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A Bitter Harvest

By Temwani Mgunda (Malawi)

*Temwani Mgunda is a trained journalist and secondary school teacher of English and History from Malawi, Africa. He previously worked as Literary Arts Editor for Malawi News, the country’s oldest weekly newspaper.


A Bitter Harvest

Short Story

Temwani Mgunda (Malawi)


Other seed fell among thorns,
which grew up with it
and choked the plants.
~The Parable of the Sower (Luke 8:7, The Holy Bible: New International Version)

I cough. It is massive coughing. My own colossal coughing has woken me up early this Tuesday morning. The day is humid and it is quite frosty out there. The skies are draped in scudding black clouds. Actually, it has been like this for the past three days or so – muggy, nippy and cloudy. But today it appears the weather is resolute to launch a grim mission. A horribly humid day it is. A dreadfully cloudy day it is. And a terribly chilly Tuesday, this one is.

I cough again. It is massive coughing.

There is always a flurry of sharp stabs piercing the inside of my chest each time I cough. That is why today, on this freezing Tuesday, I must pull together whatever little is remaining out of my once bubbly body and push it all the way to that giant structure of a hospital located in the other part of this cosmic city. Hostile weather conditions or not, I must step out of this shack of a house that squats amid several of its type in this vast slum township plagued by teenage prostitutes, fatherless rascals, hard-core bandits and countless other social misfits.

“I am dying.” I silently disclose this scary reality to myself.

You see, in the heart of my hearts I earnestly acknowledge that for quite some time now my life has been a tattered portrait of sorts. I am pining away at a rapid rate and if you inquire from those who have honestly known me for a long time, they will firmly testify that I was once tall and tout. Of course, I have not lost my height but I am now pretty emaciated. More bones, little flesh. A forlorn face with depleted cheekbones. Gaunt shoulders that hunch forward. Jutting ribs that can be counted, nay, that can be strummed like the strings of a guitar. And you would mistake me for an octogenarian from some famine-ravaged region yet I am still way behind hitting 40. So, there is no disputing that I am dying, bit by bit. I might be dead already. A dead man trotting. A breathing corpse.

I cough. It is massive coughing. The lady planted next to me in this rickety minibus shoots a callous look at me. I cough again. It is massive coughing. The entire ramshackle minibus shoots one huge brutal look at me. I feel mortified. I feel like an outcast of sorts. A pitiable Lazarus with his wound-riddled body in that biblical story of The Rich Man and Lazarus.

I cough again. Again it is massive coughing. But this time around my raucous coughing attracts reproachful looks from this entire ragged assemblage of metals on four wheels with its metallic vibrations endlessly raising reverberations of anguish. I silently and willingly plead guilty inside this mobile courtroom. I readily admit that I am an outlaw of sorts. I understand the heartless looks from my fellow passengers. Coughs are among myriad fatal infectious ailments in this part of the world. Coughs belong to the treacherous gang of air-borne diseases. My fellow passengers have every right to be distressed and unforgiving, courtesy of my hazardous coughing.

“Queen’s Bus Stage!” Shrieks the minibus conductor – a stout, husky-voiced fellow whose hair appears to have long ago signed a pact with the comb that the two parties must not rub shoulders. I am one of those expected to drop here. I feel, somehow, relieved. I feel, in some way, unchained. Liberated.

The bus stage draws its name from that of Queen Elizabeth Central Hospital, the country’s giant public referral hospital which, in turn, derives its name from that of the great Queen Elizabeth of the Great Britain, my country’s former colonial master. It is one of the key bus stops along the Kamuzu Banda Highway, the busiest road in the city named after the very first black president to lord over our country after it was gallantly wrenched from the tenacious jaws of colonialism.

As I disembark from the minibus I cough. It is massive coughing. I can feel the ferocious looks from the minibus stabbing my back as I feebly walk away towards Queen’s – for that is what the central hospital is fondly and diminutively called. I cough again. It is massive coughing. My disgraceful coughing attracts contemptuous looks from vendors who relentlessly lie in ambush along the pavement to the hospital where they operate their tiny-scale businesses.

