It wasn’t always like this. Stuck in a metal prison disguised as a hospital bed. There was a time when your throat thirsted for cold Fanta and sizzling hot vitumbuwa straight out of the frying pan. It wasn’t always tablet after massive tablet pushed down with sugary milk in a plastic cup stinking of leftover detergent. Before the sickness burnt your blood into flames it was beautiful.
When you wore too much powder over the film of glycerine, and wiped away the little brown river sliding down the side of your face as the sun beat down on Lusaka, you would moan about the humidity: “Oh my God!”
You’d fan yourself with a flimsy handkerchief, its white cotton muddied with your melted makeup. “If it’s this hot in April we will have to walk naked in October.”
You’d guffaw. That magnificent laugh, seeping between your red-red lips, spilling into everyone’s ear, forcing their heads to turn in your direction.
Remember, Beenzu, when you could slip your dainty feet into polka-dot kitten-heels which you’d bought for a steal in a pile of salaula at Soweto market. Your heels clicked through long hospital corridors, into wards just like this one with baskets filled with a dying relative’s cravings—Jolly Juice, bananas, big jars of strawberry yoghurt.
Did you even glance at the posters plastered to every tree trunk on your bus rides?
Did you think the big red plus over the skeleton would one day hang over your own head?
When the doctor said “Tuberculosis” did he also mention how quickly it would slither into the rest of your body, sucking the flesh from your thighs, chest, and face?
Which man had left more than the stink of sex in your two-bedroom flat in Kabwata when they left? Torn-boxer-brief-Mwansa or forgetful-Mwale who let you discover by bumping into him his wife and three children buying groceries in Shoprite that he was married?
Maybe it was Nyambe—a high school English teacher like you whose “I will marry you soon” never came.
You grind your teeth together and dart your eyes around the room trying to find a visible target for your rage since none of them has been to see you.
What if it was Chipego’s father? The last time you saw him he sweated on top of you in a musty lodge behind the university.
You gulp air.
What if it was you spreading it every time you flung your head back, moaned as your thighs spread in front of you?
Your eyes land on the voile curtains the same colour as the sky, then the window, gaping wide, allowing chatter, chirping, pollen, and fresh air into your hospital room. The droning TV, as usual, regurgitates international news: Clinton and Blair on BBC and CNN. The door is closed. To your left, someone stirs: your grandmother.
“Oh!” Kaapa claps. “You are awake.” The obvious. She fiddles with the porridge bowl—smells like groundnuts and butter—then the bottle of pills and adjusts herself in the seat to reach your mouth with the spoon.
You scowl, blink back hot tears.
“Kolya, please.” She begs you to eat. The meal was once your favourite, cooked with mealie meal and milk first thing in the morning before you went to school. But you aren’t seven anymore. The supermarkets and tuntemba’s now stock sliced bread, Buttercup margarine and mixed-fruit jam in loud, red cans.
The sores in your throat won’t allow anything but porridge through to your stomach. You drop your chin to your chest and keep your gaze on the spoon between your grandma’s wrinkled fingers feeding you until the bowl is empty.
“Enhe, good.” She pats your head gently and fluffs your pillow. “Now, you have the strength to take your medicine.” Another chore for your tongue. Even when they are crushed and diluted for you to drink.
You nod. You whisper: “Where is she?”
“Ati nzi?” Kaapa asks furrowing her greying eyebrows.
“Chipego.” You cough out your daughter’s name. “Where is she?”
Her answer is to lather Vaseline into the cracks on your lips. “Pumuna,” she insists. “Even a little rest will do you some good.”
Does she believe that? That rest will take away sores in your throat, fever, and swollen groin. She stands and tucks the starched sheets around you. You want to claw out and scream.
You want to slap the toothy smile off her face. Kaapa pushes hair from your forehead, rubs talcum powder into your chest, and wobbles back to her seat. She picks up her hymn book and sings a song.
Sena moona, kamubuka. Sena moona kamubuka.
