The one that stayed with Khadija was the girl abandoned in a wheelbarrow. They discovered her first thing in the morning marooned beneath the guava tree to the left of the centre’s front gate. The night watchman claimed he had heard nothing, making the exact hour of the girl’s drop-off difficult to determine.
A curious cluster of onlookers had gathered across the street when they found her. Flies were by this time buzzing over her.
She lay slumped like a broken Sally-one-side doll; mouth open, arms splayed, legs dangling just above the ground. Liquid had collected in the wheelbarrow which could have been from the light overnight rain or could have come from inside her body. She wore a white blouse, the type favoured as a uniform by a number of secondary schools in the city. A red tie with a faded crest also floated in the wheelbarrow. Her only other item of clothing was a loose cotton lappa which had been tied around her waist. Her feet were bare, the toenails painted a bright crimson.
Khadija had supervised the girl’s burial that same afternoon, making sure the team took the necessary precautions.
She had decided to accept work at the centre after receiving no salary for four months. The bursar, who had the face of a cane rat, had claimed he could not pay new teachers because the computer had not come with their names. The computer was supreme in these matters and anger usually fell cold on the floor if it had not come with your name.
After all, how could you fight with a computer?
The bursar expressed an admiration for Khadija’s high-heeled shoes and lipstick that day, offering to take her out to a local guest house for dinner, explaining that he had strong pockets that could care for her until her salary arrived.
Rumour revealed the details of her new job to the neighbours who initially viewed her with mild suspicion. As news of the disease spread, the neighbours’ stance was upgraded to malice, darting bad eyes at her whenever they met in the shared yard. The children who had previously come to her for private lessons on benches under the mango tree were warned by their parents to stop attending.
It was one of the children who had first called her “Yellow Woman,” shouted across the yard as Khadija drew water from the communal well in the centre of the narrow compound. She had thought the appellation was due to her light skin. She had sucked her teeth and half-smiled at the child.
The next day a handwritten note in red ink was pushed under her door, barring her from drawing water from the well. The correspondence was slightly damp by the time she saw it, the red writing smudged and runny.
By the second month she had a routine in place. Her morning rituals lacked complexity after her husband left her, claiming his wife’s brain had broken free from her head. Why else would the woman he had paid good money and fat cows for, leave her job as a teacher to work with death?
He took their daughter with him, quoting the law of the surname. He had delved into the child’s school bag to produce books that bore his name, brandishing them to the neighbours, who observed his departure from their doorways, as proof of ownership of the child. He had spoken to them as to a jury in a courtroom, imploring them to stand as witnesses before God and man, to bear testimony that he was a concerned father merely trying to protect his only child.
“All of you in this yard saw the calabash I presented to Khadija’s people asking permission for them to allow me to sit down with her in marriage! We go to church every Sunday and I have given this woman everything a good man gives to his wife! I have even read Psalms for Satan to climb out of her head.” He had paused before continuing sweeping his hands to all corners of the watching yard, craving support from the watching tenants. “I am not the kind of man who beats his wife and so all I ask for is a small grain of respect. Our people say that handshakes do not last forever and maybe it’s time for me to take my child and find another woman to protect her.”
His final piece of evidence was the proclamation that a woman could not climb on top of herself to get pregnant and as such the child belonged to him.
She rose early, taking her cue from the old muezzin’s call to prayer from the local mosque.
After brushing the stale taste of sleep from her mouth she washed herself with rain water collected in the knocked-in aluminium bucket she had positioned underneath the weak awning in the yard.
She dressed under the glow of her kerosene lamp, noticing again how her clothes continued to billow and hang loose with every passing week. She grimaced as a couple more braids fell out of her head as she tucked them beneath a bright yellow head-tie. Sowo, who lived in the room next door, had always planted Khadija’s hair but, like the other neighbours, had endorsed Khadija’s isolation. Sowo’s belly was yet to swell with child after a three year marriage to a local tailor; she therefore could not understand Khadija’s reckless disregard for her daughter who had to be taken away from her because of a new job.
