26.3.11

Her demons and the doctor

She was killed as birds sang outside the bedroom window, oblivious to the scene to which their music was the soundtrack. Later, when her body was discovered and screams resounded throughout the house and echoed through the neighbourhood, people would ask why such an awful thing had happened. There would be speculation and futile analyses, groundless accusations and pointing of fingers. In time, mutilated renderings of Lungowe’s story would become urban legends. Somewhere in the story there were curses and spirits, there were brave medicine men, fearless parents and sacrificial lambs.

Lungowe and her siblings had been left outside the doctor’s office to listen at the door.

“These are not matters for children.” doctor Chiti’s assistant had informed five children whose hearts were racing and stomachs churning. The door was made of cracked strips of wood roughly nailed and glued together and was perfect for the six to watch their parents as they sought an end to their collective suffering.

Their father was a tall man and knelt awkwardly in front of the Great Doctor Chiti as the sign outside had declared him to be “

Their mother remained behind him and sat on the floor beside the one chair that creaked when her husband, his formal greeting over, sat and sighed.

“What makes you sure it is a curse?” the Doctor asked.

Their father looked surprised. He took a moment to reply. His furrowed brow illustrated his anguish and he began in an unhappy monotone. “In the last year, my businesses have collapsed; I can barely feed my family. I have been constantly ill until I have become the wasted man you see here. My oldest son – I have lost him to booze. He lives only for alcohol and cheap women. My daughters – are all too young to marry well and rescue us, and besides who would marry us? We are nobody now.”

Without doubt, you have attracted evil.” The diviner shook his head with a rehearsed look of pity. “You have lost your prowess both in business and in another area?” he glanced at their mother “This can only be the work of evil spirits.”

The doctor stood and paced slowly once around his clients, his heels were so dry and cracked, Lungowe winced with fear of his pain. His white trousers were marked with stains of many colours, as were the palms of his hands. These were the stains of the cures and potions he mixed and the blood that sometimes spilled as he worked, his blood or others’.

Coming to the doctor had not been an easy decision for their father, and it would not have happened without his consent. Lungowe’s mother had suggested it weeks ago as they sat in their nearly bare living room. Their father swore and punched his wife in the face, sending her onto the floor, where her frail body lay slumped trembling. The girls rushed to her and helped her up. Their father said nothing and watched the women of his house huddled against the wall, having learned that they should neither speak nor run.

“I am a Christian.” He declared, thumping his chest and taking a menacing step towards them. “God made me a strong and rich man. The devil has taken this away from me.” He stopped, looming above them.

“It is because of your evil that I am not cured. Yes I am certain it is from my own home. Your curses will not prevail. God will save me.” He patted his chest in emphasis. He lowered himself into his armchair and opened the bible that rested on its arm. “Amen.”

They had not been to church for several months. Not since his Toyota Corolla was sold to pay expenses. Lungowe recalled their last trip. Her Father had been even more fervent than usual, singing every song and bowing his head lower than usual.

They all had stood in line shouting prayers. Lungowe imitated the rambling language of the other attendants punctuated with “Ay-men!” again and again. The Pastor had walked down the queue, saying a prayer in God’s language, healing his devotees of a myriad of ills as scrawled in large letters on pieces of cardboard held above their heads

“Healed!” the pastor shouted, and smacked her father on the forehead. He fell, the church attendants guiding his limp body to the floor. She watched her father writhe and tremble, foam bubbling from his lips. Their card, held above their heads read “money troubles, unknown illness”

Her father had whistled during the car journey home. The seven of them crowded into the car, the oldest boy missing as usual. As her father stepped out the car, his whistle turned to words “Jesus, my saviour, I will worship and adore thee.” He locked the car behind them and began to clap along to his tune.

“Join me!” he invited them, keeping time “Jesus, my saviour…”

They stared at him uncertain.

“Join me!” he shouted and his order was immediately obeyed. “I will worship and adore thee.”

They followed behind him singing, their mother even offering an “Alleluia”. On the veranda he stopped and leaned against the wall, his breathing fast and shallow. He coughed, each cough more painful than the last until a glob of phlegm landed on the polished concrete, the blood visible. After the pause the family continued into the house - still singing.

He kept coughing that painful noise as he had done every evening for months. In the silence of the house, without TV or radio, without storytelling or gossip to distract them, they heard every sound. The sound of the bathroom door opening and closing, the flushing and gurgling of the toilet and the slamming of his fist on the table in anger at his pain, ruled the house.

Lungowe felt no surprise when the family arrived at the Doctor Chiti’s. Things she’d never imagined possible seemed so normal, like when they began using old newspaper for toilet paper. She challenged nothing.

After watching their father and mother through the cracked door narrating their situation, Lungowe realised how desperate her father must be to lower himself to grovelling before a witchdoctor.

