Learning to Die
By Ndongolera C. Mwangupili (Malawi)
I am a young man aged twenty-seven and I answer to the name Ipyana Kaira. My first name means mercy. I have always thought of writing some notes for publication. I cannot call this a diary because a diary has to do with keeping memories of your day to day activities; whereas notes are writings with unorderly and absurd methods. I would like to discover what life is. I know that writers have pondered on this issue to no avail. I cannot promise to be wiser than all those writers who might have just cycled around the question. Life, I understand, is complex. We are born crying and the mother screaming; we die fearing death and the mother wailing. Furthermore, we do not choose to be born but, surprisingly, the thought of death threatens us. Actually the junction I have just reached in the course of my life makes me fear death more than anything on earth. My remaining years on earth are now geared upon learning to die. I will tell you what happened to me some months ago.
It was on a New Year eve. The year that would follow left a mark in the political history of my country Malawi as it would also leave a mark in my personal life. On the eve of that year, while I was walking from my house aimlessly but definitely towards town, I received a call from Temwani Banda, my comrade in boozing, who was also my contemporary at the University of Malawi, Chancellor College. He now lectures there in the Philosophy Department. We both graduated four years ago with Bachelors of Arts, double majoring in Philosophy and Literature. I went into secondary school teaching after a year of job-hunting and I am now at Masongola Secondary school. I feel I have some talent in teaching. In fact, teaching does not need a special qualification, does it? As long as you can tell some logical lies in front of a bunch of students it means you are a teacher. Whether you are a good teacher or not is a different issue. Actually, there is a thin line between teaching and cheating. It just depends on which side you are beginning to read the word.
Anyhow, forget these horrible jokes. My friend, Temwani, was lucky enough to get a scholarship to pursue a Master of Arts in Philosophy. I think he was sent to one of these prestigious universities in the UK and after completion he was picked up as a lecturer. Nonetheless, one good thing that made us to be inseparable is that we are both in Zomba, the hub of education in Malawi. In addition, we both still have a very single marital status. Of course, once in a while we pick up freelancers in streets to warm our beds but we have no serious affairs. On that one we are serious.
Temwani and I are outgoing guys. When I say outgoing I mean both the act of going out and also the character of meeting and talking to new faces. We are quite adventurous. So receiving a call from Temwani meant going on a drinking spree till dawn breaks out on a New Year.
I pressed the OK Button of my handset.
“What’s up, Temwani?”
“There is nothing up there but a lot of shit down here.”
I broke into laughter. You know, Temwani is a master of coinage. Every day he comes up with a surprising new phrase.
“There is a bash at 3miles. And I am afraid we’ll have to contribute a lot of salaries to the breweries and bars tonight.”
3miles lies on the Zomba-Blantyre road and it is three miles from Zomba town; hence, the name 3miles. When we talk of 3miles we talk about great fun. 3miles and fun are synonymous in Zomba. I knew that by calling me Temwani had already made up his mind to go there and he also knew that I had no choice but to go. What he wanted was when and where he would pick me up because my friend has Some Assembled Metals, in short SAM, with an engine pushing it, which he called a car because it was better than walking. You know cars run by some of these guys who have read some books of philosophy. What matters for them is but that the machine can pull and not the model. So we nicknamed Temwani’s car SAM.
“Is your SAM running?” I asked for formality’s sake.
“Faster than light!”
“Pick me up at 9 PM at the White House.”
By the White House I do not mean the USA president’s house but a house where opaque packeted beer called Chibuku is sold in the centre of Zomba. It is a habit for struggling middle-class men like me to start with one or two packets of Chibuku before we go into bottled beer. My class status is unstable... at month-ends I may have a lot of upper class air. Come middle month, I have some soil of lower class. So for fear of falling into the lower class in the most of the middle month I start with cheap beer before going for the expensive brand.
“I’ll be there,” he confirmed.
Button. I checked the time on my mobile phone and it was 6 PM. I had my three hours for my opaque beer. I had now passed the Community Ground and, after a few minutes of walking, I found myself turning into the White House and I ordered my packet of beer.
There was a dance of all in the White House. As I sipped from my packet I came to know how true the common maxim that “all men are babies” is. If somebody doubts just go into any pub and see how stupid men become regardless of their status in society. I remained placed at a corner, waiting for madness to catch up with me as I was having a few packets.
