches and stayed indoors. He remembered the girl he had failed to find, how she was swaying slightly as she recited the words of the leader’s prayer. Probably, he decided, she was a relative to some patient and had come to the camp for one day only. After the rain was stopping, and the pain in his head, too, Emmanuel forgot about the round-faced girl completely. There was never a lack of women to keep him company.
Emmanuel shared a hut with four other patients. One day he was just sitting outside the door a bit late in the morning, watching clouds gather from the far opposite sides of the sky, when Margarita was suddenly right there, standing in front of him. She was carrying a tray filled with sesame balls, selling them. Her eyes were like some bird’s. Still there was a challenge in them. Emmanuel did not say anything unnecessary. He paid for one sweet and asked the girl to choose it out for him herself. Margarita gave him one, two, three, and ran off without looking back. Through a tear down the back of her plain dress, Emmanuel could glimpse a gleaming, healthy body.
‘Is one disease not enough, my friend?’ Nicodeme somehow knew. It never surprised Emmanuel, not any more, that Nicodeme saw everything.
‘That one, tell me, is she also having the wind?’
‘Of course. Here – ‘ Nicodeme pointed – ‘on her hip.’
The answer pleased Emmanuel. Nowhere had he made out any open signs of the disease. Now, if the girl did have leprosy, at least he had a chance to be her lover. He was puzzled by this feeling and ashamed, really. Happiness in another’s misfortune is not to a person’s credit. Still Emmanuel was not denying he was grateful that Margarita, too, was one of those with amachere.
In the courtship which followed, brief and to the point, the old man Nicodeme played the wangera.In his wheelchair the marriage broker went back and forth. He was praising Emmanuel’s character, also his strength. He was making the most of Emmanuel’s attachment to an illustrious family. The whole day was taken up by his trips between Emmanuel’s hut and the house of Margarita’s parents. Her father and mother both were very ill with the disease. As Moslem believers they had entered Camp Lepra but soon afterwards, with many others, they had been agreeing to baptism. The father of Margarita carried the Bible with him everywhere, without any ability to read in it. When he sang hymns he would strike the Bible with a flat hand like some drum. Emmanuel was changing his religion then, trying to learn a new way of prayer.
Also Emmanuel needed to send a letter to Shebani in which he was requesting help with the payment of brideprice. Two chickens. Brideprice was not the usual way of marrying in Camp Lepra. People in love eloped each other. But Emmanuel was a Tiema and wanted his marriage to be different. So Nicodeme arranged for the police to carry Emmanuel’s letter home for him.
In less time really than a man would need to travel from Camp Lepra in Kakamega to the land of the Tiemas and then back again, Emmanuel received the two chickens he had written for. Large, speckled birds, one hen, one cock. People in the camp spoke about it then as a small miracle. A few kept silent. They knew how the police themselves had purchased the chickens at the covered market. There was so much friendship in the camp, however, no one would tell.
All this while Margarita, she acted shy, looking down at the ground mostly, silently smiling. She was having to smile at the most unpredictable moments. She said few words. Perhaps she was suspecting that too many words too soon might startle Emmanuel and scare him off. Later she could talk to her heart’s content. It was when speaking that she came fully alive. So in the beginning they sat long hours in near silence, listening to the domestic sounds of the camp, filling their lungs with putrid air and emptying them again, feeling hot in their bodies. Emmanuel was easy to please, Margarita learned, and pleasing him gave her pleasure.
Together Emmanuel and Margarita appeared to keep each other in good health. Margarita persuaded him to attend school. A European woman taught classes in the camp for those who wanted to learn to read and to write. There was a distinction among patients who could read the newspaper and those who could not. Margarita wished to correct their own position. She managed this almost without any pressure, for she soon came to understand Emmanuel so well that her slight hints did what was necessary. During his months in school Emmanuel absorbed little. People knew he was going, however, one day in every week, and for them it was his regular attendance that counted. In the end he could say ‘a e i o u and sometimes y’.
Then one day Margarita climbed on to a stool inside the hut where she cooked Emmanuel’s food and removed the piece of rag soaked in menstrual blood which she had hidden there in the roof among the blades of grass. She took it down so it wouldn’t be collecting smoke from the cooking fire any longer. That explains why so soon afterwards she conceived. Her first born was a son. A daughter followed, and then another girl. With the birth of her children, Margarita grew so talkative. A woman with children was someone to listen to, just as a girl, without, was not.
Emmanuel was not really very surprised that his wife had so much to say. He remembered that look of challenge he was seeing in her eyes the first day she came to him selling sesame cakes. Margarita had words about everyone. And she said very clever things, too. How people would act, why. She knew. Emmanuel began to pay careful attention to her. He asked for her opinion about things he was thinking. And still, when she talked she kept her eyes on the ground much of the time; and that smile of hers, so often it flashed and then was gone without anyone knowing why.
Years passed without much season. Oh, there was of course an alternation of rainy weeks and dry weeks, but even rain mattered less to people who did not work on the land. The moon changed in the sky, the stars, too, slowly rotated. So few surprises.
Margarita’s parents died, first her mother and then almost directly her father, too. She could not stop the doctors from taking their bodies away for burning. Afterwards Emmanuel and Margarita were praying somehow less. The Bible became lost or stolen. New arrivals entered the camp, distinguishable for a short time by the careful way they drew breath or by glints of fear and anger in their eyes. Camp Lepra soon accommodated them, however. It was too convivial.
‘Ah, a pity that. I should think we can do something about it. Certainly worth the try.’
The doctor whose arrival changed things for Emmanuel and Margarita was fat, especially for a white man. His white jacket was spotted with soup. People were joking it was even blood. The doctor was a European with skin you could see right through to the veins underneath. He had slate-grey eyes. He spoke the Kiswahili language with great concentration.
