My first rainy season in Zambia, in 1993, was one of the wettest in decades. By December, the city had flooded and cars drove down Cha Cha Cha Road, right past the government buildings in the centre of Lusaka, up to their hubs and higher in brown sewage-rich water. The privies and drains and the streets and slums, long piled high and overspilling with human waste and refuse, sent their excess belching into the streets. We walked with our skirts held up around our hips, our shoes dangling from the ends of our fingers, and our lips pressed tight against the flies and stench.

The new cholera lorries rocked past us with dangerous urgency, spraying pedestrians and cars with mud and leaving behind them the faint, lingering scent of antiseptic and the nostril-widening scent of ancient disease.

Cholera. Goes with disease words like plague, pox, chigger, delirium.

Those unmistakable white lorries with blue logos painted on their doors and flashing yellow lights on their roofs – there must have been a dozen in the city at that time – had been donated by foreign aid groups. They were shiny under the thin, splattered glaze of mud; polite with a generous aura of Europe. But the bodies in the backs of the lorries were all Zambian. Women and men, crouched over each other, wretched with infection, holding their leaking bodies in check with bright bolts of cloth across their mouths, over their heads. They were people in mourning for themselves.

Every evening the lorries trundled out to Leopard’s Hill Road, where the big cemetery lay, bringing with them the dead and the high-wailing relatives of the dead; the ululating women; the sombre men beneath crush-rimmed hats; the wide-eyed children. The cemetery was already spilling beyond capacity with the wasted bodies of Aids victims. Now it was overwhelmed by the carcasses spawned by cholera. In places, big pits had been dug, lime-sprinkled. We were like a people covering up a war crime.

I asked the groom, Day-Freddy, ‘Where do they take the sick people?’

He said, ‘To the cholera clinics.’

‘You mean the hospitals?’

Day-Freddy frowned, ‘I don’t know.’ He shrugged again. ‘You should know.’

‘Why should I know?’

‘You are the one to write for the paper.’

I stared at Day-Freddy. We were sitting outside on the back veranda after our morning ride, drinking tea. ‘Well, I do write for the paper.’ But not about potentially troublesome issues like cholera. Not since I got into trouble with the article about the Minister of the Environment. I had interviewed him for a new, independent paper. He was famously corrupt, obviously inept and without curiosity or intelligence. The day the article was published, my husband Charlie was pulled into a government official’s office and told to keep me under control.

Charlie had shrugged, ‘Me keep her under control?’

The official had swung back on his chair and said, casually, ‘Your work permit can be revoked at any time, Mr Ross.’

So now I wrote about the great success of Zambia’s tobacco crops in the north and the country’s potential for tourism in the east and a series of canoe trips I had taken on the middle section of the Zambezi River. I wrote gently about Zambia’s rich wildlife, its heritage of forests.

‘Anyway, we Zambians die like chickens,’ said Day-Freddy, soaking a thick doorstop of bread in his sweet, milky tea. ‘Maybe it’s not news for the paper.’ He took a mouthful of soggy bread and told me, ‘More people die of cholera. So? What’s the news in that?’ He swallowed and added, ‘And you can’t write this story.’

‘Why not?’

Day-Freddy drained his tea and turned his cup over, flicking tea leaves and drops on the ground. ‘Because you have fear,’ he said.

The next morning Day-Freddy and I drove into the second-class district to buy maize bran for the horses. We were on our way home when a cholera lorry, swaying dangerously as it avoided potholes, tore past us. On impulse, I turned across the road and banked off the steep edge where tarmac had receded to expose red gums of eroded soil.

‘What are you doing, madam?’ asked Day-Freddy, clutching the edge of the seat.

‘We’re going to follow the cholera lorry,’ I told him. ‘We’re going to find a cholera clinic.’

The lorry led us out of Lusaka, past Soweto market with its stalls of stolen car parts and second-hand clothes, and deep into the centre of George Compound. Day-Freddy kept shaking his head, ‘Very dangerous,’ he told me. ‘This is not a good plan, madam.’

‘Why not?’

‘You are white, you are a woman. They will attack you. They will steal this pickup,’ his eyes rolled wildly, ‘they will beat me.’

‘Don’t be silly.’

‘Look around here. They are poor, you are rich. You are crazy.’

‘You’re afraid,’ I told him.

Day-Freddy nodded.

We were spinning through thick mud. House spilled upon house, each one made of more imaginative and desperate material than the last; houses of cloth sacks, plastic bags, road signs, cardboard and unravelled tyres. Tin roofs, or roofs made up of patched-together stop signs were held down with rocks. Great piles of refuse as high as the car towered next to each house on either side of the road. At times the water was so deep it threatened to seep under the doors and onto our feet. Day-Freddy pressed his shoes firmly against the dashboard and wrinkled his nose. ‘How can people live like dogs?’