“Coughs like a tractor!” Thus cynically remarks one of the vendors, triggering derisive laughter among his colleagues.

I keep on walking. I walk on. Feebly. Desolately.

The Queen Elizabeth Central Hospital, built way back at the height of colonialism in Africa, is the last bastion of hope for the sick in the whole country. It is quite celestial a health facility sprawled over some spacious piece of land in the city of Blantyre – another name that is an undiluted relic of imperialism as the city was christened after the home town of David Livingstone, that legendary fellow from Scotland who long ago set foot on our land to initiate the then fashionable three Cs: Christianity, Commerce, Civilisation.

I cough. It is massive coughing.

OUT-PATIENTS DEPARTMENT – that is what is emblazoned in black letters against a white-painted background of the concrete signpost for one of Queen’s numerous sections where I have been directed to by a hospital security guard. There is a horde of equally gravely-ravaged souls here sitting in the queue on this rambling cement slab, each waiting for their turn to go and confess their ‘sins’ to the doctor hiding inside the Consultation Room. It is quite snaky a slab we are perched on, crammed from head to tail. And it is quite a sorry throng of sorts here: Pale men and women, ailing boys and girls, howling babies and then the massively coughing ones like me. An empire of the wretched of the souls in dire need of earthly salvation.

I cough. It is massive coughing.

A darting wave of chill sweeps across the place. The skies are still wrapped in a dense blanket of scudding clouds. There is repulsive stench swamping the atmosphere here. I am told the awful stink springs from the overloaded wards hosting patients who, because of the critical diseases assaulting them, are admitted to the hospital for round-the-clock attention. I silently but fervently pray that I should not become part of their ill-fated community. This place stinks – stinks like that grimy mammoth rubbish dump located somewhere in the outskirts of Blantyre where all of the city’s refuse is deposited.

I cough. It is massive coughing. Of course, I cough intermittently. And it is always massive coughing. But here – unlike in the minibus and along that pavement – my tractor-like coughing does not attract spiteful looks. It is a kinship of sorts here. We are one of a kind here as each of us has their own brutal trials and tribulations to mind.

A man pushing a stretcher hauling a patient covered in white sheets from head to toe passes by. And instantly the queue detonates into a frightening wave of murmurs. It is not a patient but a corpse being ferried to the mortuary, so the murmurs allege. Covered from head to toe, so the murmurs try to authenticate the allegation. And the white sheets, it is no longer an allegation. Fright crawls up my spine. It is no secret that I am scared. It is also no secret that I am not the only one who feels edgy here. Bloodcurdling murmurs, these!

I cough. It is massive coughing.

In the queue I keep on shifting, inch by inch. I also cough, coughing massively. So, it is dreary shifting punctuated by enormous coughing. Shifting, coughing, shifting, coughing, shifting, coughing …

“Next!” The doctor yells from inside the Consultation Room. It is me who is next in the queue. Finally, after about an hour or so, my turn has come to amble into the shrine to confess my sins.

Save for a table and three chairs, the room is almost a bare affair. The doctor – a bulky, bespectacled man – has nailed himself to one of the chairs positioned on the side of the table close to the only window. Though looking quite brisk and vivacious, he is an old fellow on whose neck rests a head that is as bald as the palm of my hand. A stethoscope – I think that is what it is called – dangles pompously around his neck while his hands fidget with a pen. Mounted on the walls inside the room is a battalion of posters trumpeting messages about such health matters as safe motherhood, birth control and balanced diet. CHILDREN BY CHOICE, NOT BY CHANCE – thus preaches one of the posters. REAL MEN GET CIRCUMCISED – thus screams another poster. AIDS KILLS, SPREAD THE MESSAGE, BUT NOT THE DISEASE – warns yet another.

I occupy one of the twin chairs placed on the other side of the table, directly facing the doctor.

I cough. It is massive coughing.

“Your name?”

“Yananga. Gibson Yananga.”




“I am a cop. A constable. Constable Gibson Yananga.”