Emmanuel and Margarita had been sitting in front of their hut. She had her youngest on the breast. Emmanuel was wearing a black leather motorcycle jacket with a broken diagonal zip. Some Finn or Swede had thrown it in a wood box outside his church one Sunday. It had journeyed thousands of miles to end up with Emmanuel.
Grunting, the doctor crouched down in front of Emmanuel. ‘No, don’t look at me. Look up. Now look down. Left. Right.’ The doctor had seized Emmanuel’s chin and tipped his head back. There was a moment of hesitation before he did so, followed directly by a display of confidence. Margarita saw that the combination was betraying the doctor’s fear. With the ball of his thumb, the doctor gently massaged Emmanuel at the temples. Afterwards he removed a small notebook with red cover from his pocket, looked around him for some identifying landmark, and wrote down hasty notations. Before he left he looked at all the children. He tried so hard to amuse them, imitating many wild animals, even crawling. Margarita and Emmanuel had to laugh, but the children looked the whole time about to cry.
Only Margarita understood right away that the doctor was planning to operate Emmanuel’s eyes. Towards the evening Nicodeme arrived. The man who was pushing the old man’s chair on wheels had no nose, only a flap of cloth that hung down to conceal the hole in the middle of his face.
‘So!’ Nicodeme was slightly breathless, somehow exhilarated. ‘He has sniffed you out, Emmanuel. He has, he has. Oyenga, the hyena.’
‘Why is he called that?’
‘Why?’ When the patient behind Nicodeme spoke, his voice sounded like it came from very far away and the hanging flap had to move as if blown by a wind. ‘It is because Oyenga feeds off living flesh!’
Emmanuel had few memories of his operation. In a government vehicle they were transporting him to the provincial hospital not at all far away. His face was washed completely with a strong liquid soap that burned when it entered his eyes. Then he was led into a room and made to lie on a long, narrow table covered with slippery white paper. There were some nurses wearing masks and cloth hats they tied under the chin. Emmanuel could recognize the hyena by his high white forehead. Often the nurses were laughing at things the doctor was saying. A number of lamps were then lowered on ropes from the ceiling and Emmanuel received some injections. Afterwards he had to sleep. That is, part of him. Part was staying awake even the whole time. He could feel liquids flowing down his cheeks. Separate streams that parted direction below his eyes. What the liquid was, water or blood, hot or cold, Emmanuel had no idea. Nor in his waking sleep did it worry him. During the operation someone kept whistling, not very well. Still it was comforting for Emmanuel to listen.
The week after the operation Emmanuel had to spend with his eyes wrapped in bandages. They only told him this was necessary after he was back in Camp Lepra with Margarita. At first, such darkness again was making him too afraid for blindness. He was like a person about to be mad, just shaking and shivering in his body. This time, however, he had Margarita, she could see for him, and also, she could talk to him. Inside her woman’s voice were the high sweet tones of a bird. These she knew to use at times to ease Emmanuel in his heart. Other patients, too, they came to greet Emmanuel and shake his hand so that at least he was not alone, not as the last time. Emmanuel was telling Margarita then about Asha Makokha’s visit to him, about her gentle fingers touching his eyes and about Shebani’s gift of sunglasses. Whatever he said to Margarita, it is true that there was never a time she was liking Shebani, not in any true way.
Removal of the bandages from Emmanuel’s eyes took place inside his hut. Quite some people had gathered when the doctor arrived, whistling, a satchel filled with instruments in one hand. That day the ground was very muddy. The doctor was putting his feet down carefully each time but still you thought soon he would slip and fall.
‘And how’s the patient today? Worried, eh? Can’t say I blame you. What if I get rid of all those bandages for you, would you like that? Don’t tell me I forgot the bloody – no, there they are.’ The doctor held up a pair of gleaming scissors. He opened and closed them close to Emmanuel’s ear. ‘Now what kind of animal makes that kind of noise?’ Margarita laughed.
Slowly, turn by turn, the doctor began to unwind Emmanuel’s bandage. When the doctor’s whistling stopped, Emmanuel’s heart was pounding so he thought the whole neighbourhood could hear.
‘Double or nothing,’ the doctor was muttering. He reached out his large hands and removed the two final gauze compresses that had been laid directly over the patient’s eyes. ‘On the first day, the Lord said, Let there be light!’
A cry of pleasure broke from Emmanuel’s lips. Then he resumed silence. At such times we Africans are thinking it so much better not to show our feelings, more dignified. The world was indeed much sharper in outline. Emmanuel’s children, they looked like strangers. Their features, their thin bodies – everything was nearly like it once had been, oh so long ago. They were in good health, he could see. And Margarita?
The doctor slapped Emmanuel on the back, chucked all the children he could reach under the chin, and strolled off again, mud oozing beneath his feet.
It was not altogether a successful operation, however. The doctor’s technique was to blame. Later people said he was himself needing glasses but wasn’t liking to wear them. Be that as it may, Emmanuel’s eyes were better. He could no longer close them, however, not completely.
And Margarita? How did she look to her husband with his restored sight? Now for the first he could see copper-coloured patches, vague in outline, diffused over her body. And her skin no longer seemed to fit her, not as tightly as he had imagined. Margarita picked up the skein of bandage that the doctor had unwound from Emmanuel’s eyes. She was also retrieving the two cotton compresses thrown away in the dirt. Emmanuel followed her movements with his eyes. Then she sat, hands and bandages on her lap. She knew Emmanuel was looking so carefully at her, and she let him look.
Margarita and Emmanuel son of Wattako returned to the land of the Tiemas by night. No one saw them arrive. In the morning, there they were. In front of Emmanuel’s hut they sat finishing the rest of the food they had taken with them on their journey. No one acted surprised to see them, not at all. But we were, very.