In the background droned a local FM station and she listened to the president’s latest decree which had bleated on a loop throughout the night. Public spaces such as schools, colleges, and night clubs were to remain closed as a means of arresting the spread. Markets were to stay open, though: people had to eat. Hissing, she placed her ear close to the battered transistor, searching for either the clipped British accent of the BBC or the lazy American drawl of the Voice of America. The local channels engorged with propaganda were pests, like weevils destroying good rice.
Before leaving, she ate boiled plantain from the bottom of yesterday’s pot. She then made sure she had a book which connected her to the old job. Today she chose Ngũgĩ’s Weep Not, Child. She never had time to read but continued carrying the books with her anyway.
Khadija was picked up at the junction by Showers of Blessing in the red ambulance donated by The People’s Republic of China. Daylight had just begun to show its face when he arrived, red streaks running across the sky as if somebody had climbed into it and slashed it with a sharp machete. Showers of Blessings’ real name remained hidden, the whole team preferring the moniker which related to his responsibility for spraying disinfectant as they collected the dead. His eyes held a dancing light and Khadija could tell there were words desperate to climb out of his mouth.
She half-listened as he jabbered on about water shortages, the price of food, and his daughter who had a stubborn cough which refused to shift even though his wife had rubbed hot balm on the child’s chest and fed her lemongrass tea.
He was, however, most excited by the president who had appeared on television in full military camouflage. Though a civilian, the uniform represented the government’s new no-nonsense approach to the virus which would finally be stamped out. Showers of Blessing hailed from the same district as the president; in his eyes the government could do no wrong.
Khadija remembered how a colleague had criticised the regime for eating the money sent by foreign governments to combat the spread of the disease. Showers of Blessing had taken umbrage and a bottle had been broken to use as a weapon. Khadija had stood between the adversaries and spat sense into their heads before suspending them each for a week.
The only people out at this time were a group of men in rust coloured plastic overalls in the final stages of painting another sign on the walls of a supermarket:
DON’T BE THE NEXT VICTIM.
STOP WASHING DEAD BODIES.
STOP TOUCHING SICK PERSONS.
STOP TRAVELLING WITH THE VIRUS.
REPORT ALL SUSPECTED CASES.
Beneath the stiff letters were bright diagrams which highlighted the symptoms of the disease: headaches, red eyes, vomiting, muscular pains, and fever. A final symptom had been misspelled and read “diarrhea”, beneath which was the painting of a man in the stooping position, excreta gushing out of his rear.
From the wide television on the main office’s wall Khadija tracked the international coverage. Today’s feature included an interview with an American parent who had pulled her child out of a school trip to Uganda where they were due to help build houses for the poor. A bright map of Africa had been projected on the screen, the reporter pointing out that Uganda was nowhere near the Ebola region in the west of the continent. The parent had lost her composure, screaming that she had the right to protect her child.
Khadija was studying the board listing the locations of the dead when she was told about the white reporter from Aura News. The reporter had travelled from the United Kingdom and was fascinated about the legend of the Yellow Woman and wished to do a feature on Khadija. She had also enquired if she would be allowed to follow the crew for a day, to get an authentic picture of how the dead were collected and buried. She also wanted to know if it would be possible to fix a camera to Khadija’s head.
The reporter had the green eyes of a cat and red hair that reminded Khadija of coals used to roast cassava on the street at night. She planned on not being “obtrusive” and promised to only ask a few questions.
They sat at a cluttered table positioned directly beneath the board which carried the names and locations of the dead, the reporter insisting that it stay in shot.
Reporter: So why the name Yellow Woman?
Khadija: Because of the colour of the suits I wear when we work: yellow. All the others wear white ones. A respected preacher declared at one of his combined church services that yellow was the colour Satan had fixed to the disease. People are superstitious. Yellow is, therefore, seen as a bad colour.
Reporter: So then you are not superstitious?
Khadija: I simply wear the yellow ones because they come in my size and are more comfortable. So now I am the Yellow Woman who collects dead bodies.