The doctor shouted “You may come in now!” and the door swung open. The five children crept to where he pointed and sat down - the girls with their heads bowed the little boy staring at the doctor defiantly.

He stood before them and pulled of his stained shirt and asked his ancestors for their guidance. In a trance he began to chant. His words reminded her of the pastor at church, nonsensical yet somehow familiar. The doctor, lurched back and forth, shouted, clapped and hopped. He looked ridiculous; Lungowe suppressed a laugh though she would have loved to hear the sound of her own laughter once again.

Just as she was contemplating the sound of birds outside, the doctor pounced. He stopped abruptly before her and pointed a trembling finger. He babbled louder and suddenly reawakened from his trance.

“My ancestors have spoken!” he thundered above her.

As the doctor returned to his chair, her family – father, mother, brother and sisters - stared.  Her mother shook her head in disbelief. Lungowe remained silent, looking at her family and unsure of what had just occurred.

“Yes I have asked them again and again. Who is responsible, who has called this great evil? The spirits have identified her by name, they have described her face – there is no mistake.”

The doctor leaned back satisfied with his diagnosis. “I can only discuss the remedy with the afflicted.” He nodded at her father, who was nodding slowly.

“The demon which your church man speaks lives within her.” said the doctor.

Lungowe only felt her heart living within her.

“But” she spoke and was immediately silenced by a handful of noxious powder the doctor threw in her face.

“Stay silent you demon!” he shouted, spittle flying from of his mouth and his fist crashing onto the table. “You will be purged in due course.”

As ordered, everyone except her father left the room. The men’s voices were too low to be heard and with their mother present the children didn’t dare peek through the door. No one said a word, their eyes focused on the ground, the sky, distant trees and singing birds but not on each other. For Lungowe, waiting for their father was an eternity filled with visions of monsters nestled in her belly erupting from her throat and consuming her family and then celebrating in lewd frenzied dances.

Their father emerged and said nothing. They dutifully followed him back home. The wide potholed roads that dipped sharply at the edge were now familiar without a car. Their mother keeping her customary distance beside him, the boy ahead and the girls, this time, not in their usual huddle but with the space of unhappy people between them.

They arrived home and their father begun to whistle “Jesus…” Lungowe prayed she wouldn’t have to join him, sure that the demons would emerge with her voice.

The last light had faded and still her father had said nothing. The lights were finally turned on and the girls as usual began preparing dinner with their mother in the kitchen. As Lungowe was cooking the nshima, the water and mealie meal mixture had been bubbling on the heat for few minutes, there was a power blackout.

“Shit!” his expletive carried through the darkness.

The mixture of mealie-meal and water began to harden, become a mess of lumps and mush. The vegetables were salvaged and the girls and their mother sat silent in the dark kitchen until the power returned. Lungowe carried the pot to the sink to pour out the meal.

“Don’t.” her mother stopped her, “unless you have something else for us to eat tonight. We can’t waste that.” She nodded at the partly cooked mix. “Cook a little fresh nshima in a small pot for your father, the rest of us will just have to eat that.”

No one protested, the idea of going to bed having only eaten vegetables was too frightening to contemplate. They had missed enough meals to know how it felt to spend an entire night hungry.

Lungowe and one of her sisters served their father his dinner in the living room where he always ate, placing the plates on the side table while on their knees. They returned to the kitchen where their food lay on enamel dishes.

The youngest boy looked at the congealed mealie-meal and declared “I’m not going to eat that!” In a voice that imitated his father’s.

“Then stay hungry.” their mother turned her back to him.

“Daddy!” he shouted and ran to the living room.

Her mother watched him run, a look of fear on her face. 

The two voices mingled in the living room, the high pitched voice of the six year old in contrast to his father’s. There was a rattling of plates and their father appeared in the doorway. Their mother cowered, head down, arms crossed almost foetal, awaiting his wrath.

“I am cursed.” he whispered and returned to his meal. His son stood awaiting his father’s fire and a hot plate of nshima. Neither happened.

There was a boiling sensation in Lungowe’s stomach. She knew it was neither demons nor partly cooked nshima. It was dread.

That night she gave up trying to get to sleep. She lay on the worn mattress and looked out through the torn window mesh at the night sky. The night sky looked the same as had always done, though her life had changed so much. Lungowe didn’t know why they had no money, there just seemed to be less and less of it as time passed. Her father’s businesses shrivelled until they were worthless. The house was falling down around them. It was the last thing they had to sell. She’d heard her father say that he would never sell their house, but many things that he swore would never happen had come and gone. The car was gone, so was the perming their hair and their hairdryer. Gone was the money for takeaway and the decrepit private school. Their mother’s chitenge outfits were worn from constant reuse and Lungowe couldn’t remember the last time she had a new dress. Her thirteenth birthday had come and gone without a gift or celebration.