When the government decided to close down Camp Lepra, old patients were seen spreading out everywhere in the country. But when days passed, then weeks and months without Emmanuel and Margarita’s turning up, we grew tired of expecting them. And who can blame us if we preferred to hope they would not come? Perhaps they were too ashamed of their disease to return?
Ashamed? No. Margarita she looked everyone in the eye. Both of them, they were looking in such good health, so full of confidence. If we had not known their history, it would have been easy to be deceived.
There was no mistaking that Emmanuel was happy to be home. With Margarita it was difficult to say. We welcomed them with a friendly reception, mostly for Emmanuel’s sake. He took his wife to meet people. He boasted about her, saying she was clever, but she would just stare at the ground then, and sometimes smile. But slowly by slowly we came to realize that What Emmanuel told us was so true. When Margarita learned that we had decided to be friendly towards her, she was losing her own reserve. We were having good relations, the kind of small-harmony people are always looking to find. At times we were even almost forgetting the wind in Margarita’s body.
That wind of amachere though, loves to play tricks. Margarita was not long in Lubina, before she was in danger for her life. Emmanuel did as she told him and brought her away to the new hospital at Asembo. She took the youngest of her children with her, the one on the breast.
After Margarita was there in Asembo she could see for herself what a difference there was with Camp Lepra. There was no comparing, really. Asembo, that was a modern hospital. It had permanent buildings with windows of glass, beds in rows, each with a partition in between. Only some few patients were having mattresses on the floor because of so much crowding. At Asembo there were staff people working to keep the buildings clean, washing the cement floors and washing the windows, too. They began to clean every morning and worked the whole day and the next morning they started again, just the same, spilling out the soapy water from their buckets. Some patients who were not in such a bad condition had to be working for the hospital to keep the grass cut around the buildings. The place was looking very smart. There were many trees and gardens, too. Also in Asembo Hospital, Margarita was learning for the first in her life to wash herself with water from a tap and to use a toilet.
Upon arrival, Margarita was in a serious way so she was given a bed in Ward E. The government was in the process of installing bathtubs for the patients in Ward E so there was noise all the time. What with the building in progress and the constant cleaning, some patients were not getting good rest. Almost three weeks had to pass before Margarita discovered that the patient Asha Makokha was also then in Ward E.
By that time Asha was having no legs below the knee. To walk she was using pads and poles. Her hands were masses of bone like they were melted in fire. With the cooperation of the nurse in charge Margarita arranged for a transfer from her bed to the one right next to Asha Makokha. Not that they were talking much from bed. It was a comfort, however, to wake up, look over and see a friend so close.
No, the place where the two women talked most was in the bathroom after the construction was getting finished. The white tiles on the walls and floors were giving words a special sound. For an hour every day Margarita would wash Asha in the bath. She used a special powder soap which gave bubbles and a strong sweet smell. Sometimes the baby would be joining Makokha in the tub, but usually it fought and cried whenever Margarita lowered it towards the water.
In many places of her body Asha was showing scars from wounds that were never healing, not completely. Still the disease had not marked her face. Only somehow her eyes. They were having that different kind of beauty people sometimes speak about in a leprosy patient.
‘You are so beautiful,’ Margarita exclaimed. ‘What they say is true.’
Asha grew warm in her face. She had not heard a compliment in some years. One of the first things that she was wanting to know from Margarita was how it happened that Margarita, too, was needing to come to Asembo Hospital.
‘You were having such a good health?’
‘It was not bad.’ Margarita laughed. ‘Sister, can it be that you are coming from that place, too, and still do not know about the secret feelings people there are having in their hearts?’
At that Asha grew so quiet.
‘And you, how did you get this way?’ Those were the words Margarita used for inquiring into the matter of Asha Mokokha’s pregnancy, for Asha would soon bear a child. But Makokha was too shy to give out the name of the man and Margarita was not one to force her.
At Asembo one of the white doctors was coming from Holland. This man was very clever. He could take a bent limb and make it straight and he could give a blind person new eyes again. He lived with his wife in a long low caravan of aluminium. The doctor was a big person, but his wife was even bigger. She wore wooden shoes and was practising a piano in the caravan every day for exactly one hour. Sometimes this surgical doctor was having to work at the special leprosy hospital in Uganda, too. They had no doctor of their own to do similar operations.
From the back of Ward E you could look right into Uganda. At that time there were even troubles between Kenya and this neighbour state. Not the peoples, but the governments. In Uganda no one could secure so many things necessary to daily life, like salt and also sugar. Even the medical was having troubles. The leprosy hospital at Baluba, it was suffering a serious shortage of supplies. So it happened that one morning Asha and Margarita were both invited to make a safari to Baluba Hospital. They would ride there in one of the Asembo Land Rovers. Also a man was being asked to go who was in a very bad way. He was even having sores on his face and almost no nose, just a hole you could see right into all the way to the back of the mouth.
The three patients invited to make the journey came early to the hospital office. There they were asked to wait while nurses loaded the Asembo vehicle with bags of salt and sugar and many other things besides. Spare parts for automobiles, medicines, too. The Dutch doctor was watching carefully, biting on the stem of his pipe. He held a list on which he made a mark whenever something else was stowed inside the Land Rover. Jerry cans filled with petrol were locked to the fenders in special racks. Finally some old blankets were thrown down to cover the goods. The doctor’s wife fussed with the blankets a long time until you couldn’t see anything that might be sticking out beneath. Then Asha, Margarita with her baby and the man patient were all assisted to take places on top of the blankets.