The melody pacifies the flames in your head and reduces you to the infant Kaapa could once swing over her back and wrap into a chitenge, quelling your screams when your mother was away until you slept. Now you are a 32-year-old woman, a high school English teacher, the mother of a ten-year-old girl.
Your sight grows foggy, your face, relaxed, your lids fluttering open and shut, head swaying to the tune.
Sena moona, kamubuka. Sena moona kamubuka.
Are you sleeping? Wake up.
You are sleeping.
The lullaby carries you to a dream, flinging you back ten years.
It’s 1988 again. A humid Friday with the unfulfilled promise of rain. You have yelled until your voice is raw, wobbled the narrow corridor, naked, gripping the walls for something that will pull the pain from you, yet still, the waves continue to come, longer and stronger each time, gripping your back and then your stomach, tying it up into knots, like fikuti braided too tight on a little girl’s head. Any other Friday you’d have been seated on the banks of Goma Lakes. You’d be in bible study with other students from the Christian Centre at the University of Zambia where you should be completing your bachelor’s degree.
Instead, you are here yelling: “I’m dying!” and “Help me!”
An irate nurse charges at you. “Chongo iwe!”
It’s the fourth warning she’s giving you. She pressed a plump finger against her mouth. “Some of your friends who have already done the work are trying to sleep.” She grabs you by the arm and leads you back to the bed.
“Please, sister,” you beg. “Check again.”
She rolls her eyes. “Last time,” she says, snapping a fresh pair of gloves on. “Ready?”
But you nod.
Her face grows tender, showing where the lines have aged it––around her mouth, creeping from the corners of her eyes, on the bridge of her nose. “I know,” she says taking your other arm with less force. “But it will be over soon.”
You howl when she digs her fingers into you.
“Try and reserve your energy now, eh? You will need it to bring your baby into the world.” She cocks her head to one side as if she wants you to answer, and for a fleeting moment, you wonder why the white rectangular cap on top of her patted down afro doesn’t move.
“I—I—,” you stutter. “I want my mother.”
The nurse smiles and whispers: “I know.”
If not for the searing ache in your core, you’d purse your lips or click your tongue. What does she know about Baama? Or her anger if she knew you’d been sent back from your teacher training at St. Joseph Chivuna Girls’ Secondary School because you were pregnant and unmarried. Her tiny body would implode. She’d grab your ear and shout: “What will I do with you, Beenzu?”
She would remind you of the time you were sixteen. She had to go against her Christian beliefs to pay a ng’anga to concoct a brew to turn the baby inside you into menstrual blood.
She would tell you how she had risked her reputation among her sisters, friends, and the other wives whose daughters didn’t return from boarding school carrying pregnancies along with their food trunks and school books only for you to do it again.
“Shall I swallow you and carry you around in my stomach forever?” She’d lament, reminding you how hard it had been for her. Widowed in her thirties and raising two daughters alone. For what? “Only for you to be so troublesome, always dropping out of trees as if you were a boy who had grown up in the village instead of modern cities like Mufulira and Ndola and Lusaka.”
You would hang your head and let your mind wander into some distant place. Probably Achebe’s Umuofia, in a front row seat to a wrestling match, until Baama’s rant ended with “Try to be like your little sister, eh!”
Yet, as the nurse instructs you to hold your ankles and keep your knees spread apart, you crave Baama’s fingers rubbing your back. You want her to wipe the sweat dripping out of your braids onto your face. You want her steady voice to remind you challenges were a test of character, to count the adversity you have surmounted so far. Like being born prematurely just in time for Zambia’s independence and surviving alone in the hospital, feeding on a bottle of breast milk she had pumped by hand and stored in a neighbour’s fridge for a week before your parents could bring it to you.
You wish it was her voice saying “Push!” and “Rest!” or that she was about to cut you “to give the baby’s head more room.”
Baama should be in this cramped ward with you seeing her first granddaughter making her loud entrance into the world just as the humidity finally relents and makes way for the rain.
When the news reaches Baama and she walks into your ward there is no rage in her tight smile. You are no longer worthy of that even. She has boiled the anger, simmered it down into clipped reminders of this latest mistake—a living, growing thing.