A beep on my mobile phone. I checked the missed call. It was Temwani. I assumed that he was outside waiting for me. The time was just coming up to 9 o’clock evening. I walked out and spotted where SAM was packed.
Temwani was behind the wheel, nursing a bottle of Carlsberg Green beer. He is medium in height and knows how to take care of his hair. He always keeps it short. I have always thought he visits the barber’s shop each and every day. But one thing, Temwani does not tuck in his shirt. He wears big shirts like windsock, showing the direction of the wind at the airport. He says he likes to have some space between his skin and shirt. A hilarious person.
“You’re already drunk at this early hour of the night?” I asked him as he drained the Carlsberg.
“Earthly pleasures are enjoyed on earth. Since I’m on earth I’ve to enjoy them.”
I did not respond to his new coined maxim. I opened the door and got in. We were on our way to 3miles. The town was aglow with festivities and merriment.
When we reached 3miles, we found the place fully packed. In normal situations life begins at twelve midnight at 3miles. But a day of celebration like on the New Year eve the place is usually jam-packed from dusk to dawn. So we found no space in the car-park and Temwani had to park his SAM outside the fence of the night club. There were pairs of lovers in each other’s arms along the semi-dark fence.
Upon entering the club we were greeted with a dancing mob. The word mob better describes it all. The dancers are into a cacophony of dancing styles, quite disorganized. It did not matter as long as the style was appropriate to one’s mood. We went straight into ordering our beers. Some East African music, which is a fusion of Hip-hop and some African traditional beats, were being featured. The dance floor just like the car-park was also fully parked with sex-workers and drunks.
3miles has all types of sex workers. There are teenagers with pointing breasts; those who usually sneak out of the windows of their bedroom without the knowledge of their parents. You also meet half-dressed experienced sex workers. They pose like successful business ladies, buying some expensive beers or wines. Then you are likely to see old sex-workers with their breasts so deflated that even a bra fails to hold them firm. And hanging outside are dirt village girls, smelling garden odours, waiting to be picked up at cheap price for a short time. That is not all; there are also a few male sex workers who go around walking like queens on a catwalk.
I spotted one damsel in distress. She was dancing alone with a bottle of three-quarter drained Fanta. Most women were dancing with men and had beers in their hands. But this one had no one to buy her a beer.
The lass was a beauty to reckon with. She was light in complexion. Though she was four or five metres away from me, I noticed dimples on her cheeks. She also had straight shoulder-length hair with a side parting. Her complexion betrayed her that one of her ancestors might have been an Asian. You know, these Asians have distributed a lot of their genes around Zomba but they would not like a black man to touch their sisters. On their sisters they are very protective. Of course, our sisters are also to blame as they run for the Asians’ money while Asian ladies have nothing to run for in us.
Anyhow, in this girl I admired her figure. She had a figure like a Coca-Cola bottle: sizeable breasts, small waist and big sexy hips. She was wearing a white blouse, which glittered like gold in the blue disco lights of the club. I walked towards her to fill the gap.
“You’re good looking and...”
“She’s more than that. She’s sexy with a good sitting plan behind. Nice for a take-away,” Temwani cut me short with his usual uncensored language, full of coinage.
I felt a bit embarrassed. But the smile on the girl gave me some courage. A sign of welcome a man expects from a woman at 3miles is a movement of the face that looks like a smile. Whether plastic or not is another issue you would ponder over when proposing marriage. One other thing that is not significant at 3miles is love. What matter here are cash, appearances and fluctuation. Love? That is a strange word at 3miles.
I put my arms around her waist, pulled her close and waltzed. Temwani walked away to the counter. It was the best dance I had ever had with a girl at 3miles. I saw that Temwani was also eyeing for the same girl. We danced up to the counter and asked Temwani to dance with her as I ordered our drinks. Without a word he pulled her forcefully into the dancing arena.
“Handle her with care. In fact, she’s not yours,” I jokingly warned Temwani and gave both of them a beer.
You may wonder as to why I had to buy a beer for the girl who was having a soft drink. You are in for more surprise. It is a habit at 3miles for a girl to buy a soft drink while waiting for a man who will come on her way to buy her a beer. A girl never buys a beer from her pocket at 3miles.