The doctor was the one driving. He wore a pair of special leather gloves with many tiny holes and tinted wrap-around sunglasses. His wife sat next to him. Although she was knowing the way without having to look, not even one time, she had a map spread out on her knees. Only very few minutes were needed for arriving at the border. Certain boards with long spikes sticking up and a barbed wire fence were blocking the road into Uganda. When the Land Rover stopped, two guards came slowly up to different sides of the car. Each of them had a rifle and was wearing an ammunition belt across the chest. The doctor greeted the guards in a cheerful tone of voice and let them see some legal papers he was carrying with him.
‘Where are you going, masungul? And what are you taking with you?
‘Some treasures of ivory, bwana.’ First the doctor was joking but when the soldiers were not appearing to like what he said, the doctor’s wife told them that they should be able to answer their questions by just looking at the door of the vehicle. The Land Rover was namely a gift from the people of Switzerland and was having the name of Asembo Hospital written on the outside.
‘Baluba Hospital is where we are visiting and our cargo is only some dangerous leprosy patients,’ the doctor’s wife continued. One guard had stuck his head inside the Land Rover but when Asha, Margarita, and the other patient smiled at him he took it out again in a great hurry. ‘Maybe you would like some cake?’ The doctor’s wife began to fumble with a package of cake wrapped in silver foil but the guards preferred to wave the car through directly.
Soon after crossing the border, Asha Makokha began saying how she thought Uganda looked very beautiful. So much green. Many gardens with banana trees, and swamps. Not so many houses. Villages here were less close together. Asha had always wished to travel into Uganda, ever since she was a girl. She was happy to be making the trip at last.
From time to time, the doctor’s wife called out over her shoulder to the patients in the back. She used very correct Swahili phrases. ‘Are you comfortable? Did you see the lizard cross the road quickly?’ Wind coming in through the window was making her blond hair fly about. Margarita’s baby would reach out to touch the ends of the hair without the doctor’s wife feeling it.
In fact for the most part the journey was just continuing in silence. It was a lonely road and few people were seen. Sometimes people ahead were walking down the middle of the road and when they heard a vehicle approaching they would scatter and run for safety in all different directions. Out of the passengers, only the man patient was feeling poorly and breathing a bit loud.
At Baluba the people were acting very happy at their coming. Asha and Margarita did not see the vehicle unloaded. They were escorted right away to a quiet room for sleep and also a meal of light porridge. Soon after their arrival it was pitch dark. Many patients from the wards were crowding in to see them. There was a lamp on the table made from the seeds of the castor-oil tree, several on a piece of wire like so many white beads. That was the only poor fuel they were having. It gave a clear light, though. With everyone talking, they all were wanting to know only one thing. This was the same subject so popular in Asembo. What was the true cause of leprosy disease? Like always, no one could be saying how it came. Many suggestions, but no certainty. Then one young girl with her arm in plaster up to the elbow tried to ask if everybody at Asembo Hospital was in such a bad way. For herself Margarita laughed.
‘Really they were not choosing patients for this trip who were showing a good condition. Rather the opposite.’ Then Asha told how they were being used, the three of them, for the purpose of smuggling, to be frightening the guards at the border. ‘Even some left behind at the hospital were feeling too jealous. They began saying that perhaps we patients going to Uganda were the ones who would be thrown away and forgotten there.’
On the next day when the visitors from Asembo were returning to go aboard the Land Rover, they found that everything, even the old blankets, had been removed. Now it was not so comfortable as it was before. They were having to ride on the metal itself.
Now it was the turn of the doctor’s wife to be driving. You could see from the back of her neck and shoulders how she was not feeling relaxed. The doctor slept, his head thrown back on to the top of the front seat, his mouth a slight bit open. He had operated all night. So many bad cases had been waiting for him.
At one point the doctor’s wife swerved to avoid a large rock that had fallen from a cliff on to the road. ‘Sorry,’ she called back. ‘Excuse me.’ The doctor only opened one eye and let his head roll to the other side. Then the man with no nose said suddenly to Asha and to Margarita, ‘I would rather have this wind than be a mad person.’ By way of answer, the others kept still. Each was having private thoughts.
‘It is a friendly place, Uganda,’ Margarita finally was telling Asha Makokha. The baby was asleep, bound tightly to Margarita’s back. The Land Rover was passing through shining hills and now and again there would be a river winding below, water catching the sun. ‘Here there is not so much crowding as with us.’ Leaving Camp Lepra, Margarita and Emmanuel had first gone to Uganda to live. Somehow Asha Makokha understood at once that Margarita was going to answer the question now that Makokha had asked her when they were meeting in Asembo. How had it happened that someone who had recovered and was as healthy as Margarita was so suddenly becoming ill again. To show her understanding and also her willingness to listen, Asha laid her head down on Margarita’s lap. That way she could be seeing only little of the countryside going by outside the window, the tips of the trees against the sky, but she could see her friend’s face so completely. Margarita kept one hand with the fingers open resting lightly on Asha’s belly. The foetus inside was sometimes these days already moving hands and feet. For the women it was a happy time despite their suffering. In addition to her own pain each was feeling pain for the other.
‘Sister, I will tell you now what I have never before been telling to any living soul, not one. You are the one I am telling because you have asked it of me. But first let me say there is no anger when I repeat these things. Anger is also a disease.’ At that Asha looked up into her friend’s eyes and the story began.
‘As you yourself know, at the time I was coming back from Kakamega I was just in a normal way again. Really, to look at I was just a healthy person, my skin was a healthy skin. And I was joining people in the country, drinking and eating with them. Yes, they laughed as if welcoming me but they played tricks to make the disease grow worse. That was my mistake, to be trusting their good show of friendliness. Yes, we shared the same food and there was no one saying how I had to be the last to wash my hands before the meal or the final one to stop eating. Tiema’s people, they welcomed me to their homes and even came to visit me. I was thinking they were not such bad people.
‘But for them it was not enough to come by day. They visited me also in the middle of the night. They came when I lay asleep. They stood outside the door and threw those things over the roof.’
