When it came, people began talking about it. Children discussed it with exaggerated enthusiasm mixed with anxiety, which proved the fact that it wasn’t what they really understood, but what they had eavesdropped or heard their parents discuss. Each child would always start with the overly rehearsed lines “my mother said” or “my father said”. They would say it with such a measured pace, which showed it was already a crammed stereotype repeated to other children, with the hauteur of one who was at home with the network news.
“O Ndiocha, those white men that kiss dogs and embrace them, they are the ones who have infected us with this disease.” A kid once spoke, with an exaggerated frown that suggested someone who had just said what others didn’t know, and what he inwardly hoped would mean he was the only one that would have access to it.
As days rolled on, things began to change. Stinking gutters were flushed out, yards were swept, latrines were kept sparkling. People avoided razor blades, and no one shook hands with people who were neither thin nor embraced them. Mama Uchenna, a heavily set woman, who lived just opposite Ugonnas’ apartment, stopped her son Izuchukwu from visiting aunty Caro. Caro was a lanky lady, with an over-bleached skin and green veins that seemed to be painfully crawling out from their base like a watermark that left her skin looking so fragile like Styrofoam. She lived just down the street. Mama Ejima had told her that stopping her son from visiting her aunt was so unfair of her. She had replied in her saucy, biting manner in no uncertain terms that Caro’s suaveness didn’t make up for her stroppiness. They both knew it was a bad excuse and they both knew the reason; but, for the fear of the horror that may be evoked by the things that are best left unsaid, they both kept quiet, afraid that saying it would birth it into reality.
People became extra careful with what they ate; the radio now sang it perfunctorily: “Oria obiri na ajoocha, HIV and AIDS is real.” Those words terrified people and built a castle of goosebumps on them. Uncle John stopped buying biscuits for Bingo, the neighbors’ dog. Bingo had a cut on the left ear that flies feasted on. The most abusive word, graver than death, was someone being tagged an “HIV carrier, onye oria AIDS”. Many got bleeding nose when they used such words in their catcalls. Yes, it was as bad as that – the anxiety that shrouded the sky of those times banging on doors, flipping windows and cudgeling the bones of the strongest. It was such fear that got to Ifeoma, Izuchukwu’s younger sister – the paranoia of uncertainty and insecurity. She virtually saw the virus in everything. She had insisted on bathing herself, for fear her mother may one day forget to wash her hands after using the latrine and by chance, the virus would slip into her fingernails. She opted to do the bathing herself; at least with herself, she could be sure.
Ifeoma came back from school one afternoon crying, her eyes reddened by tears. “O ngini, na wetin?”Aunty Rose had asked her, with the native accent of a hick from the village, who was making a desperate effort to fit into life in the township. Ifeoma had ignored her; she knew her husband, Uncle John, wasn’t around. He had banned her from crossing the gate whenever he wasn’t around, for fear she would be courted by street boys and corrupted by jobless housewives.
“I won’t go to school again”, Ifeoma blurted out to her mother amidst her tears and sniffs. “Maka ginizi, why?” Our uncle asked the girls to embrace him as our punishment while he flogged the boys, and no girl was to leave the class if she had not embraced or else she would face his wrath. And mama, I think he’s a carrier, O bu AIDS.”
Her mother had looked at her in exasperation, her mouth hanging open. It was a stare given to one whose fear had made them unreasonable. But that was the fear that knocked within the bone marrow of everyone, with an unfair share of the blame usually doled out in a rather vengeful way to the whites, who were seen as the principal cause of the virus.
But many years have now passed, and it seemed that a ferocious harmattan wind had carried that fear far away. The virus lost its intimidating prestige; it was no longer an issue to be feared and the loose way it was talked about as if it was just a case of malaria, showed that its menace had been handicapped in the bowels of time. It was 12 years later that people stopped traveling back to their villages to avoid the chance of coming in contact with bush meat.
However, it was actually the eating of bats and rats that was warned against and this gave rats a carte blanche and they roamed about freely in the compound. No one chased after them; people were only conscious of never letting them enter their homes. Even Mama Uchenna’s piebald cat stopped going after rats and lizards altogether. It seemed like every other person was scared and taking precautions. People would lock their doors even when they were in or just in their corridors. A new fear breezed in: people were afraid of the new virus that killed in a matter of days. Papa Ejima’s fear was different: he feared his business would fold with the advent of the disease for dead bodies wouldn’t be buried but cremated in order to contain the virus. He sold coffins and feared that sooner or later, with the rate the virus was going, his business would fold– he couldn’t keep up with the high demand. So, he chose to stay at home, to protect his family as though the virus was human.
The hunters from Amagunze left for their village. They no longer sold their game by the roadside, and people were scared to the bones for their life and had stopped patronizing them. Noise lessened in the streets. People now only waved at others from a distance, with the knack for chitchat gone; they only made gestures they thought conveyed their meaning best. The streets during those times were a theatre, staging unrehearsed mimes. People wore white gloves and furrowed their eyes behind large spectacles, all in a bid to escape the virus.
The markets gradually grew empty as people avoided as much contact as possible. They communicated through signs and only said what was necessary in a bid to avoid others’ fluid. Schools remained closed until late September and some early October. Ifeoma’s mother had stopped going to mass: “How can the body of our lord Jesus Christ be received in dirty and sinful hands? How can there be no offering of the sign of peace in a Catholic church?’” she once blurted out, infuriated by the new practices; it really peeved her. Still, she let her daughter Ifeoma attend mass.
As days rolled on, the news swept through the home and people hardly could distinguish the facts from the fantasies. Many were reported dead; dead not from the virus but the precautions they took against contracting the virus. People drank saltwater and even bathed with it. Some used pepper in their bathwater. People wanted to survive – it seemed air was being knocked out of their lungs and their lungs had begun to realize how much they loved the taste of air. Mama Uchenna bathed with salt water; she even tried out the pepper, but she didn’t die. She still sat at her grocery store in the market every day.
It was two years after that, that news came of a man with weak limbs and a poisonous heart. Mama Uchenna said he had no certificate, but she was now forced to do so only in her house after she heard about the man who was jailed for naming his dog after the man of change. She now stared at things numbly, with distant eyes, as they unfolded, and a feeling of calm hate crawled into her shell, as one already defeated by fate.