‘It’s not their fault.’

‘I didn’t say it was a fault, madam. I was simply asking this: How can people live like this?’

‘I don’t know.’

‘I’m not getting out to push,’ Day-Freddy informed me, ‘if you get stuck.’

I kept the revs high, clutched the steering wheel tightly and followed closely in the wake left by the cholera lorry, hoping I would not accidentally slide off the road altogether. Children balanced high and victorious on top of the piles of refuse called after me, ‘Mzungu! Mzungu! ’ and waggled their hips at me.

We stopped, finally, at a school that had undergone a hasty conversion into a cholera clinic. Day-Freddy wouldn’t leave the car. ‘I’ve read the posters,’ he told me. ‘You will catch cholera and die if you step in there.’ He covered his nose and mouth with his hands and made a face. ‘I think you can catch it through breathing.’ His voice was muffled and anxious.

‘No you won’t,’ I scolded him. ‘Only if you don’t wash your hands.’ But the smell was overpowering when I opened the car door and for a moment I hesitated. Then I saw Day-Freddy’s expression and I stepped gingerly out of the car.

‘Can I help you?’ asked a man who was stirring a huge drum of yellow liquid at the foot of the steps.

‘I was just . . .’ I cleared my throat, ‘I was wondering if you’d let me look around?’

‘Around?’

‘Yes. I’ve seen the cholera lorries, I was just –’

‘Who are you?’

‘No one.’

The man frowned at me suspiciously.

‘I was just curious, that’s all.’

Behind me, still in the pickup, I heard Day-Freddy snort with derision. I turned around to glare at him. He quickly covered his face again.

‘I was thinking . . . I write for the paper.’

The man stopped stirring the liquid in the drum and frowned at me again, fiercely this time. ‘Which paper? No journalists allowed,’ he said. He put down the broom handle with which he was stirring the liquid in the drum and made shooing motions at me. ‘You must go.’

‘But don’t you think people should know what is happening here?’

‘What people?’

‘I mean people who read the papers.’

‘The people who read the papers already know what is going on,’ the man said, returning to his drum.

I squinted back against the sun at Day-Freddy who was flapping frantically at the air, trying to get flies out of the cab.

‘What’s in the drum?’ I asked the man.

‘Clothes,’ the man replied, ‘contaminated clothes. We are supposed to burn them, but how can you burn clothes if they are all somebody has to wear?’

There were over a hundred people in that school turned cholera clinic, most of them naked but for a single covering of cloth. There were not enough cholera beds (stretchers with holes cut into them, with buckets under the holes), or beds of any description, so patients shared stretchers. Their bottoms could not fit over the holes, with two of them like that, and they were shitting on one another. Other patients had been lined up on soggy cardboard on the veranda where intravenous drips hanging from washing lines fed into upturned arms. Babies slept in the nook of their sick mothers’ arms. Vomit and shit, like watery rice, were mopped up from the floor, scraped off the beds, sloshed off the cardboard sheets, by a nurse wearing a plastic apron and gumboots.

There was a single flush toilet which had long since ceased to flush – its contents slopped out onto the veranda. The two long-drops in the yard wafted disease and exhaustion, flooded and sagging precariously. The morgue was a black tent, steaming in the afternoon sun, next to the long-drops. It was from the morgue that the pervasive, sweet-rotten smell was coming.

This was not a humanitarian disaster on the vast scale Africa is so capable of producing, just a heartless indignity imposed upon a few thousand unlucky Zambians, one hundred of whom happened to be dribbling slowly to death right here.

While I was there, the cholera lorry left with bodies from the morgue and another appeared with freshly ill victims.

While I was there, a patient was brought from a distant village in a wheelbarrow by his relatives and had to be helped onto a corner of cardboard, where he died before the orderly could put the needle of the intravenous drip into his arm.

A baby, kept with its sick mother on a cholera bed in one of the old classrooms, died of pneumonia. It lay like a sodden comma, curled up against its mother, and no one realised it was dead until she began to bleat, her trilling thin with dehydration and despair. A pretty young nurse, in a white uniform with black gumboots and a white plastic apron, held the tiny body away from her as she hurried to the morgue.

I was only there an hour.

I drove home too fast, grim and guilty with what I had seen. Day-Freddy occupied himself trying to hunt down and kill flies.

‘They’ll bring the illness back to us,’ he said, his voice squeaky with hysteria.

‘Oh, don’t be silly.’

‘If a fly lands on you, you’ll be sick. Sure, sure.’