‘How do you know?’ The male patient, he was straining to hear, too. Without eyebrows, his eyes looked like they could belong to dried fish. ‘How do you know what those people were doing if you were asleep?’
‘You are asking a proper question. I would find their ant’s nests crushed on the ground behind the house the next day. And one night they were having a quarrel who should throw the nest. Inside I was listening. Even I caught them leaving the bones of isebu fish in my bathing place. So suddenly I was having a very serious case of open ulcers. My disease, it was never of that serious kind before. It was the disease of patches only I was having, not the one of cuts. That only happened to me on the land of the Tiemas. Without fearing, I visited my neighbours and they gave me food cooked in a pot where they had prepared goat’s meat or some other food that is too bad for a leprosy body. When I went home at night is when I could feel much pain and realize I had been eating from the wrong pot.’ It was as if only now, riding in the Land Rover, Margarita was discovering the whole truth, or rather fully and deliberately weighing it for the first time. ‘And truly they want me to die here, but that is for God to decide.’
‘You are right,’ Asha commented.
Something in the road grated against the oil sump so that a loud clank woke the doctor. He and his wife briefly quarrelled whether he should take over the driving. There were corrugations in the road which made the vehicle in its empty condition shudder. The passengers even felt such shaking in their teeth. Only if a car went very very fast, then you wouldn’t have to feel the washboard effect, but the doctor’s wife wasn’t a person liking high speed.
‘But why was it not making Emmanuel get the disease in a bad way, too, the yellow balls and other tricks of those good people?’
‘Asha Makokha, I am only speaking about what was practised on my body. They were just aiming for me. They would watch for me, wait until I went to the well alone, drop things on the path then, or in the water. Even before I came to the hospital here, at the time I was leaving, people removed a pole from the house and they tore some grass from the roof to throw into the road so that I might die.’
Asha Makokha sighed. ‘Yes, those are the things people do.’
The doctor had fallen asleep again and was snoring. His wife drove on back towards the border with her husband’s special gloves on her hands. Asha Makokha sang softly to the baby whose curious eyes were peering down at her from behind Margarita’s shoulder.
‘I have been hearing the words you say,’ the male patient informed Asha and Margarita. Whenever people listened to him they looked away because of the hole in the middle of his face. He didn’t like that. It made him wish to close his eyes when he talked, but what could he do? ‘I, too, when I was still living at my home place, used-to be hearing so many useless things that people were trying to practise against me so that the disease should grow worse. People were bringing me their different stories like expensive gifts. But me, I used not to follow or to believe them. Otherwise I would have to be fighting this one and that one.’ The driver honked the horn, but the patients could see nothing on the road ahead. ‘I did not want to quarrel. After a little while the stories were stopping.’
‘Or people told them to each other,’ Margarita said, ‘instead of to you.’
‘Anyway, for myself, I just believe this wind to be decided by God to come to me, whatever people say.’
When Asha Makokha’s child was born, a boy, it was an easy birth. The baby was just healthy and for some months all was going well. Juma they called him, in honour of Asha Makokha’s grandfather. When Asha’s own breasts went dry after some weeks, Margarita even nursed the new baby along with her own child. The two infants, they were favourites in Ward E. It was a happy time, despite the hospital surroundings and even with Asha’s poor body torn and damaged as never before.
As for Margarita, her old wounds had almost healed: Then, without warning, she suffered her very first lucio attack. Overnight there came sudden swellings to cover her entire body, lumps and cones. Her nerves were enlarged and tender. No position offered any comfort, there was always a sore place rubbing raw against the mattress. Asha Makokha could not assist her friend physically. She could only do her best to keep up Margarita’s courage. And, when Asha could no longer stand Margarita’s pain, she would scream for the nurse. Those screams were loud ones, terrible for the other patients to hear. For herself Margarita was stubborn, not giving way to pain. It was her habit always to be thinking that worse pain was coming and so for now she had better hold out as best she could. Even then during the attacks which gave her a feeling of being at war with her own body, she kept a command over her secret smile. Why, asleep, that smile might convince people she was a newborn child.
And all the time Margarita was having to wonder where the new seriousness of her leprosy could be coming from. Did she have an enemy in the hospital? We know of stories, too, where people from outside bribe the nurses to be putting poison in a patient’s food. Bed is not always such a safe place! But Margarita was suspecting that the blame this time, truly it had to be nobody else’s but her own. Why? – for telling Asha Makokha the story of how people in Lubinu had played their tricks on her. There must have been spirits listening. Or perhaps her mistake had been to take Asha Makokha’s baby on her breast? No, for her friend she would do that again, gladly. Often when not awake, but not asleep either, Margarita was undecided what to think. Her mind drifted and was ever changing. With such a wind who can ever say how or why it is coming?
Doctors, they were gathering now several times in the day to see Margarita. They would stand not far from her bed, talk with each other in serious low voices. Then maybe one would leave the group, come closer to feel Margarita’s pulse or to see if she could bend her leg. With flat sticks they would collect pus from the whorls erupting everywhere from her flesh. These doctors tried new medicines and combinations of medicines. Injections, but also pills with stripes and red pills and sweet liquids and rubbing ointments with such strong smells that other women in the ward had to complain. Some medicines worked, some did not. There were even short periods when all Margarita’s distress would clear. Then she was weak but coherent. At these times the Dutch doctor’s wife was her special companion, bringing thermoses filled with weak pale tea, caring for Margarita’s baby and Asha Makokha’s, too. She was clumsy, large and generous the way a woman is who has no children of her own.
Asha Makokha’s health was going down, too. She had stayed at home without treatment too long so that now her bones were infected in a way no one could stop. Also the roof of her mouth was collapsing, her eyes, her lungs. The doctors had thought that pregnancy and birth would be dangerous for her. Her condition upon arrival had been so poor there were even voices against admitting her. A death was never good for the name of the hospital.
