I stumbled upon my empty grave this morning. My father must have dug it over the weekend. We all assumed that he was over in the next village, drinking bowls of freshly brewed maize beer, trying to numb the pain of my mother's passing. Instead he was looking to the future, getting ready to say goodbye to his only son.
My chest feels like it's being chewed over by a colony of termites, a consequence of the breathing disease that has me gasping for air. Sometimes my mind wanders and I feel like a man who's stumbled upon a black mamba and has to run for dear life down a never-ending trail. On a whim I tried counting my breathes, measuring them against the cracked wristwatch that was a present from my friend, Kuda. At its peak I've counted eighty-nine agonising gasps in one minute. Kuda breathes in and out eighteen times a minute but then his lungs aren't rotting from the inside out.
This is the fourth time I've succumbed to the breathing disease. I still recall the very first episode, the way my father threw me onto his back and carried me down the long, windy track to the tarred road. I clung so tightly to him that day, feeling dizzy and confused, but delighted to be the centre of my father's attention. I must have dozed off because I don't remember his flagging down the minibus that took us to the clinic in town. All I know is that the nurse took one look at me and hurried me to a bed. She stuck needle after needle into me but I was far too weak to cry out or protest. I fell into a long, dark sleep and when I awoke the first thing I saw was the nurse's broad smile reassuring me that I was on the mend.
That was eighteen months ago and I had just turned ten. My father made me take two round, white tablets three times a day and it was about a month before my strength fully returned. But after that Kuda and I were back to our usual tricks, chasing the goats and tormenting the guinea-fowl and running amok through the maize fields. We were scolded often enough for our antics but I don't think that anyone really minded. There's a sadness that's fallen upon our village. The old men say that the ancestors are displeased with us, that the Christians have provoked them to anger by erecting their chapels and preaching from the white man's book. All I know is that everywhere you turn there's the sound of wailing at yet another funeral. Often it's the mothers and fathers who just shrivel up and die. Mostly it's the babies who never break free of their mothers' breasts. Sometimes I think that the day will come when the only people left alive in our village will be the grey and wrinkled.
Kuda has sworn me to secrecy. He says that my father came back empty-handed from the clinic on Friday. He says that the nurse was crying, inconsolable because the doctor in the city had taken all the money for medicines and bought himself a new car. That's why she couldn't give my father the tablets that have saved my life these three times. That's why he has spent the weekend digging my grave.
I'm not afraid of dying. I imagine it's just like falling asleep and then never waking up. I just wish that I had had the opportunity to finish school. I wanted to see the pride on my father's face, to feel the tenderness of his embrace. Kuda says that when he's all grown up, he's going to move to the city and work for the government. He's going to tell everyone that those of us who live in the villages are just as important as they are, that we deserve better schools and decent clinics. I hope he lives long enough to fulfil his dreams.
Our walk this morning has left me drained. Kuda has gone back to his house to give me a chance to rest. As I close my eyes I think I can hear my mother calling. It's been such a long time since I last heard her voice. She sounds so very close...
Author's note: PCP is a form of pneumonia largely associated with people who are immuno-suppressed, particularly those living with the HIV virus. It produces an extremely high respiratory rate and is fatal unless treated promptly with appropriate antibiotics. In many parts of the world today there is a generation coming up that will never know what it is like to grow old.
Gregory Kane is a missionary from the UK who ministers in Mozambique, Africa. He can be contacted through his web site at http://kane.elim-moz.org/