The Plague

 

Your name is Juliet Mutsindikwa, and you are a Chichewa-speaking woman from a village near Kasempa, a rural town in Zambia, Southern Africa. You are a faithful churchgoer. You have no husband, you have four children, with another one on the way. In Zambian society, you are old . . . you are 51 years of age.

You lost your husband, Kingsley, a few years ago. He went to the mines in South Africa for employment, was away a long time, and eventually came home very sick with a cough and dysentery. The neighbours said he had a curse put on him in South Africa, and told you to see the witchdoctor, but instead you went to talk to the pastor. He didn't know what to say. Despite spending all the money you could scrape together and borrow on medicines, Kingsley died.

You lost your first son not long afterwards, and took in his three children when his wife also died. The youngest child died too. You noticed the neighbours shunned you after that. They said your family was under a curse.

Your second son and daughter-in-law left you their two children when they died. Your daughter (who is not married) is sick too. Her baby is not growing and is very sick. There is no money for them, and no nurse at the local health post any more to tell you what to do.

You worry about your other two children, who are boarding in the town so they can go to high school.

Now there are many grandmothers in your village and church caring for their grandchildren. Some have lost all their children to this strange illness. Like them, you have no income, no social security, and no health insurance.

 

When you were a young girl, life was very different. The extended family was the glue holding everything together. That's still true, but with so many people going to the cities for work and education and opportunity, family ties aren't nearly as strong as they were. Even so, children are still a couple's 'old age pension' - adult children expect to care for their elderly parents.

An older person without family, no matter what fields or businesses they might own, is a poor person. That worked fine, until the plague came. Then the young adults started getting sick and dying.

When you were young, children grew up feeling like they belonged to everyone. Sadly, many children died: of malaria, dysentery, respiratory problems. That's why families had lots of children. Then vaccination and immunisation became widespread, and people learned about clean water and better nutrition and sanitation.

Families became bigger because children survived. The life expectancy rose from 30 plus to 50 plus. Family planning was promoted. Many people still feel uncomfortable about it, and some ministers say that family planning is against God's will, but women your age were having less children, secure in the knowledge that they could clothe and educate four or five children who would look after their aging parents.

But now the young adults are dying, leaving grandchildren for aging grandparents to care for. In the cities, thousands of children roam the streets, with no one to care for them. You wonder what will happen to your grandchildren. You know you are unlikely to see them grow into adulthood.

There are families around you where the oldest person is fifteen or younger. At least they have their land. Sometimes the children are sent off to relatives, and lose their inheritance. Sometimes well-meaning people put them into orphanages, and a greedy neighbour grabs their land.

You remember the last days of colonialism when leadership went from British to Zambian hands. You can still picture the excitement and hopeful looks on the faces of the Chichewa and other tribes.

The bottom fell out of copper mining, and the economy collapsed. Men went off to South Africa to the diamond mines, men like your husband, Kingsley. Like Kingsley, many of them have died from this strange illness. People say it is witchcraft.

When you were young, tribal leadership was still strong. Young people did what they were told. Then ideas came from overseas that young people should challenge authority. Nowadays videos and films are around showing unspeakable things.

You worry about your daughter and youngest son in the town boarding at high school. People say that the moral standard is not good. The young boys boast of how many girlfriends they can have at the same time. The girls are said to have to swap sex for good school marks by their teachers, or to pay for their lodging, or food, or clothes.

 

Health workers come to your village. They talk about a strange illness called AIDS. It sounds like witchcraft. They say you get it through intercourse with a person who looks and acts like a healthy person. They say you have a small living thing in your body which can live there for years, then suddenly you get sick and thin and weak until you die.

You think about how your husband died, then your older sons and their wives. You wonder about your daughter who is sick, and the younger two at boarding school. Why don't people talk about this in church? Why do people avoid you instead of talking to you, as if you had some sickness yourself?

The health workers talk about babies being born with this illness and dying. You wonder about your own grandchildren.

The plague has come. You are weary of going to funerals. The pastors and priests are spending all their time taking funerals. Mostly they don't talk about why the person has died. Sometimes they talk about the cough - you know that is tuberculosis. Sometimes they say the person had 'Slim Disease', because they just wasted away.

You know there are people in huts in the village who never come out. You hear them calling out and crying. Sometimes even their own families don't go in. The smell is awful.

Before, when people were sick you would go to the village health worker for help, but most of these are gone.

Some Christians say that this plague is sent by God to judge sinners. Maybe that is why your neighbours don't talk to you or help you. Are Africans greater sinners than other people? Where is God in all this? You pray more now than you used to. You try to read your Bible, though it is in old English and hard to understand. You are drawn to Psalm 71:

But I will hope continually, and will yet praise thee more and more.

My mouth shall shew forth thy righteousness and thy salvation all the day; for I know not the numbers thereof.

I will go in the strength of the Lord GOD: I will make mention of thy righteousness, even of thine only.

O God, thou hast taught me from my youth: and hitherto have I declared thy wondrous works.

Now also when I am old and greyheaded, O God, forsake me not; until I have shewed thy strength unto this generation, and thy power to every one that is to come.

Thy righteousness also, O God, is very high, who hast done great things: O God, who is like unto thee!

Thou, which hast shewed me great and sore troubles, shalt quicken me again, and shalt bring me up again from the depths of the earth

Thou shalt increase my greatness, and comfort me on every side.1

These words have become your prayer. You are weary: of death and funerals; of trying to feed so many mouths without any help or income; of wondering what is causing this 'plague', this strange illness; of the silence - no one wants to talk about this problem.

I will hope continually - There is hope. God understands. You resolve to talk to God more about this and be bolder in talking to others about this terrible problem.

I will go in the strength of the Lord - Is there strength to go on? You decide to seek other committed Christians who are willing to talk about AIDS, or whatever is killing your people.

O God, forsake me not; until I have shewed thy strength unto this generation - Can you give something to your grandchildren that will protect them from the plague? You have heard of a programme called MAPP2 in the district. It is run by the church. You decide to see what they might have to help you.

Thou shalt quicken me again - You feel old and weary of life, but need to keep going for the sake of your grandchildren and others. You have heard of an orphan programme being run by some women missionaries near the town which provides seed and other help for families like yours.

Thou shalt increase my greatness, and comfort me - God has said he will comfort you, so you decide to comfort others in their grief and confusion.

 

NOTES

1 Ps 71:17-21

2 Mukinge AIDS Prevention Programme