Nine-year old Pidipidi Sejabana opened her eyes to a brand new day, her innocent brown eyes focused on a stream of morning light flooding the room from an open window in her hospital room. The little girl was awaiting her most cherished event of the day, when her aunt would be visiting. Aunt Matshwaro was a plump middle aged woman and sister to Pidipidi's mother, Shadi; Shadi was dead. She died a year ago leaving Pidipidi in the care of aunt Matshwaro who was by all accounts a devoted, caring and protective guardian. Pidipidi received all the love she could get from her aunt and yet a permanent emptiness remained etched in her heart for the one face, the one voice, and the single smell that would have made her the joyous little girl she wished to be, and that was the presence of her deceased mother, Shadi.
On an evening before the beautiful mornings, her mother would walk into the small, but comfortable bedroom she shared at their home with her two sisters - one two years older, and the other three years younger than her. Mother would tell the children their evening story as they lay on their beds in various positions of concentration. Mama Shadi as they fondly called her would pick stories ranging from romance to tales of bravery, with all stories having happy endings. Each time, after every story, whilst still bright-eyed from the relaxing effect of their mother's loving eyes and soothing voice, the children would attempt to prolong the pleasure by asking questions, relating the stories to their own lives.
"Mama," Pidipidi would ask. "Do you think us three girls will grow up to marry good men and have children like us"?
"Yes dear," Mama Shadi would respond. When addressing her children by name Mama Shadi always shortened the names making them wonder and amused at why she had given them longer names then.
The children would sigh.
"Mama," Pidi, the most assertive of the girls would persist. "Are you always going to be there for us, and will you see us working and getting married?"
"Of course Pidi," Mother would reply. "I'm not going anywhere and I'm not leaving my girls until they are 100 years old."
"Then, what?" Pidi asked.
"Then what, what, Pidi"? asked Mama Shadi.
“Then what happens when we're 100 years old?" Pidi replied, innocently.
"Well dear, at 100 years, you girls would be old enough to look after yourselves and you'd be living with your husbands anyway," Mother said.
"And how old would you be mother?" That would be Pidi asking.
"I'd be old enough not to tell little girls my age because I'd still be a lady," said the mother.
Pidipidi would always take the lead as the representative of the other children.
"I don't want you to be old Mama. I'm afraid of you being old because then you might leave us like other old people leave their families to go and die."
"I don't like this dying thing, " Pidipidi insisted. "And I don't like this thing of God making people and then choosing that they must die. I don't want him to take you away from us mama".
Mama Shadi was always touched when the children adopted such sad tones. At that stage she had no reason to suspect that destiny could deal them the fatal blow that it later delivered. Life then, was full of joy and endless hope.
"Oh nothing is ever going to take me from my girls. Now, everybody, please go to sleep".
Mother would tuck them into bed and retire herself, leaving behind the lingering, comforting smell of her nightly after-bath aroma of Sunlight Soap.
Pidipidi remembered details of the various conversations with her mother as she lay dying. Although too young to understand everything, she had been in and out of hospital for two years, and at one point she and her mother were admitted in the same hospital. Her condition deteriorated after her mother's death. Her medication made her sick and the pain that shook her small frame often left her in tears of self-pity, loneliness, depression, and worse, fear. She had recurring bouts of the flu – or influenza, with fits of dry, chest-wrecking coughs, sore throat, high fever and extreme tiredness.
At school Pidipidi had been told of a disease called AIDS, and she soon caught its constant reference in the nurses' vocabulary when they whispered to each other. Pidipidi had heard that to get AIDS one had to have been a bad girl. She had not been a bad girl, and so it puzzled her that every time the nurses were around her, the subject appeared frequently in the conversation. She was soon to discover the reason for the tones of conspiracy around her when one evening two nurses, believing that she was asleep, started discussing her.
"The little girl," said the first nurse. "It's sad what happened to her, isn't it?"
"Yes it is," the second nurse replied. "Sometimes you just wished she'd die and be spared the pain".
"Oh don't say that," said the first nurse. "You never give up hope".
"What hope sister"? asked the second nurse. "Her mother died of HIV/AIDS. Obviously this recurring condition of hers is AIDS".
"We don't know that for sure", said the first nurse. "The doctor hasn't even asked for the test yet".
"Because it's obvious sister. The treatment would still be the same anyway because these are opportunistic diseases she's suffering from," said the other nurse.
"True," replied the first nurse. "But we don't know for sure that she is HIV positive."
"I still say, if her mother died a year ago of AIDS, obviously…"
"Stop it sister," interrupted the first nurse. "She's nine years old. She was eight when the mother died. She's not sexually active, and if it was a mother-to-child transmission she would have had it about nine years ago and she would have long had the symptoms."