“So, how are you constable?” The professional doctor asks. I find his question not only insulting, but also silly. First, those who are not sick have no business bothering themselves with visiting hospitals let alone such gigantic hospitals as Queen’s. Second, if untrained minibus passengers and vendors can tell with their unqualified eyes that I am not fine then what more with a certified doctor?

“I am sick. I am coughing.” I snappily respond, just to satisfy the bald-headed doctor’s absurd question.

“For how long have you been coughing?”

“Almost five months now.”

“Have you ever taken any medication before?”

“Yes. Several times.”

“What type of medication?”

“Many … tablets, capsules … plus traditional roots and leaves.”

I cough. It is massive coughing.

The doctor gives me a sharp searching look above his glasses. He does that at length with a clinical eye (or is it with a doctoral eye?). I feel restless.

I cough. It is massive coughing.

“Apart from the cough, have you ever before suffered from any other disease?”

So, I silently ask myself, after firing at me a litany of questions, this bulky fool of a doctor vomits yet another question? It is as if I am attending a job interview now. And I am beginning to loathe it.

But, I mutely ask myself: Have I ever suffered from any other disease?”

Silence. Silence. Silence.

A hollow silence spreads out between us.

My mind, already troubled by a hurricane of upsetting thoughts, goes back to that day some nine months ago. My body might be wasted but my mind is not and I recall it was last year during the month that hosts Christmas Day. And it was precisely three days after Jesus’ sacred birthday that I visited a private clinic in Mbayani – the populous slum township where I rent that shack of a house as there is acute shortage of institutional houses in the police camp for junior officers like me.

You see, all was not fine with me that other day as I woke up only to realise that there was turmoil ‘down here’. One minute it was itching then the next minute it appeared as if a red-hot iron rod had been inserted there. I felt uncomfortable. I became restive. Then, after some time, the itching melted away and what remained was intense pain. 
I decided to check. Lo and behold! The state of affairs ‘down here’ was quite horrific. Thick grey stuff leaked steadily. And not only thick, but also quite putrid stuff it was. I became more restive. I despondently wondered what it could have been. STI? No! Gracious Lord of Abraham, Jacob and Moses forbid! Syphilis, gonorrhea or …? No! Merciful Christ of Nazareth riding a colt triumphantly entering Jerusalem, grant me clemency if I have defiled any of the sanctified Ten Commandments!

I resolved to wait for some time, hopeful that the excruciating pain and squalid leakage would cease – on their own, that is. A day passed and the foul-smelling stuff continued to pour out in barrels. Another day passed and the condition became quite atrocious. It turned out really hot ‘down here’. And this time around it appeared as if the whole of Lucifer’s furnace had been inserted there. It was fatal. It was lethal. I found it hard to walk properly. I was carrying the cross – all alone with no Simon in sight to give me a hand – on my way to Golgotha. 
I had to find a way of relieving myself of the weighty cross. I had to evade Golgotha. So I decided to visit that private health facility which is within walking distance from my shack. WE CARE AND GOD HEALS PRIVATE CLINIC – that’s the mouthful name of the facility. ROOM NO. 1 – that’s simply what was inscribed on the door to the room in which I was to meet a clinician. It was a female nurse I found in there. And she was very young – quite juvenile a nurse, a blooming damsel of sorts. How was I to comfortably unveil my scandalous agony before the eyes of such a toddler of a nurse? This, surely, was a disease for adults. This was not stuff for kids. I plunged into a sticky situation. 
“Can I help you?” The toddler nurse, her round baby face deadpan, inquired straightaway – no formalities, no civility.
“I am sick.” I swiftly went to the matter that mattered at that material time. I think, since then, I have always seen to it that I do just that each time a silly nurse or doctor asks me such a silly question.
“What’s the trouble?”

I saw this coming but I didn’t have a ready response so I just mumbled something about things not being well ‘down here’. 
Then, with no iota of courtesy, the babyish female nurse instructed me, a full-fledged man, to pull down my shorts. I hesitated a bit but, finally, I complied. And there I was! Looking very foolish. A perfect idiot. She scrupulously inspected all and sundry ‘down here’. It must have been truly rotten stuff for I saw her pinch her nose before instructing me to roll up the shorts. I felt thoroughly embarrassed.
“Deadly. Quite deadly.” She burbled before asking me if at all I was married.
I told her I had a wife who was at that time attending to my sick mother in the village.

