In commemoration of this year’s 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence
It was a sunny day, like many others in November. But on this particular morning, Chipo had decided to leave her young children at home and venture into the city centre, which was a fifteen minute’s drive away. As she sat in the kombi, waiting for the vehicle to fill up, she began to feel her thoughts and fears wage a battle within her mind.
And Tapiwa had been the cause of this war.
Just three months old, Tapiwa had not been healthy from the minute that he had been born, feeding poorly and struggling to put weight on to his already emaciated form.
Chipo’s other child, Anesu, an energetic six-year-old girl, had never given her such problems as a baby.
Why then, wondered Chipo, was Tapiwa always so sick?
Her husband, Thomas, didn’t do much to allay her worries. In fact, he only ever seemed ready to blame her for their son’s continuing poor health.
“What curse has your family put on my son?!” he would interrogate her as the little baby wailed throughout the night.
Unable to give a response to his hurtful question, Chipo would walk around their one-roomed house, singing soft songs to Tapiwa to try to make him fall asleep.
But no matter what she tried, nothing would help. Tapiwa only seemed to get thinner and cry even more.
“I am so worried, Mainini,” she sighed as she confided in her aunt who lived a few streets away.
Mainini Rosie had worked as a cook for a district hospital for many years and knew the look of a desperately sick child.
“This child is not well,” Mainini said, cradling the light mass that was Tapiwa. “He needs to be seen by a doctor.”
“But what could it be?” asked Chipo, the fear beginning to build in her voice.
“I don’t know,” responded Mainini. Although she already suspected what the cause of the baby’s discomfort was, she didn’t want to alarm Chipo with her thoughts.
That evening, as Chipo prepared supper, she decided that she would discuss the issue with Thomas. Thomas worked at one of the nearby bottle stores and often arrived home late, reeking of alcohol and nursing a horrendous temper.
In their three-year-long marriage, there had hardly been a time when Thomas had been sober.
In their courtship days, however, he had always been a gentleman, taking Chipo out to the city and spending lazy afternoons with her at the nearby lake. But those days, along with any moments of romance, were long gone.
Just as she was beginning to doze, Chipo heard a loud rap at the door. It was Thomas. Using her lit candle, she looked up at the old wall clock. It read a quarter to midnight.
With her candle in hand, she slowly made her way to the door, unlocking it and allowing her drunken husband to stumble in.
“Where is my food?!” he demanded, giving her a pointed look with his blood-shot eyes.
He didn’t even bother to greet her.
“It is by the table, Baba,” she responded, shepherding him to the low table and pair of chairs that constituted their lounge.
Once he had sat down, she kneeled at his feet, offering him a bowl of water in which to wash his hands. She then opened up the two enamel bowls and served him the meal of sadza and boiled cabbage leaves.
He took in one mouthful, after which he proceeded to spit out and question,
“What is this?!”
“It’s your supper, Baba,” responded Chipo, timidly.
“Who told you I don’t want a warm meal tonight?”
“But.. but there was no electricity,” she stuttered. “I had to cook before it got too dark. And since that was a long time ago, the food has now gone cold.”
Thomas knew very well that there had been no electricity throughout the whole area for the whole day and had been drinking by an open fire the whole night.
“Shut up,” he scolded, pointing a finger at Chipo’s face.
Eventually, he began to eat the simple meal while the uneasy silence grew heavier between the two.
Then Chipo found the courage to speak.
“Baba,” she said softly. “Tapiwa is not well. I think he needs to see a doctor. No matter what I try, he won’t feed and he won’t gain weight.”
A long pause ensued.
And then, as though he hadn’t heard a word of what Chipo had just said, Thomas began to laugh. At first, it was a chuckle, but soon it rose to a roar, until he choked on some of his food and began to whoop and cough.
“A doctor?” he repeated, teary-eyed from the coughing.
“And who will pay for that? You don’t work, you don’t pay rent, you don’t buy the food here. You don’t do anything except live off what I work hard for. And now, you want a doctor?!”
“Mainini Rosie was saying …” began Chipo before her husband interrupted.
“Mainini Rosie,” echoed Thomas before letting out more laughter. “So you have been talking to your relatives and letting them fill you with ideas.”
He immediately stopped laughing.
“Let me tell you, your mainini is a witch! And she wants to see your children dead! That’s why she wants you to go to the doctor and get the white man’s medicine to kill your son! Your family has put a curse on my son!”
“That is not true, Baba,” Chipo responded.
“Shut up!” yelled Thomas. “Why is Anesu well while Tapiwa is so sick? It’s your family’s curse! They don’t want my family’s name to continue so they have cursed my son!”
At this, Thomas stood up and gripped Chipo by her throat, his enormous hand almost wrapping completely to the back of her neck.
Within a few moments, he had dragged her and shoved her against the wall. In the partial darkness, she felt his fist crush against her face. A warm burst of blood erupted from her lower lip. Though the pain was excruciating, she kept silent, knowing that a scream would awaken her children, sleeping on the bed on the opposite side of the room.
She felt another punch – this time to her side – and then another to her stomach. Soon, she was too weak to stand and slid down to the floor, where she quickly passed out.
For the next few days, she wouldn’t be seen outside. The hideous bruises and swelling to her body were sure to rouse gossip in the suburb. And so instead, she sent little Anesu on her errands to water the garden or buy the few groceries she could afford for the family.
It was on one of those days in self-confinement that she came across a radio programme on HIV testing and counselling. At first, she hadn’t been too interested, but then a woman began to share her own story about living with HIV.
“I found out I had HIV when I had my third child,” the woman recounted. “She was very thin and frail and always cried. So I went to the clinic to have an HIV test and found that I was positive. When my baby was tested, they found that she was also HIV positive.”
Chipo turned up to volume on the little wireless radio and listened as the presenter explained how a mother can transmit HIV to her baby during labour.
Chipo had not gone for ante-natal testing and so had never known her own HIV status. Maybe, she thought to herself, she was HIV positive, just like the woman on the show.
Thomas was the only man she had ever slept with. Could he have given her the virus? Though she knew Thomas liked to drink, she never thought that he might also sleep around. But then again, they had never gone for an HIV test, so it was possible that he had been HIV positive all along.
Is that why he blamed witchcraft for Tapiwa’s sickness?
But what about Anesu? She seemed healthy.
With these questions pulsing through her mind, Chipo decided that when she was better, she would visit an HIV testing centre to start trying to answer them. There was a testing centre next to the clinic in the area, but she was frightened that Thomas, or one of his friends, might spot her.
And so she resolved to visit the city centre instead.
The kombi filled up quickly, and soon the driver was revving up the engine to go. She felt her heart beat faster and faster as her thoughts continued their battle within her mind. She looked up at a sticker on the roof of the kombi.
“Take charge of your life.” it read, “Know your HIV status.”
She ran her sweaty palms against her skirt and looked out the window.
Would her world still look the same when she returned home just a few hours later, she wondered.