For three weeks Margarita wife of Emmanuel hung between life and death, her breath by times too weak to disturb even a mosquito alighting on her lips. A priest was coming to pray for her at bedside. The other patients, they heard him but about Margarita no one could be certain.
‘You must learn to obey God who is merciful and the only ruler. You must learn to face the highest court. Your blood, your meat, your bones will remain here. They will rot. Now you are facing up to what you have done. What you are going to be asked for is your soul.’
For three weeks a great many notes and photographs were taken. Doctors no one had ever seen before came to look at Margarita, to give their opinion and then to disappear again for good. A group of medical students in training were given a lecture while the doctor pointed with his pencil at different signs of Margarita’s suffering. Some of them were becoming weak in the knees. The other patients went on with weaving mats and exercising their hands, opening and closing their fingers in time to a definite count. You could not tell what they were thinking. Death is a subject they preferred to avoid, until it happened.
Finally, smiling, Margarita emerged from her long crisis. It was over, just like that, her first ordeal. And a few days before, less than five, Asha Makokha had died. Her death was a quiet affair, of hardly any medical interest. She had held out as long as possible. She had not wanted to die without knowing if Margarita was going to recover.
The heat was such that it was necessary to remove a leprosy body right away. One of the nurses told Margarita that her friend had been buried in the hospital grounds. Patients from the hospital had washed the corpse, wrapped it property and dug the grave. The government paid them a small wage for doing these duties. Until Margarita was better enough in her health to explain that she was a relative to Asha Makokha and to name the name of the Tiemas, there had been no way to know what family to inform about the deceased. On arrival Asha herself had not spoken about her home. She was feeling so ashamed of her neglected condition.
The doctor’s wife had been caring for both Margarita’s and Asha’s sons. She had made a place for them in her caravan, side by side in the corner next to the piano and across from the rabbit cage. Now as Margarita continued to regain strength, a cot for the children was set up right beside her. Usually she left her own child lying there, but took Asha’s new baby to sleep on the mattress with her.
A time came when Margarita inquired into the place where Asha Makokha lay buried. By then her own body was beginning to feel a little bit all right. Even the doctors were acting pleased with her.
The day was clear. For Margarita things which were themselves bright looked brighter still. For weeks and weeks she had not been setting foot out of the ward. She had grown so used to the semi-dark ‘.nd to sounds of muffled suffering. The rest of life had just faded, like some far-away stream, one you could hear only occasionally, the water passing over stone. For so long now Margarita’s world had been a mere landscape of beds and bandaged patients, carts on wheels with bottles and labels, impatient nurses, white linen growing foul and stained and then renewed to white again. So much white, and black and grey.
Now the trees, the lawn, thickets with berries, bursts of flowers, the freshness, the colour were a celebration. Air rushed into Margarita’s lungs, welcoming her. She was even lifting up her hands as if she might touch the insubstantial, feel the world. Most beautiful of all was a view of the distance, the Tororo hills in Uganda. As she looked, Margarita could feel her smile changing on her face until it was wider than it had been in so long, like a wound that has been given stitches but stretches in the healing. Really, to ask for anything more than one day at a time, that would be too ungrateful.
Margarita had already begun to practise walking inside the ward, testing her legs to carry her some short distance. Outside, after few steps, she knew to go further she would need help. Leaning against a support of the portico roof, Margarita was considering whether to return to her bed when an old man in a wheelchair called to her. Someone with a pair of sunglasses and a beret of a faded red colour. ‘Come,’ he said. ‘We two, we are both children.’ By holding on to the handles of the man’s wheelchair, Margarita could more easily keep her balance. And other people thought it was she who was being so helpful! Without hurry the man took her all the way to the quiet plot near the far edge of the hospital grounds where Asha Makokha’s body lay newly interred.
Especially when the man in the chair would speak, choosing his words carefully and well, Margarita had to smile. She recognized the voice. She knew it was Nicodeme from Camp Lepra. Still she did not want to tell him she was his old friend. She did and she didn’t. He looked very much the same except now his hands were swollen and some fingers were gone, too. Also his wheelchair was a fancy modern model made of gleaming metal. Isn’t it true that more than almost anything else people would rather believe that their old friends are not suffering any more?
‘You see, she has been cured,’ Nicodeme said. ‘Finally.’
‘God must have loved her very much,’ was Margarita’s answer. That was what the wife of the Dutch doctor had been telling her,’- to let her suffer so.’ Only now, the end of the woman’s message of Christian consolation, that Margarita was keeping to herself.
Next to the old man in his wheelchair, Margarita on the ground sat still some minutes in a kind of peace. The sight of the soil and footprints of an animal across the grave, they began to fill her with feelings of loneliness. Then, as in a dream, Margarita said, ‘Mzei, you and I, we are knowing each other many years already now. We were even friends in Camp Lepra. I am the wife of that Emmanuel son of Wattako whose eyes were always shedding much water.’ When Nicodeme failed to reply, Margarita looked up. He was sleeping, his head back, his dark cracked lips so slightly open. She could see now how badly his sunglasses were needing cleaning, but to try to remove them would risk waking the old man.
We are not remembering when Margarita was returning to Lubinu from Asembo Hospital, not exactly. At present it is as if she never was away. But then? No one, I think, was missing her, not really. After she was back, when we became used to her, she belonged. That is all. What is, is.
Shebani probably can name the day Margarita returned. He has reasons, we must be thinking, for keeping an accurate memory of Margarita’s homecoming. Days here, though, they are so much the same. What difference is it making on which one Margarita’s new life began?