Reporter: Are you the only woman who does this job?
Khadija: Our people believe that women should have nothing to do with such a grim task. That dealing with death is a man’s job. I was employed to work on the files in an office. Then a crew leader died. So I took over.
She rarely spoke of the real reason why she had volunteered to join the crew. Having to endure the team’s crude jokes that spoke of the naked bodies of the teenage sisters who had been eaten by the disease at the Lowcost Housing Estate.
Through the window, the yard was a warren of activity as the team busied themselves loading the vehicles with the equipment they would need later.
Reporter: How did this start? Have you been able to establish the origins of this scourge?
Khadija: The index cases involved herbalists close to the border who treated people with symptoms. Rather than admit their ignorance of the disease they advised bogus cures which exacerbated the spread. And our traditions also suggest that we wash our dead before we bury them. This physical contact with victims also contributed to the snowballing of the virus.
Reporter: Your preparations are elaborate and thorough.
Khadija: We put on our gear when we arrive at the location of a death. The thinking is that if the communities see the precautions we take, they will realise the seriousness of this plague. That it is not something which can be cured with herbs and visits to the local medicine man. Or by prayers and seven days of fasting. Or by holy water.
The vehicles had crawled into their convoy positions. Police Land Rover. Red ambulance. White ambulance. And finally a blue flat-bed truck which would carry the dead.
Reporter: Do you really think it’s necessary to travel with armed police?
Khadija: For protection. Some people still do not understand the virus. So they attack us sometimes. One rumour actually suggested that America paid our government to deliberately spread the disease. On one occasion our security detail had to fire rounds into the air to disperse a crowd threatening to burn us alive for bringing the disease to their settlement. And, of course, many see me as a witch. The police sirens also clear the way. Dead bodies have no business being stuck in traffic.
The reporter and her crew positioned their vehicle at the back of the convoy.
They had been called to Ginger Hall, a settlement in the east of the city: a woman reported dead after exhibiting worrying symptoms. The police siren made progress smooth until they turned off the main roads onto a dirt track punctuated with ruts and rocks, their progress further complicated by the track’s steep incline. His face lined in concentration, Showers of Blessing coaxed the red ambulance over the obstacles, trying not to get too close to the dusty rear of the police Land Rover.
Neighbourhood youths emboldened by adolescence were first to meet the convoy, directing them into a narrow space between two long buildings constructed out of mud bricks. The sirens had attracted a crowd who observed with worry in their eyes. The police disembarked first, a couple of them clutching automatic weapons whilst barking at the crowd to move back.
The reporter from Europe asked for ten minutes to set-up while Khadija and her crew got ready under the eyes of the crowd. As always, she talked the team through their preparations, her voice level and steady.
“Awareness is our motto. Stay alert at all times. Rubber boots. Goggles. Face masks. Visors. Two pairs of gloves. White suits. No skin showing. Remember to seal all gaps.”
Not trusting the protection offered by their gear, they used reams of thick brown sellotape to reinforce the seals around their wrists and face.
Once dressed in her yellow, Khadija picked up a megaphone and turned to face the crowd who had instinctively fallen silent. Her tone was stern and reprimanding, like a mother talking to errant children. She highlighted the contagious nature of the virus, going over the symptoms whilst stressing the importance of non-contact with suspected cases and the merits of prompt reporting to the requisite authorities. The reporter’s crew were by this time filming, their camera trained on Khadija as she spoke.
After her address, a man attired in a brown ronko half-gown broke from the crowd and came forward. He had the appearance of a benevolent uncle and introduced himself as the area chief. In a voice bloated with self-importance he explained to Khadija why they had phoned the centre. Eyeing her he kept his distance, preferring instead to shout his comments across the open space.
“We have been calling your centre since God’s morning! Her name is Muskuda and she died after vomiting through the night. She is a woman with a clean heart who sells dried fish in the local market. She complained of feeling bad and we thought it could be typhoid or jaundice malaria but the radio says we should take no chances which is why we called your centre. Her family ran away after she died, worried they would be arrested and taken away to die in the strange centre where white doctors treat the disease.”
