It was a hot sunny day, the kind of day common most of the year in Southern Province and especially during Zambia’s hot season. Stretched out on citenge clothes spread across the hard packed dirt of the yard, hunched over on small wooden stools, we sat together chatting and enjoying the afternoon. The thatch overhang of the nearby mud brick hut provided welcome shade as a soft breeze rustled through the nearby mulberry tree and made the hot day comfortably pleasant.
It was the time of day for easy tasks, the types of chores that can be done in the half asleep loll of a lazy mid-afternoon, Shelling groundnuts, slicing vegetables for the evening meal, getting maize kernels off the cob. It was also one of my favorite times of day, sitting together with the wives. Not just enjoying the beautiful weather, but also enjoying the good company, the chats, the friends.
I couldn’t always keep up. With the same Tonga skills as my four year-old brother, Mazoka, I was lucky to follow any of the conversations. When the neighbors came over I was particularly lost, they talked so fast. But the wives, Ba Fare (pronounced Feya) and Ba Joyce, they were wonderful and always tried hard to make sure I was included. “Mwonwa?” they would ask, “do you understand?” “Inzya,” I’d answer them. “Yes.” Or else just look at them with my brows furrowed and say one of my favorite Tonga words, “ndapyopyongana.” “I am confused.”
This particular afternoon was more than just the regular small talk; there was news to share. The second wife had gone to the nearby mission. I knew little about her. She lived on her parents’ compound in some nearby village and came infrequently to ours. When she did come, it seemed it was only to yell at her husband and clean her and her daughter's hut. She had been sick for a long time, on and off. Everyone said that was why she lived on her parents’ compound. I wondered if it wasn’t also because she and her husband (and the other wives) got along so poorly.
But on this day, there was no yelling, no screaming, no strange plastic items launching into the blue sky from the doorway of a small round hut. Today there was just the quiet voices of Ba Joyce and Ba Fare as they talked about the news. “She’s gone to the mission.” “For a workshop?” Lots of people go to the mission all the time for all sorts of events; it’s the center of activity for many villages across this side of Monze.
“No. She has gone to the hospital at the mission.” I listened, unsure what it meant, stones of fear piling up in my stomach. “She has been sick a long time. She is sick enough now to need to be at the mission.” “Everyone that goes to the mission hospital is tested.” She means tested for HIV.
Understanding dawned in my eyes, I could feel them widening, my eyebrows creeping up my forehead. I’d thought of this before; it would have been hard not to. At this time, the HIV positive rate in Zambia was 20%, one in every five people. I’d looked at the statistic and looked at my family. Wife 1, Wife 2, Wife 3, Wife 4, Husband, 5. But that was just statistics. That was just numbers. This was my family.
I looked at Ba Fare, afraid to ask, afraid to hear the rest. She looked at back at me, our gazes saying more than words. Then she laughed a sad half-laugh. “Tuyakufwa.” “We are all going to die.”
We are all going to die.