Of course Margarita sent no word on ahead. The day of her discharge she was merely accepting bus fare from the administrative director of Asembo and leaving there. A few friends, some serious cripples, waited with Margarita for the bus to come. No one said goodbye. All the way home Margarita wore a little smile. She set out for Lubinu without expectation or dread. Illness had cured her from the habit of wondering about the future. Ask nothing from tomorrow, then how can it disappoint?
Even though the parcel of properties which Margarita carried was not heavy, she frequently stopped to rest during the foot journey which followed the bus ride. Despite all the years, it did not seem such a long time that she had been away. It was almost as if Margarita took many rests to keep herself from hurrying. She did not want to appear eager.
Those people on the bus, so many going places, they were expected, welcomed on their safe arrival. They were wrestling packages in and out of the racks overhead or shouting loudly for attendants to climb on to the roof of the bus to lower down a bale or suitcase. Really, so much to notice. In Asembo Hospital life had become predictable, comfortable even, and very private. On the bus Margarita had changed her seat several times. Then she always looked back to where she had just moved away from, as if she had hope of seeing herself sitting there still, one cheek pressed against the window, staring out into the countryside. Few patients discharged from Asembo Hospital choose to send word ahead. They are not thinking to surprise, but why not let a sleeping dog lie?
One of Margarita’s stops for resting was at a footbridge over the narrow nameless river where, in a previous life it seemed, she had come so often early in the morning to bathe. It was her custom then to wash before sunrise, enjoying how the dark lifted and how first sunlight made the parts of her body under water visible. There were young women down there now, splashing each other, rubbing sponges across each other’s backs and breasts, laughing and singing through their teeth. Colourful clothing lay scattered on the far bank, together with clay water-jars and calabashes the bathers had carried with them. When Margarita went to Asembo, these women had been shy girls, children who kept silent and at a little distance when women went to bathe.
As Margarita continued on her way, she chewed a new thought. Some of the bathers who looked up at her, staring into her face, surely they must have recognized her. But no one showed it. To Margarita it did not occur that in the years she had been kept under care of the doctors, the months when she had balanced on the edge between life and death, the moments of pain so bad that only by deceiving herself that this pain belonged to someone else could she keep from giving a scream that might never have ended, no, it did not dawn on Margarita wife of Emmanuel, returning to the only place she ever had called home, a place peopled with enemies who she believed had conspired to bring about her death, that perhaps she herself had changed so much in her appearance, that with the sun shining down from behind her, none of the bathing women with water on their eyelashes, with cold stones under their feet, would know, would even guess, who she was.
Perhaps one of them did. At least less than a minute after Margarita had stopped smiling and walked ahead, this particular woman waded silently to the bank and sat there with her head forward, resting on her knees.
Almost before she knew it, there in the distance Margarita could see the roof of her hut, the thatch gone grey with age and exposure. She rounded a towering clump of bamboo and the whole scene grew familiar. Now, with every forward step, she went on repeating to herself the resolution she had formed in the hospital. A promise she was making when the doctors advised her that she was being released, one she had told no one about. How people looked at her, what they did or said – she would not let it matter. Friendly, not friendly. This time she would keep to herself. Yes, for a hundred per cent. The last time, after Camp Lepra, she, the wife of a young man, had believed in the welcome people gave. She had gone visiting. She had laughed when they laughed. And she had thought of herself as healthy. Now, she accepted the truth that leprosy disease was never going to leave her body. Amachere, it did not let go. The doctor at Asembo had told Margarita to go to the health centre for an examination immediately after reaching home. She should go on with receiving proper medicine at a tree clinic near where she lived. On and on. Margarita shifted her pack, mostly belongings of the late Asha Makokha, and she thought, ‘Well, let us see how long it lasts this time.’
By now the fields along the path were filling with curious children. Children are always the first ones to see that a visitor is coming. They rush out to stare, for them it is allowed. As Margarita walked past they whispered to each other, crouching down among young maize stalks, their dark eyes at a level with the pale green tassels. Most of these children, when Margarita had left Lubinu, had not yet been born. She had no names for them, no stories to match with their faces. Her own children? They would be returned to her. Oh, yes. This time – she would keep to herself, and her children.
These children did not react to Margarita as if she were a stranger. Why? Was there something in her walk, some way she took the surroundings in with her eyes that told them she, too, belonged there?
‘Nya!‘ Margarita swiped an insect from her forehead. Of course people might think Margarita had to know how changed she was in her appearance. Couldn’t she feel the difference of her skin? Ah, they might think so, but then they would be wrong. Her leprosy fingers had no normal feeling left in them and so the skin of her face was still somehow smooth to touch. And as for the sight of scabs, the spider wrinkles on her arms, across her trunk and over all her legs – Margarita still thought of her body as a young body. From the inside, it was not feeling so different now from when before the lucio attacks had begun. In fact Margarita was having a photograph of herself with Emmanuel that was taken in a shop in Kakamega soon after they met. They had even to sneak past the guards at Camp Lepra into the town for visiting the photographer. To pose Margarita was given a special dress to put on. Nicodeme had arranged for Emmanuel to have a white shirt. Ten shillings it cost, the expense was a bit extra for leprosy patients. Margarita always thought of herself as looking the way she looked in that happy photo. Who can blame her?
The house Margarita returned to was just derelict. More of the walls had crumbled away than still stood. The grass of the roof was thinned and disarranged by wind and rain. The door hung crooked. Margarita had expected to find some work that would have to be done, reclaying at least. What met her eyes, however, that was so bad she had to smile. Then and there she decided not to move back into those ruins, never. Look, the front post still lay in the dust a few yards away. The roof support someone came by night to pull out from under the eaves, in a magical gesture to kill her. No one had removed it. For the Luhya to see a house like that is a sign that the person living there has died. But Margarita only shook her head and walked a short distance away. She had learned not to listen to the shriekings of memory. The past, it could only touch her if she let it.