As it was nearing dawn, i took her to Woza Rest house just outside 3miles. I remembered the proverb I had heard on BBC Network Africa one day that ‘if money were growing on trees women would have married monkeys’. At first I thought it was a sex stereotyped saying. But looking at what happens in bars and what I was doing that night I believed it. The girl was glued to me just because I had some cash in my pocket. What we were up to was sex without love.
Beer! They say beer takes away the performance. But for me, that night it gave me the appetite as well as the performance. I had rough sex with her. It was like climbing mountains and rolling down into valleys with her.
Sex does not go without surprising me. We all have an appetite for it, but soon after that we feel stupid or I should say I feel stupid. That day I felt really stupid. I realised after everything that I had not used a condom. I had forgotten the condoms in my pocket. I did not know who the girl was and I had not even asked her name. Actually, names are not important at 3miles. Telling a fake name is the order of the day.
The whole situation reminded me how animal-like human beings are. We are largely governed by instinct rather than reason, particularly, after one or more beers.
Lying on the bed in Woza Rest house, my hand on the back of my head, I pondered on the meaning of life. That was the first time in my life to have unprotected sex with a prostitute. The chances of having HIV and not having were now on the ratio of one to one. In Malawi the rate of HIV infection is high and statistics show that one in every ten people is HIV positive and it was much higher among sex workers as the nature of their job put them at high risk. Health care in our county is also poor which puts the lives of those HIV positive at much risk of losing their life. No wonder many people still die due to HIV/AIDS.
This meant that all that I had worked for over twenty-seven years were now put on the equilibrium of life and death. I had just shown that I was really an animal rather than a human being because to be governed by instinct alone is to be a brute.
I woke up, got dressed and walked out, leaving the girl still sleeping in that rest house. I headed to where Temwani was. In my mind I was rehearsing on how to break the horrible news to him.
Death. What is death? The question baffles me. I know fear is natural in all animals and the greatest fear is the fear of ceasing to exist. Every life fears death. But why is it that even those of us who believe in life after death are also confronted with fear of death? Is eternal life real or just a matter of utility? If there is life after death, why should we have that natural fear of death? Should I say it is the same fear a baby has at birth that it cries in surprise to being born? Is it the fear of the unknown in the new life after the womb? We also have the fear of, may be, new life after death. Should I take it that birth and death are both terrifying to the inborn baby and the dying person, respectively, because there is no free will for both?
Since that incident of sleeping with the prostitute, the fear of death haunted me. It is like by buying sex from that prostitute I had also bought HIV. When I told Temwani he took everything as a joke.
“You see, HIV is like poison in one of the five apples of which you’re asked to take one. It is a game of chance. If you take the poisoned one you will die. If you take one of the good ones you will survive. But one thing the test is the same,” he fell into laughter.
“Don’t joke about it. I’m in a mood of no jokes.”
“If you’re worried wait for three months and go for HIV test after that.”
“Do you think it’s easy to make that decision?”
“You’ve no choice. If you’re found positive, you can’t deny it. If you’re found negative, fair and good.”
“So I’ve to live the fear of being positive for three months?”
“Why should you assume what you don’t know to be in existence? Please reason like someone who has perused some pages of philosophy and literature,” he said with a tone of annoyance.
“Pragmatism is not a dish of all people.”
“Just get into SAM. We need some rest.”
We drove in silence up to Masongola Secondary School where my house was.
“Sleep and you’ll be ok after that.” He dropped me and drove off.
Temwani thought it was as simple as that but inside me the fear was building up. I could only see few years ahead of me: few years of normal life and few years of on-and-off sickness then years that I have to life on these cheap ARVs. I had to sleep and wake up with the fear of being HIV positive. I had to be jovial each and every day while the passage of time reminded me that death was beckoning me. Life is but a madmen’s journey taking different destinies. I had just taken my destiny.