"Yes. There've been cases and this is not one of them. In any case, it's not important. The poor thing is very ill, she's an orphan and she's here for our care, up to the last moment".
Listening to the conversation which basically pronounced her death sentence, Pidipidi snuggled deeper into the bed linen, seeking comfort and silently making out pictures of her short life and the life that could have been. Very soon the injection that the nurses had given her for pain started working, and she slipped into the welcome fog of deep sleep.
A third nurse entered the ward and her two other colleagues who had been talking about Pidipidi cheerfully extended the conversation to her.
"Hey, Kitty! There you are. Isn't it a shame about that little girl, Pidipidi?" asked the first nurse, busying herself with a variety of medicine bottles and syringes as she attempted to lighten the conversation.
Kitty was a slightly built young woman of around 23 years old. Her small figure and quiet manners made her the envy of many nurses. Kitty appeared to be a perfect example of how a nurse should look like, and sound like. She had a soft voice, dreamy eyes with long eye lashes and pursed lips that appeared to instantly apologise for making long conversation about the diseases of sick people. Her thick African hair was neatly piled in a hut-shaped style on a nicely shaped head.
Giving her colleagues a slow, lingering smile that never failed to convey a message of friendship and kindness, Kitty said:
"Yes it is. It's really sad Bodi, and I'd rather not say more about it, if you don't mind".
Bodi, the first nurse, looked at the second nurse, folding her arms around her ample bosom in a mocking stance as she said:
"Here we go again, Mercy. Kitty walks into the ward at the beginning of a shift and doesn't want to talk. We have a long day ahead of us. Let's hope young Doctor Sekopo is the one on duty today".
Mercy, the second nurse was drawn into the conversation.
"Come on Kitty. You know Bodi won't let the subject go until she's exhausted her big appetite for gossip. Humour her".
"There's no humour in this case," replied Kitty. "There's no laughter at all, and you girls don't even know all the facts about it, so shut up and go to work."
"And what facts are there we don't know about, Kitty?" insisted Bodi. "We know the poor thing lost her mother to AIDS and now she's going too. What else is there?"
"That's what you know Bodi," replied Kitty. "That's what you know, and it's not the full story".
Mercy was becoming increasingly interested in the conversation while Bodi's heaving chest strained against the prison of her bra because of the mounting excitement to continue gossiping.
"Kitty, don't speak in codes or Bodi will bust her bra," said Mercy laughing.
"Yeah, Kitty. Tell it as it is. Who slept with whom, where and when?" asked the ever curious Bodi.
"It's not a sex scandal Bodi," replied Kitty. "It's a detail, some information, that all of you girls miss when speaking about this poor child".
"What is it then?" The two nurses asked at the same time.
"Okay, but promise you won't tell anyone, and that this would put an end to this subject," Kitty said.
"Yes, we do," said Mercy.
"Yes, I do," said Bodi.
Kitty looked at Bodi with distrusting eyes before saying:
"Bodi, if your mouth was a country of secrets, it would be empty of its people by now. This is a hospital matter, Bodi, and it's not for idle chatter".
"Oh Kitty," protested Bodi. "Why does everyone distrust me? I don't tell work secrets anyway".
Kitty decided to tell the secret she had kept for over a year. It was a relief for her to share the burden of keeping the secret.
"Okay," said Kitty. "When Pidipidi first came to this hospital, a year and half ago, she was not HIV positive".
"Huh?" The two nurses replied at the same time.
"Yes," Kitty continued. "Her mother was. She wasn't. The test has been done, and yes, she’s HIV positive".
"Kitty, you've got it all wrong," said Bodi, her dark eyes round with disbelief. "Look she's nine years old and she's tested HIV positive…all the symptoms now point to full blown AIDS."
"Yes, Bodi," replied Kitty. "She's HIV positive now. She wasn't when she was first here sharing a room with her mother. There are records you know. I'm not just talking. This is not rumour."
The stunned nurses stared at their colleague, puzzled.
"So, she got the virus from…?" Mercy asked, letting the question drift in space as if unfinished.
"She's not sexually active," Kitty said. "Her mother was a loving and extremely careful woman. Pidipidi did not get infected at home".
"Where then?" asked Bodi. The suspension was killing her.
Kitty, rearranged a cluster of bottles on the trolley she was beginning to push as she replied:
"That little girl was infected in this hospital."
….. …….. …. ………..
It was at that stage that Dr Marcus Sekopo, a favorite among the nurses, walked into the ward. He overheard the last bits of the nurses' conversation.
"Alright girls, break it up," Dr Sekopo said sharply, his young, handsome features strained in an attempt to show as much authority as possible. "Kitty, could I please see you in my office."