“Is this what my granddaughter is wearing,” your mother said on her visits, clicking her tongue and shaking her head. “She looks so thin.” She’d hand you a box of Eet-Sum-Mores.
Relief is the split second when the dream disappears back into your mind.
You wake and remember where you are.
Your eyes flicker to the white walls, white floors, and white door.
Baama’s face peering into yours.
Never mind that you’d been pining for her as much as you had been for your daughter. Forget missing the way she cooks kidney beans, adding the onions and an extra scoop of oil at the very end. Ignore the warmth spreading in your chest at the scent of her cocoa butter lotion, forcing your nostrils open, showing their open joy at anything other than the stench of bleach and methylated spirits wafting through every hall of the hospital except the ablution block.
You harden your jaw. “Is Chipego coming?”
Baama laughs the laugh you used to laugh. Taking up all the empty spaces.
“God is good. Say something else.” She places your palm in hers. They are the same dirt brown you see after the rains. She has a big mole where her forefinger meets her thumb. “We haven’t heard your voice all week, my baby. Thank God you’re healing. Talk to me.”
She won’t stop talking long enough to let you.
The phrase is stolen: my baby.
Stolen from you.
It’s something you sprinkled on Chipego to make her smile. When she brought back a report card filled with As and the number one—her position in class. When she remembered to wash the plates after lunch before running back into the street to play. When she didn’t drench her hair in the bathroom right after you paid K1000 for it to be blow-dried as she wailed in the Kamwala market salon. When she remembered to touch the floor with her knees as she served nshima to her uncles. When she said “Mukwai” whenever an adult called her instead of her usual disrespectful “Eh?”
Your heart cracks as you remember when the saying first hooked itself into you. You were eight, hiding in your family munda, among maize stalks, having braided each cob instead of pulling weeds out of the dirt like your cousins were doing. When Baama approached you and surveyed your handiwork, she didn’t pinch your cheeks or drag you out of the field by the arms. She beamed at you: “Well done, my baby! You can braid now.”
You pry your hand out of hers and look at Kaapa.
You cup your fingers around an invisible glass and bring it to your mouth.
Baama leaps to her feet to place the plastic bottle to your lips. She holds your head up with her hand and wipes the dribble from your neck with the sleeve of her pink chiffon shirt.
You want to spit it in her face.
What could be keeping her so busy at home?
Arranging flowers for the occasional customer?
You squint at her performance and grimace.
You swallow spit, water, and pride.
3. My Baby
Just then Chipego bounces in wearing her grey uniform, ripped on one side and covered in dust.
This is her second visit since you were admitted over a month ago. Last time she was bursting with stories. Who had done what at school last week, which games she was expert in and was now beating all the boys at. Unlike you she hangs on the branches of the trees she climbs, dropping to the ground only when she wants to. She has your skinny legs but not the knocked knees. They carry her faster than yours ever did, winning races for her school where you’d quit halfway, pretending to faint—anything to not finish last. She had slaughtered a chicken because the maid you hired right before this was too scared to do it. To prove she was ready for her upcoming grade seven examinations Chipego had memorised her current affairs. On her last visit she recited world news to you: “Princess Diana died on 31st August last year. I mean 1997. Edith Nawakwi is the first female Finance Minister of Zambia.”
Now your daughter just blinks at you, mouth agape.
“Come.” You croak.
Kaapa fluffs your pillows
“Come.” You whisper this time.
Chipego doesn’t move. Panic clamps itself around your neck.
Are you now invisible too?
An inaudible scream.
“Come my baby.”
You realise the room is filled with faces other than Kaapa’s, Baama’s, and Chipego’s. Cousins you haven’t seen since your younger sister threw her last lavish party for her three-year-old—jumping castle and three cakes. Aunts who’ve been feuding with your mother for years hover close by, lips pursed and arms pushing their breasts into their chins. In the corner, your sister Luyando is peering over heads like she was forced to go to the zoo. With her long hair pinned back, stretching the skin on her face and arching her eyebrows, she looks like you once did.