Three months passed by. And it was now the month of April. One day of this month, the whole country was in shock when news spread that the president had collapsed at the state house and he was in the ICU at the Kamuzu Central Hospital in Lilongwe and plans were under way to refer him to South Africa for further treatment. As the new was being announced on the radio I was lying on my sofa in my house. So the president was dying, I thought, and here I was killing myself with the thought that I might be HIV positive! Just the day before, the president might have look very full of life and those around him might have thought just that. And the following morning he had started his daily audiences as usual and just collapsed in one of those sessions. What is life then? Is it a breath that when you run short of it you die and leave behind what were once you: body? Is it the character in you that when you die all that is left is the motionless body? It mystified me that when the once mighty and feared president died his mightiness died with him. What was left was no longer frightening to those around him. We are, therefore, a breath and this breath is our character and our person. This body is just the chisel carrying us and when we die we leave it to decay as we vanish into nothingness of unknown but presupposed existence.
Our actions and unactions are a pattern of chaos. Life has no order and what we do we do without destiny as destiny is a phantom. Life is just living and living cannot be planned. The plans that we make in our life are all contingencies and if at all we seem to have achieved them we have to know that it has been just by accident and not by our effort.
After all the political drama of April and the vice president was now officially the president, I decided I would not go on living with fear. I had to know my status. I took the courage to go to the clinic for voluntary counseling and testing. In short they call it VCT.
“Why do you want VCT?” the nurse who was attending to me asked after I had told her my intention to be tested for HIV.
“You see, I feel I’ve been careless with my life and it’s time I made a U-turn.”
“You’re speaking in parables. What do you mean?”
“Ok, I’ve always used condoms. But this other day I forgot to use it because I was very drunk... and I have lived with the fear of having HIV ever since.”
“Do you think the woman could be HIV positive?”
“The girl is in a high-risk profession,” facing down I added, “she’s a prostitute.”
“Did you come for PEP soon after the incident?”
“What is this PEP thing?”
“It is Post Exposure Prophylaxis and it is abbreviated as PEP. It is a course of medication that can stop you from becoming HIV positive after you have been exposed to the virus. It works by preventing HIV from reproducing before HIV infection can be established in a person’s body. It is supposed to be administered early after HIV has entered the body, within 72 hours.”
“Why is this information hidden? If a graduate like I do not know about this PEP, how many illiterate poor people suffer out there?”
“I understand your concerns. But you also have to understand that there is shortage of drugs in the public hospitals and access to healthcare is still a huge problem in our country. When the state president had to die of heart attack because of lack of healthcare at the state house, do you think we can have sufficient care for poor citizens?”
“So your argument is that the president has more rights to access healthcare than us ordinary citizens? Is that how you define equality in hospitals that some have special rights?”
No! No! That is not what I met, sir,” she stammered and after she was composed she continued. “Back to your problem, it’s good that you’ve come here. It could be that the woman is HIV negative. When you’re found negative you’ll not live with fear. If at all you’re positive, you will know how to take care of yourself. You’ll have to accept and live a positive life.”
I noticed ambiguity in the word ‘positive’ and I grinned sheepishly. I was asked a few questions about my personal data and she filled on a piece of paper. My name was insignificant as it was not required on the form. My heart started beating fast. I was about to know my status.
The nurse led me into the lab. The odour of the chemicals ran into my nostrils. I felt nausea and sick inside me. The nurse handed the form to a lab assistant we had found inside the lab. He showed me the bench behind the door to the left as you enter the lab. There was a fridge to my far left. The lab assistant was sitting some three metres in front of me facing the other wall. His table had all sorts of apparatus. He was bald and had moustache like a make-up of a buffoon.
He left his chair and came to me with something that looked like a needle and pricked my finger. My whole body shivered and I felt like catching a chill. He gave me cotton wool dipped in spirit to press on the pricked spot after he had taken a sample of my blood for testing. I did not bother to ask him the technical terms of his apparatus. He was the master of his job and I would not bother him with my questioning. When you are a patient, particularly, when you are an HIV case, education does not make you smarter. You are reduced to an impersonal figure with no name on your form.
After his laboratory testing he wrote on the form and with no grain of empathy but with clownish gesture he shooed me the door after he had given me the form. As I walked to the counseling room, for the first time an idea came into my mind that the lab assistant had done a lot of injustice to his body with the locally distilled dry spirit, Kachasu. I grinned, realizing that I was also about to officially receive the message that I had done a lot of injustice to my blood with HIV. That realization sent a chill down my spine. I was now really sick. I feared I was developing hypochondria.
I entered the counseling room and handed the form to the nurse. She read it and I noticed wrinkles of sadness developing on her face. The moment I had been waiting for had come. She faced me.