Kitty and the other two nurses exchanged glances, then shrugging her shoulders, she followed Dr Sekopo into the small office where Dr Sekopo took a seat behind a wooden oval shaped desk, his stethoscope hanging casually around his neck. He pointed to a chair in front of the desk and Kitty took the seat, gently crossing her stockinged, long, brown legs.
"Kitty, we didn't know this information had already gone out," said Dr Sekopo, looking apologetically at the nurse while toying with a pen holder on the desk in front of him. "The hospital superintendent ought to be the one to confirm this to you ladies but seeing as you already know, it’s only fair to tell you. But you have to promise not to share what I am going to say to you with your girlfriends, or anybody else. They know enough already. Can I trust you to keep the secret?"
"Of course doctor," replied Kitty, though worried that she was once again going to carry the load of a secret she could not talk about. "I've kept this to myself for a while now,” said Kitty, feeling the need to explain why she told the other nurses a short while ago. “I only mentioned it because I felt obligated to the little girl in a way. I knew she didn't contract the virus from her mother, although it puzzles me still, how she was infected in the hospital”.
Dr. Sekopo studied the nurse's face, before replying:
"Kitty, the little girl, Pidipidi, has been interfered with".
"Interfered with"? asked Kitty.
"Yes," replied the doctor. "She… how do I put it? She has been…"
As the doctor stopped in the middle of the sentence, Kitty felt a growing anger inside her.
"Doctor, I'm a nurse," she said in a low voice that nonetheless carried her controlled anger. "If there's anything you want to share with me about this poor, little girl, please do so. She needs all the help, and support, she can get, and I'm not too sure she will have enough of that, seeing how the hospital has already betrayed her".
Dr Sekopo coughed nervously before saying:
"I truly understand your anger, Kitty, but the fact is…the hospital didn't betray Pidipidi. The girl is a victim of abuse".
Kitty felt the room spinning as the air increased in density until she thought she would collapse.
Looking at her Dr Sekopo was about to rush around the desk to help when Kitty said:
"I'm okay doctor. I'm fine. It's not me who needs help. Oh My God! Abused? How? Where? By whom?"
"A relative, Kitty," replied the doctor. "An uncle who's been living with them since Pidipidi's mother died”.
Kitty stood up and despite the limited space in the room began pacing, in the process upsetting the chair she was sitting on which crashed to the floor. She bent to put the chair back in place.
"Dr Sekopo," she managed to get back her voice. "Has this been reported to the police? Where's this monster that did this to the child"?
"He's in police custody," Dr Sekopo promptly responded hoping to calm the agitated nurse and fearing that he might have to give Kitty a calming injection. "When we realized that Pididpidi had been interfered with, we called in a child psychologist – a good doctor, who managed to get the story from the little girl. It wasn't easy and despite all the heart-breaking stories we've heard, and the endless cases of death and suffering in the medical profession, this case has the worst profile".
"I hope he burns in hell," snorted Kitty. "I hope…I wish they hanged beasts like him".
Kitty stopped speaking because when she lifted her face and saw the pain in Dr Sekopo's eyes, she knew that all good people in the hospital, and at the little girl’s family, were victims of the child abuse by the uncle. She had never seen a doctor so emotionally affected by a medical case before.
"Kitty, there's more bad news I'm afraid," said the doctor, lowering his eyes.
"How bad can it get doctor"? replied Kitty, now in a hushed tone.
Dr Sekopo replied:
"The girl's aunt, her guardian, committed suicide last night. She left a note. She felt that she had failed her dead sister. That's the women's youngest brother, who abused Pidipidi".
Kitty felt waves of nausea rising and falling in her stomach and chest. Before Dr Sekopo could catch her, she fell to the floor in a faint, crashing on the wooden chair she had been sitting on. The sound of crashing wood and a thud as the nurse's body fell overcame the patience of the other nurses, who rushed into the office and helped Dr Sekopo move the listless nurse into a consulting room, where they placed her on a couch. Dr Sekopo placed a wet cloth on Kitty’s face, while thinking of other ways of waking her up, but Kitty moaned, regaining consciousness without further help.
****** ***** *****
In another part of the hospital where Pidipidi lay, the little girl's diseased limbs were too weak to allow her to scratch herself. Although the room was well lit, Pidipidi began to see growing dusk and misty shapes forming above her face. Curiously, one of the ghostly, wavy shapes took the form of her mother's face and suddenly the little girl was not afraid anymore. Pidipidi was once more in her bedroom, back home, with her mother sitting beside her, her favourite bedtime story book, "Beauty and the Beast" in her soft, loving hands. As Mother Shadi continued reading, with an ever broadening smile, Pidipidi felt the soothing drowsiness of sleep overcoming her. From a distance she heard a different voice saying, "she is going", and then Pidipidi slipped into a deep sleep from which she never awoke.
"It's a girl", the doctors and nurses said, happily.