She clears her throat. “Sissy.” Her cheeks burn red where the bleach has started peeling off her skin.
The aunties move aside, leaving just enough room for Luyando to glide through to the bed. She fiddles with her hoops, dabs rouge off the corners of her mouth, and settles her gaze on the hill on the blanket created by your feet.
“You know we are all praying for you.”
Amen. The aunts chorus.
“In fact, let us pray.”
You watch them close their eyes, press their palms together, and bow their heads. Luyando calls God every name but God.
On Sundays it was you who boarded a crammed mini-bus to Christ Ministries Church, you who dropped to the floor speaking tongues each week when the pastor asked people to welcome Jesus into their heart. You tested your last seven days: drank wine until I nodded off in a friend’s room; gossiped about new roommate’s body odour. You heeded your pastor’s call every Sunday.
Luyando attends church once a month as if she’s reminding God she’s still there. When she ends her prayer with the sign of the cross only then do you press your eyelids together while fisting your fingers into balls.
“Baama,” you hear yourself say.
Please leave Chipego and me alone for a minute. You signal with your eyes at your daughter still standing next to the door.
Baama’s eyes glisten. She pats herself down and laugh-talks. “Let us give them some privacy.”
Privacy? You’d cackle if you could. The doors in the house you grew up in didn’t have any locks except the one to her bedroom and the pantry.
Kaapa huddles over a bucket of your belongings, arranging and rearranging blankets over chitenges, socks, and underwear. She hasn’t left your side since you were admitted. She’s like a new mother with her newborn. As if you will stop breathing if she looks away.
She nods and leads the train of women out. The women squeeze Chipego’s shoulder, nudging her closer to your bed.
When the door closes the girl sniffles and wipes her eyes.
“Chipego.” Your voice shakes. “My baby.”
She shuffles first and then bolts towards you, burying her face in your chest. When she pulls away to look at you, you see she’s lost her earrings again. There are specks of dirt in her loose puff.
“Mummy?” It’s as if she’s not sure it’s you lying under the blankets.
Don’t cry. Don’t cry. Don’t cry.
“Yes baby. It’s me.” You smell her hair, the familiar smell of Dax in your nostrils. Her eyes search your face, her thick brows disappear into a v on her forehead.
“Mummy, please. Come back.”
Here’s the girl you raised alone. Your fearless child. She’s been reduced to sobs in your arms as though she’s four, wanting to follow you around, wailing when she’s told no.
You sigh. “It will be fine. My baby?”
The question mark forms itself. It trails other questions behind it.
Who would remember to add Mabisi to Chipego’s samp?
What use had it been to teach her how to wash dirty dishes with just one bucket of water?
Would she enjoy the flaps of skin dangling between her legs which you’d insisted she pull for her future husband?
You know from Kaapa’s hunched back, from your mother scurrying out of the room, from the flame of AIDS searing through your veins: you know, you won’t be going back home.
You try to meet her eyes but the stupid things in the room keep drawing your gaze instead. Those impossibly blue curtains, a black bird perched on the branches of a tree outside, the boy and girl holding the coat of arms on the flashing image on the screen.
How do you cram a lifetime of lessons into one moment?
The things you should have said instead of teaching Chipego to sit with her legs closed, to wash her underwear in the bucket of bath water, wring it dry, and hang it somewhere no one would see it.
“There will be bad days sometimes,” you whisper. “But it will be beautiful again. Someday.”
Mubanga Kalimamukwento is a Zambian writer. Her debut novel—The Mourning Bird (Jacana, 2019)—won the Dinaane Fiction Award. She won the 2019 Kalemba Short Story Prize and was shortlisted for the Nobrow and Bristol Short Story Prizes. Her work has appeared in the Red Rock Review, Dreamers Creative Writing, the Advocates for Human Rights, Two Sisters, the Menteur, SyncityNG, Overland, and many other places. She’s an alumna of the Hubert H. Humphrey Fulbright Fellowship and the Young African Leaders Initiative. She is a current MFA candidate at Hamline University.