When we got back to Lilayi Road, I left the pickup running and ran inside to collect blankets, clothes, towels, soap, aspirin, tins of food and shoes. I put them into cardboard boxes which I carried out to the vehicle.

‘What are you doing?’ asked Day-Freddy.

‘You saw those people.’ I could still smell the clinic in my hair, on my skin. I had been made to wash my hands and feet in a drum of caustic antiseptic before I could leave the clinic. The tyres of my car had been doused with the same yellow fluid.

‘But I need these things,’ Day-Freddy said plaintively, fingering a pile of towels.

‘No you don’t.’

‘All of this?’ he asked, holding up some tennis shoes.

‘Yes,’ I said firmly. ‘You’ve had enough from me, wouldn’t you say.’

Day-Freddy returned my accusing look steadily. ‘You’re too soft-soft,’ he told me.

‘That may be. Or maybe I’m not soft-soft enough.’

‘They’ll just sell everything,’ he said, sulkily.

‘So? Don’t you?’

Day-Freddy sulked.

Two weeks later I could still smell the clinic when the wind lifted my hair. And my cholera article was rejected by the independent newspaper whose editor had recently been arrested and accused of slander towards a government minister.

Day-Freddy and I rode the horses up to the game farm at the top of the road and turned east into the rising sun. We were smiling into the cool breeze picked up off the previous night’s rain.

‘Race you,’ I told him, which was no competition. He was on the faster mare, and he was a gutsier rider. ‘Give me a head start and watch for antbear holes.’ I trotted ahead. Gozzy tossed his head and flecked my leg with saliva. I could hear Day-Freddy muttering softly, reassuring Kalamo. ‘On your marks,’ I shouted over my shoulder, gathering up the reins and crouching forward. ‘Get set,’ I let Gozzy’s rear end bunch up under the saddle. ‘Go!’

Kalamo streaked past us before we had reached the first gate; by then I had lost all but the most rudimentary control of Gozzy. I was holding on hard, muscles tight with crouching, my breathing loud and rasping in my ears. I pulled up next to Day-Freddy, who was grinning like a fool, panting, his face shining with sweat even in the cool morning. ‘I won, madam.’

‘You won.’ I leaned forward on my saddle and looked up at him, panting. I was wondering if I’d eaten something a bit off the night before. Suddenly I didn’t feel very well. Day-Freddy swam in front of me. His smile melting into his face – dripping red, black, white like smudging paint.

‘Jesus, Freddy.’ I was still breathing hard. ‘I think I’m . . . I think I need to . . .’ I slid off Gozzy and my legs buckled.

‘Madam?’

Day-Freddy jumped off the mare and the two horses sauntered off to graze. Day-Freddy crouched next to me, tried to hold me up. I retched and yellow vomit splattered out onto the green Rhodes grass and dribbled down my chin.

‘Oh,’ cried Day-Freddy, dropping my shoulders and letting me fall over, ‘you have the cholera, madam! You have for sure the cholera.’ He held his hands up in the air in horror and stepped back from me.

I shook my head, but could not speak. My body was racked with another bout of retching. When I could catch my breath I said, ‘Fetch the horses now, let’s ride home.’

‘But you are sick, madam.’

‘It’s okay, Freddy, don’t call the cholera lorry yet.’ But I was only half joking.

The rainy season leaked on through March, by which time I had forgotten what it felt like to live without nausea and exhaustion. For hours at a time, I watched rain cry down the windows in the bedroom. Heat and humidity settled like breath somewhere north of my stomach. I began to have fantasies about strawberries and snow and chocolate breakfast cereal, none of which were available but which all seemed to promise a reprieve from my condition.

At weekday lunchtimes, the mzungu doctor in Lusaka was usually to be found drinking deeply of South African wine at the Marco Polo restaurant, indifferent to the constraints of the conventional lunch hour. He didn’t bother to remove his white clinical coat or his stethoscope when leaving his offices at noon. This being Zambia, a medical emergency could arise at any moment. Surgery using knife and fork and red wine.

He was the acknowledged authority on malaria, bilharzia and rabies, and though he couldn’t treat you, he would tell you – without frills – if you were among the one-in-three Zambians to have acquired HIV.

He carelessly dispensed the few medications available to him for the treatment of dysentery, tuberculosis, ringworm, giardia, syphilis, witchcraft and tick fever. But he did not consider the possibility of pregnancy a medical condition.

For the third time in three months, the pregnancy test administered by the doctor’s nurse had come back without a red stripe in the right-hand window. ‘Are you sure the tests aren’t out of date? Perhaps they’ve expired.’ I cleared my throat and the doctor looked at his watch again. I was making him late for his customary bottle of South African wine. I thought about how else I might phrase this and at last I said, ‘You may want to just have a quick peek up there. Just to make sure.’