“Sir, this is a sexually transmitted infection. So, who did you sleep with to contract it?”

Silence. Silence. Silence.

An empty silence puffed out between us.

“You don’t love your wife and life,” she said as she jotted down something on a piece of paper.
Then we ventured into a counselling session of sorts. She advised me to go for HIV testing after about three months or so. My heart sank at the mention of the scary test. She also counselled me to always stay faithful to my wife.

“Pleasures of the flesh prescribed for husband and wife are not supposed to be sought outside wedlock,” the toddler nurse lectured, posing quite judicious.

I remained quiet, pretending to be attentive.

“You see,” the baby nurse went on, not minding my cemetery silence, “if a farmer scatters his seed among thorns, he, surely, shouldn’t expect a happy harvest. Similarly, when it comes to matters of sex, it helps quite a lot to stick to your spouse because the road of promiscuity is littered with thorns and leads only to ruin and bitterness.”

I silently told her that the Holy Right Reverend Isaiah Mwimba already imparted similar advice on our nuptials day the moment I dragged to the altar Aisha – my now ex-wife – but that the flesh shall always remain weak as once testified by the Son of Man during that night of blatant betrayals in the Garden of Gethsemane. I also told her, silently that is, that my job as a cop time and again brought me into unholy contact with ‘Ladies of the Night’ whom we arrested for the offence of rogue and vagabond during our routine night patrols. You see, it is an unwritten rule set by cops for the wayward ladies to ‘free themselves’ from lawful arrest. Actually, on the said Christ’s birthday I hammered one of their type whom we nabbed along Hannover Street – Blantyre City’s abode of sinful acts at night.

Finally, she lectured something about condoms before giving me directions to ROOM NO. 2 for treatment.
So, today, on this chilly Tuesday, this bald-headed doctor at Queen Elizabeth Central Hospital wants to burrow into the filthy archives of my depraved and tear-jerking health history?

I cough. It is massive coughing.

Silence. Silence. Silence.

A depressed silence stretches out between us.

After giving me a lengthy clinical scrutiny with his clinical, nay, doctoral eye, the doctor thrusts his doctoral chin forward and starts scribbling on a piece of paper. He scribbles at length. I think this is ample testimony that I am critically sick. Or even dead, maybe. A dead man sitting upright. A panting corpse that refuses to die. And this bulky doctor is probably scribbling instructions that someone – his underling, perhaps – should promptly issue a death certificate for me.

I cough. It is massive coughing.

“Take this with you to the laboratory,” he finally hands me the piece of paper after the lengthy scribbling exercise. I stroll out of the Consultation Room, nay, the Death Certification Room.

In the corridor, on my way to the laboratory, I bump into a man pushing a stretcher on which lies a body covered in white sheets from head to toe. I remember the macabre murmurs that erupted earlier in the queue on that snaky slab. Another corpse. Covered from head to toe. In white sheets. Two deaths within a space of two hours. Oh, compassionate God of Israel! Oh, weeping Jesus upon learning the death of Lazarus! It is not a healing place, this hospital. It is a dying place, this giant of a health facility. A vast death chamber of sorts. Doom and gloom hang in the air all over this expansive Queen’s. Fright runs up my spine. It is no secret that once again I am scared. I cough. It is massive coughing.

Actually, for some months now the local press has been awash with stories about scores of patients dying in a single week at this giant hospital. It is a similar nerve-racking scenario in most government health facilities across the country. The public health system is not healthy, that is the general assertion. No drugs, so they say. Rundown medical equipment, so they also say. Then erratic supply of food, water and electricity. Government is struggling to fund various social services because of Cashgate – that scam involving unabashed thievery of tax-payers’ money by unpatriotic civil servants who conspired with ravenous politicians belonging to the ruling party. You see, we earlier accused the colonialists of plundering our natural resources, but now it is fellow country folks looting our government resources. Plunderers replaced by looters. How many Messiahs should be born in a grubby manger and how many Saviours should die on a wooden cross for us to finally dance the dance of total liberty? For us to get wholly unshackled from this day-to-day bleak struggle for survival?