Khadija smiled in reply. The panicked demands of people affected by the virus no longer flustered her. “We came as soon as we could. We received reports of dead bodies at Wilberforce, Aberdeen and Smart Farm but decided to come here first.”
The apparent preferential treatment did little to appease the chief who continued to glower in her direction with animosity. She did not tell him that she had decreed they come to Ginger Hall first upon hearing that the victim was female.
A couple of the reporter’s crew had by this time taken her attention away from the chief as they fixed a tiny camera to Khadija’s head, the black wires disappearing into her yellow back.
Khadija entered the woman’s house in the wake of Showers of Blessings who sprayed as he travelled, her eyes on the same level as the rectangular plastic container strapped to his back on which was inscribed an esoteric scientific combination of letters and numbers.
They found her in her front room.
Khadija remembered a troubling childhood myth which stated that dying with your eyes open was a curse; dark payment for evil perpetrated when alive.
The woman had died with her eyes open.
She lay on a bare mattress underneath the single wooden window which Khadija pushed open, shrouding the room in sun. She was partially covered by a brown country cloth embroidered with white birds. A plump leg and a taut breast had escaped the frayed material giving the impression of loose movement made whilst sleeping. Her hair was in the popular design Khadija recognised as seven-up: seven neat braids pointing upwards. Next to the woman’s head was a bowl of rice pap which had congealed, a crude aluminium spoon abandoned inside the mixture. An open Bible had also been left next to her, the pages of which quickly became saturated as Showers of Blessing continued to deluge the room with disinfectant. Gesturing at Showers of Blessing to pause his spraying, she stooped over the woman, pulling the country cloth over her exposed body to her chin. Satisfied that the woman’s modesty had been protected, she beckoned the rest of the team into the woman’s confined living space making free movement difficult.
Working through gestures only, Khadija supervised the woman’s gentle transfer from her mattress to wide white plastic sheets which had been laid out like communal prayer mats. Showers of Blessing doused the woman with a liberal dose of disinfectant, rivulets running down her dark skin. Kneeling, as if in supplication, they wrapped the sheets around the woman. They then sheathed her in a black body bag which was then transferred to a stretcher. As always, Khadija took responsibility for buckling the woman to the stretcher, remembering how an unsecured body had slipped to the ground at Allen Town causing deep consternation amongst mourners.
Their emergence into the yard was met with the wailing that was now customary, a couple of women asking aloud through their tears why their neighbour had chosen to die and leave them behind in this empty world. Khadija was never sure if those who wept were mourning death or expressing worry that the virus now lived amongst them. Other neighbours clustered just outside their doors, a blend of curiosity and fear as they observed the strange woman in yellow who had come to take one of their own away.
Since no relatives could be found, she spoke to the area chief who had appointed himself the dead woman’s proxy. Fixing his dull eyes on Khadija, he wanted assurance the body would not be burned and instead would be buried as was customary. Remembering how burial details had cultivated conflict at a previous location, Khadija promised to honour the chief’s wishes.
The reporter from Europe asked a few more questions after which her crew retrieved their camera from her head, the wires tickling her back as they were pulled up.
Khadija spat out blood when she brushed her teeth before going to work the following morning, consoling herself that it must be due to the loose tooth he had left her with when he took the child away.
Foday Mannah hails from Sierra Leone where he studied English Language and Literature at Fourah Bay College, University of Sierra Leone. He worked as a teacher and lecturer before moving to the United Kingdom. He currently lives in Scotland where he teaches English. He holds an Msc in International Conflict and Cooperation from the University of Stirling and an MA in Professional Writing from Falmouth University. His short story “Amie Samba” was shortlisted for the 2019 Bristol Short Story Prize, and was published in the anthology of the same year. Foday has also had his works shortlisted and highly commended for the Bridport, Sean O’Faolain, Mo Siewcharran and Brick Lane writing competitions.