‘A peek?’ said the doctor with distaste.

‘A little peek,’ I tried.

Which he wouldn’t do. Especially before lunch.

‘You have an IUD installed, no?’

‘Well, yes.’

‘So?’

So, for the third time in as many months he declared my pregnancy hysterical and for the third time in as many months I waved my gratitude and farewell at him, mouth covered, and hurried off to the clinic loos where I vomited noisily and prolifically, to the distress of the patients waiting for their prescriptions at the pharmacy.

*

‘I must have a tummy bug after all,’ I told Charlie.

But then the hard lump of baby in my belly became impossible to deny. And I must have been throwing up for a reason.

If it wasn’t cholera. Which it wasn’t. And if I hadn’t had my period for three months, which I hadn’t.

Dad, up from the farm, said, ‘Well of course, you’re in calf.’

‘But the pregnancy tests came back negative.’

‘Tests? Pah.’

‘Damn.’

Dad lit a cigarette. ‘Don’t worry. Half of all heifers lose their first take.’

‘No, it’s not that,’ I said. ‘No, Dad. I want the baby.’

‘Oh.’ He was embarrassed and didn’t know what to say. He stirred more sugar into his tea. ‘Well, then . . .’ Dad was trying, in his rough way, to protect me from what he thought I didn’t know. ‘Ja, well don’t be disappointed, that’s all. You know, if . . . It’s common to have a practice run.’

I didn’t have the heart to tell him that I had already had a practice run.

Years ago I took care of that. On an anonymous, thin, plastic-sheeted bed, a stranger’s white-gloved hands in a Canadian hospital took care of that. I didn’t tell Dad that I cried for days into a friend’s pillow and smoked all my friend’s cigarettes and bled into his toilet until he came and carried me, inexpertly, to bed, and let me bleed on to his sheets. He was not the father of the child I had chosen to lose, just an old friend with a car and a basement apartment near campus and a big heart.

The old friend, holding me, had said, ‘I had a hamster I really loved when I was a kid. And one day I hugged the little fucker to death, by mistake.’ He stroked my head. ‘So I know how you feel.’ Then we put a towel under me and he said, ‘Shit, how much blood is there to lose? You need fluids,’ and fetched me a cold beer.

I told Dad that there were worse things than finding out you’re pregnant.

We decided I should drive through the border at Chirundu and up to Harare, Zimbabwe, for the advice of a medical expert. We had to stop periodically so I could throw up: after the winding Zambezi escarpment and at the urine-smelling border post and behind the diesel-belching buses at Cloud’s End.

The Zimbabwean gynaecologist confirmed via ultrasound that I was pregnant. He showed me where the baby lay, a little pulse in my womb. I looked up at the pictures on the doctor’s wall describing foetal development and I imagined my baby, her tiny fists curled in a Black Power salute (‘Free Nelson Mandela! Send him home to So-wet-oh!’) and then the doctor showed me where the intrauterine device might hinder her growth.

‘If you leave the IUD in situ, you risk losing the baby. Or worse.’

‘What can be worse?’

The doctor shrugged, an African educated in London, with the schooling of the West, but his own people’s matter-of-factness about life, death, loss. ‘It’s for you to decide. Perhaps some . . . impediment to growth.’

‘And if I have IUD removed?’

‘You still risk losing the baby.’

I stared up at the wall, at the little defiant fist on the smudgy black-and-white photograph of someone else’s baby. I said, ‘I don’t think I’ll lose this one.’

Then I offered my arm to the clinic’s nurse and blood was siphoned off to test for HIV, syphilis, gonorrhoea.

Charlie had gone outside to the car and I went out to look for him. There were other potential fathers kicking their heels in the dust and smoking cigarettes, leaned up against farm pickups while their pregnant wives were inside the whitewashed walls of the clinic.

‘Well, I’m definitely pregnant.’ I crossed my arms and looked away so Charlie couldn’t see my tears and I said, ‘Bugger, bugger, bugger. He says I might lose it.’

Charlie reached out for me again and this time I let him rock me against his shoulder. And then morning sickness took over and I fought my way out of his embrace to throw up in the gynaecologist’s beautiful orange cannas.

We chose a small clinic in a village east of Harare to have the IUD removed. I didn’t want to lose the baby, but if I did, I wanted to bury her somewhere I would find her again. Somewhere small and quiet and where I could come back and find the flowers I’d planted for her.

I was bedded next to an old-timer in a tiny ward for two that overlooked a pine forest and a comforting, bright new garden of English country flowers: nasturtiums, rhododendrons, lavender and roses.


Kiltykins
How to Write About Africa