“Mr. Ka... Ka... er,” she stuttered to remember my surname.
“Kaira,” I told her.
“Yes, Mr. Kaira. Your blood has been found to be HIV reactive,” she finally announced. She had definitely gone through the trauma of telling dozens of people that shocking news, I thought.
“I understand,” I replied, “I was prepared for no other news.”
She stood there, mouth agape, registering her amazement.
“I’ll come for more counseling when need arises. But You have taught me one great lesson: when the president with all that security and food testers had to die of a heart attack right within the eyes of his security, who am I?” I said after some minutes of silence and walked out, smiling.
As I walked into the street I realized that life would not be the same from that moment. I had to live by the grace of ARVs day in day out... Why is there evil in this world? Is life without evil unachievable? Why all this suffering in the world? I contemplated.
I was now shivering. I knew that it was nothing but the shock of the knowledge of my HIV status. I had to pass through this emotional trauma... Why do we die? I wondered as I paced along the street going home. I thought we die because we do not have spare parts. If one’s leg were fractured we would have been going to get another leg and replace it, had it been there were spare parts at the hospital. We would have been doing that even with our hearts, livers, kidneys and all other organs. And just imagine, when one’s blood were HIV positive we would also have been going to the hospital to have it drained out, the way we do with the dirty oil in our car engines, and have it replaced with clean blood. Temwani does that with his SAM every month because his car has a chronic disease of breaking down almost every month.
I brushed aside the silly thoughts. I had to accept my status. I was born and what was remaining at the other end was death, with or without HIV. But the time before that day, hour, minute and second of my death I had to do something with my life. I did not choose to be born, let alone the place of my birth. It logically follows I have no choice but to die in the end and I cannot choose even the mode of my death. Destiny chose that I will die with HIV/AIDS... My face glowed with enlightenment upon realizing that I had little choice on earth but to follow my destiny.
It was me who went to 3miles and it was me who slept with that girl. But it all started with Temwani calling me. Had it that Temwani is not my friend he would not have called me. So the whole fate goes back to the first time of meeting Temwani. No. Actually it goes back to being born in Malawi. Had it been I was born somewhere else my destiny would have been different.
I took my phone and dialled Temwani’s number.
“I’m in class, Ipyana, teaching existentialism,” he said.
“I’m just another bad case study of existentialism. I’m HIV positive.”
“Man, you had the courage to go for a test?”
“What choice did I have?”
“You’ve guts, man! The three letters, HIV, break my bones.”
“I’ve learnt on thing. Being born, particularly, in our country where the rate of HIV is high and with the kind of life you and I live, I was destined to my fate. After all those years of preventing I got it due to that silly mistake of forgetting the rubber. Just once in my lifetime. Is that not a bad case for your class of existentialism?”
“I’ll give that as an assignment for my class to philosophize on... Can you have a beer tonight?”
“I can only have a few beers.”
“I understand your status. But life is still good.”
“All the times, brother.”
We laughed for a minute and hung up. Upon reaching home I thought I could scribble some notes for publication to share my experience and silly thoughts with many people outside there who might be in my shoes. I hope you have learnt to accept death with me.
Ndongolera C. Mwangupili is a poet, fiction writer and essayist from Malawi. Many of his poems, short stories and essays have appeared in different local newspapers and anthologies. His stories are published in Modern Stories from Malawi (2003) and The Bachelor of Chikanda and Other Stories (2009). His poem the Genesis was anthologized in The Time Traveller of Maravi: New Poetry from Malawi (2011). Another poem Letters to a Comrade is published on www.openroadreview.in. His other poems appear on whispersinthewind333.blogspot.com and https://eunoiareview.wordpress.com. One of his poems is published in Belgium in a collection titled The Aquillrelle Wall of Poetry of passion and romance, members’ anthology. His poem Songs of a Peasant is published in The Criterion: An International journal in English, ISSN (0976-8165) Vol. 5, Issue. VI (December 2014). He works as a Senior Inspector of Schools in Malawi. He is also the Secretary General of Malawi Union of Academic and Non-fiction Authors (MUANA). He has just finished writing his first novel titled Sweet and Bitter. He is also in the process of compiling a collection of his poems titled Fragments of Broken Voice.