The people had changed as well. Her father still dominated them all and her mother still crept through the house like a shadow. But sometimes, when he coughed or spent the whole night battling diarrhoea Longowe could see his vulnerability, like when he leaned against her mother to help him out of his armchair or when she mopped his sweating brow.

He clung on to his old life, to the things that made him a man. He still had enough friends to spend occasional afternoons in bars and come home late in the evenings, unsteady on his feet, demanding that his wife satiate him. If his friends had been good enough to him, another woman would have taken care of his need and he would return, trousers partly unzipped, with a damp mark at the crotch. Their mother would shake her lowered head and follow him into their room to put him to bed.

Lungowe had seen other fathers waste away and die. Their wives followed and sometimes their children. Those children that survived were often left to look after themselves or at the mercy of relatives. This is what she feared most – being left in a bare house with no one to care for them.

This future was never talked about. No one had tried. An insidious silence ruled, no scenarios could be analysed and no contingencies planned. Death was a forbidden subject and what would come after was left to solitary musings in the night.

The dread in her stomach had not left her. Instead it grown to be an all encompassing fear, she felt, at this moment, afraid even of the other girls in the room – her own sisters. Who, if they believed that she was in some way responsible for their misery, had not given her any clues. Was it because they were so used to being powerless?

Lungowe watched the sky light up, the rising sun not visible from their window. She was sick with anticipation and the song of the morning birds did nothing to appease her.

Her father left the house after breakfast without explanation. The family were left silently guessing, cleaning worn carpets, thumbing through old magazines, imagining what the day held.

The doctor brought her father home in a battered corolla. Her father looked frail in the passenger’s seat – as if he were a patient being brought home from hospital.  

Nothing was explained to them as the doctor marched around their house, mumbling and waving his charms, and sprinkling powders into corners and windowsills.

Finally he sat in the living room in her father’s armchair, her father sat on the sofa on the right hand side of the doctor.

Her father’s voice was reinvigorated and there was no sign of his cough. He announced that the matter of demons would be settled today. He explained that the doctor would perform his ritual, and then their life would return to what it had been before.

“Go to the Doctor’s surgery and don’t come back until we come to call you.” He ordered his wife. “All of you except the patient”

By “patient” the family knew that he meant Lungowe. As always they obeyed unquestioningly, standing immediately and taking nothing with them. Lungowe could not tell if any of them were as afraid as she, or if they too were so desperate to be rid of the curse that they were willing to lose her to regain their affluence.

Her father explained the doctor’s proposal. Lungowe again stared disbelieving at the doctor and the man she knew as her father. She wasn’t used to speaking back to her father and she remained silent.

She shook her head.

“What! You would not save your father’s life. The man who gave you life, the man who has fed and clothed you?” The doctor spoke. He stood and her father did the same, remaining behind him. Lungowe would have like to believe he was poisoned, drugged, out of his mind. But he nodded.

“Don’t you lie awake at night wondering what will happen to you when your father dies? You will be destitute, starving.” The doctor asked and she nodded. “Don’t you see the girls on the street selling their bodies? Is that what you want for you and your sisters?”

Lungowe shook her head.

“Then do what we ask. Everyone will thank you and you will have your father’s eternal gratitude” Her father nodded again.

She walked in a daze into her parents’ bedroom – a room into which she was forbidden entry and did as she was told. She sat on the bed and felt her father’s hand touch her shoulder. He had never touched her before, except to hit her.

“No!” she jumped to her feet, her father standing in front of her, his erect penis inches from her.

She tried to run to the door, but he grabbed her arm and threw her to the floor she felt her head hit the cold steel bed frame as she fell. From where she lay she could see the doctor standing in the doorway.

When it was over, she lay on the floor her blood seeping between her legs and her face where he father had hit her to keep her quiet.

From where she lay she heard the doctor say “Now she must be silenced.”

“She will stay quiet.” Her father replied, He stood again at the right side of the doctor looking down at her. She listened to the two men, they didn’t feel the need to whisper.

“The demon might return and if she talks they will come after you. After all, soon you will once again be a rich and healthy man. Everyone will want a piece of you.”

“No.”

“Yes.” said the doctor. “I told you I would save you and I have. Don’t throw this opportunity away.

Lungowe heard the birds singing and wondered for an instant, if perhaps they could be singing for her. Lungowe did not resist as the towel covered her face and her face grew hot effort to breathe. She tried only once to fling her arms in the air, hoping for respite. Then she knew it was hopeless.   

Her father and the doctor left in his car. At the office, the father counted wads of borrowed cash and handed it to his saviour. He waited there as his family returned to the house and found Lungowe’s body. He cried with them and cursed the bastards that had killed her and waited for his fortune to change.

Images: Flickr 

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