I keep on walking. I walk on. At the far end of the corridor is a room with words adorned on its door: LABORATORY.

I cough. It is massive coughing.

There is a short queue here – just like the type of queues found at the private clinics I used to visit for my perilous cough and that other sinful sickness. The only difference is that it appears this one is a queue exclusively for the critically ill. A queue for shrunken bodies. A queue for the wasted. Mere bones, fleshless skeletons. Dead people talking. A cluster of corpses ready to be dispatched to the graveyard.

I cough. It is massive coughing. My horrendous coughing attracts affectionate looks here – looks saturated with empathy and compassion. We are truly one of a kind here. So I freely cough again. And again it is massive coughing.

The nauseating smell twirling from the mortuary located a short stretch from the laboratory punches my nostrils hard. I recall that the other day The Daily News splashed on its front page gory pictures of festering bodies dripping fluid on stretchers as they were being rescued from malfunctioning cold rooms of Queen’s for speedy disposal in unmarked graves, leaving behind the protracted rancid trail of Cashgate. Should the great Queen of the Great Britain fly over to this tiny African country and learn that this gargantuan health facility bears her name she, indisputably, would not be amused. She, certainly, would disown this facility which is a terrific mark of shame and dishonour. What downright mockery! What absolute ridicule!

I cough. It is massive coughing. Flashing needles of pain viciously shoot through my chest.

“Next!” A high-pitched voice sneaks out of the laboratory. It is my turn to step in.

Unlike the Consultation Room, the laboratory is suffocated with various species of equipment. There are syringes of all volumes, tubes of all sizes, gloves of all colours, racks of all heights, cotton wool, bandages and giant as well as petite bottles. The smell here is also quite unfriendly. It makes me choke.

“Give me your left arm,” the lab technician – a lank, bony figure of a man cursed with a skin as black as sin – commands. I devotedly roll up the sleeve of my shirt, close to the shoulder-blade.

He slides a syringe into one of the veins on the inside of my scrawny elbow and draws blood. The syringe remains buried there for some seconds before he pulls it out. Then he presses cotton wool on the thin opening dug by the heartless syringe. It is painful. I suppress a cry. A man must, at all cost, not ejaculate screams of agony let alone shed tears.

“Looks like you don’t have enough blood so you must give me your right arm as well,” the bony technician commands again. And again I oblige. And again I go through the same ordeal. And again I suppress a cry. But this time around I cough. It is massive coughing.

As if on cue following my coughing, the technician instantly leads me to another section of the laboratory where he commands me to lay face upwards on a slim bed for what he says will be an X-ray examination of my lungs. I obey – as humble as a sacrificial lamb being laid on the altar for slaughter. He orders me to unbutton my shirt and, again, I do as told – as submissive as a sacrificial lamb now ready to be slaughtered. Then he presses against my jutting ribs some monster-like machine, switches on the lights, a buzzing sound of sorts follows.

I cough. It is massive coughing.

Then I am told to wait for the lab test results there and then. I hang around. Patiently. Faithfully. After some minutes, the technician hands me two sheets on which he has scribbled the much-anticipated verdict. At least, unlike the bulky doctor, the bony technician’s scribbling is somehow legible: Lungs heavily infested with sores and filled with water; highly symptomatic of cancer/TB. And on the other sheet is scribbled: HIV positive.

Plump beads of sweat promptly materialise on my brow, cascading down my broad nose, then spilling over to my ruby lips before collecting at the base of my chin. I strive to mop my face with the back of my skeletal palm but the beads are defiant, pouring out ceaselessly. My heart is fractured; my eyelids are rimmed with tears. I burst into sobs – bawling bitterly like a 10-year-old girl.

I cough. It is massive coughing.

The day is almost graduating into noon now. A deafening thunder roars. The skies explode into a petrifying downpour. It rains, rains, rains – pattering down incessantly.




*Written in memory of a friend who died of HIV/Aids-related illness in 2013.


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