Emmanuel was nowhere to be seen. Margarita could not help looking for the son of Wattako even though she knew he would be away. Even she was preferring a time by lierself for growing accustomed again to the world. Anything other than utter loneliness, anything more, would take getting used to. Since Asha Makokha’s death, there had been no one, really. Emmanuel was in the town now. He had work there, Margarita knew, as night watchman. A relative of Nicodeme had hired him. And also Emmanuel had inherited a wife. A woman old enough to be his mother, they said, a leprosy patient. She had a prayer mat and would sit on it to worship outside the mosque in the town on Friday, touching the ground with her forehead. The patients coming to Asembo, they had much news to share. Something for everybody.
Margarita looked down and watched a file of ants disappearing into a black hole in the ground. What she had to do now was stay put. Life would reform by itself. Left alone, weeds will grow. Others, without her asking, had already gone to find Emmanuel, she knew, to argue with him to come back to her.
Back straight up against one of the young eucalyptus trees which she had urged Emmanuel to be planting when they first came to the land of the Tiemas, trees grown so tall now, just the way she had described, Margarita sat with her face out of the sun, legs extended their full length in front of her. She wore the blue dress of the hospital with its small round frayed white collar. So through the next years she sat. Her posture, the dress, the same. Mostly her face was like an old mask, but sometimes for visitors the mask broke into a warm human face. And after Emmanuel did return and they had brought more healthy children into the world, Margarita slowly by slowly allowed herself more freedom. She wandered to the next homestead. She stood chatting to the women there – Tiema’s relations by marriage. But never further. And never did she accept an invitation to sit down. Really, we just invited, she refused.
As long as she remembered nothing, only felt the sun and shade making their claims on her body, watched Emmanuel walking about in the rags he wore so well, busied herself with the children, then she stayed shy, peaceful. Only when one certain memory separated out from all the rest, only if slowly Asha Makokha’s face, defiant with beauty, rose again into view, then Margarita had to grow angry.
That first hot day of Margarita’s return to us, worn out from her walk, from the hours of jolting along in the full bus, too, Margarita had all but fallen asleep directly when finally she sat on the earth near the remains of her hut. Her eyes, they closed – but not completely. It was as if she sat waiting for some person to keep an appointment. She was a trifle early, that was all, but whether by an hour, a day, or a year was not certain. Our children spread the news. A woman with such a flat nose had come to sit near the house of Emmanuel. Then they had hurried back to sit in rows at the edge of the fields where Emmanuel had raised millet in the past. Cassava was planted there now. Cassava is a lazy man’s crop. Drought does not kill it. Margarita knew that after Camp Lepra Emmanuel was not working so hard any more.
At first through her half-closed eyelids, breathing so silently, Margarita thought she was seeing a cloud come floating down the hill. Every so often the cloud would stop and then she saw dark arms rise out of its sides and then draw back in again. Days of such harsh illness, careening within easy reach of death and then, to her endless surprise, cheating death despite her own lack of any strength for making an effort – such days had made Margarita used to visions. She no longer tried in a great hurry to put them out of her mind, no longer opened her eyes wide as if in that way she could chase them. Rather she learned to welcome them, to inhale them deeply as her privilege. Besides, she knew at once in her heart what it was, who it was. Shebani in his jellabah.
‘Margarita wife of Emmanuel, greetings. But you did not send word?’
Margarita grinned. This was not the smile the children loved. It was a grin to confuse the doctor, a grin you could burn your eyes on. The doctors, they were always after her to tell about her pain. To give it words she knew could only make it worse. So she grinned instead and they could not reach her.
‘No.’ Margarita was having to decide how much kindness there was to hear in Shebani’s voice. With him, that was never easy. In seven years he had not aged. Not a hair was different. Or maybe he aged from morning to night, every day the same and then, asleep, was renewed like the moon. One day perhaps the moon would drop out of the sky but until then it would appear splendid as ever. Margarita ran her fingers through the dry soil, truly smiling now, eyes on her lap.
‘He has gone for a funeral, Emmanuel.’
Without interrupting the meaningless drift of her fingers, still with her eyes down, Margarita did something no one outside the Tiema family had ever done before. She contradicted Shebani.
‘Oh, brother, no, he has not.’
‘He has not,’ Shebani agreed. Those few words, they were so important.
The children began to giggle despite themselves because of their not understanding. They were clasping hands over each other’s mouths. Shebani looked hard at them but they were not minding. Very carefully he adjusted his jellabah before speaking again.
‘Did you travel well, Margarita?’
‘And now, how are you feeling in your body?’
‘A little bit all right.’
Shebani cocked his head to one side, studying Margarita’s bundle of properties. She could not be sure whether he was recognizing his dead sister’s khanga, the one Margarita was using to wrap her few poor possessions in. It was to be kind that Shebani had come, she decided. To try. That was not easy for such a man. He was better at being proud.
‘Thank you,’ Margarita said. Strangers would have to wonder very much at these words of hers, the way they seemed to fly out of the air, so without any reference at all. Still, Margarita spoke them slowly, with emphasis. And she repeated what she said with her eyes. It seems that was what Shebani had come for. His shoulders dropped very slightly. Lines relaxed at the corners of his mouth. Then after she said Thank you and nodded, Margarita leaned her head back against the eucalyptus trunk and closed her eyes completely. Like that she fell asleep in no time.
Shebani returned up the hill, covering the ground with long strides. The words had come sooner than he even had hoped. He felt for Emmanuel’s sunglasses in the pocket of his jellabah. Margarita wasn’t afraid, how exceptional. Or was that what the modern common wind had taught her – how to conceal fear? If so, then Margarita was close to the root of his magic.