“Yekouni, I am dying.”
“Yes mama.” Mabel’s voice was hoarse from crying. It sounded small to her ears, weak.
“You will go and stay with Tata Bernadette and finish upper sixth. She has the money I have saved for you and she will sell the house to add to those funds. Make sure you prepare for your A Levels. You must pass and pass very well. I have spoken with Uncle Dieudonné. He has already started looking for a school for you in America. The money I have will cover all your tuition for maybe a year, so you must get scholarships. Listen carefully and do everything Dieudonné tells you to do when the time comes. He works for a school there so he will know.”
Mabel nodded silently.
“I don’t want you in this country after upper sixth. You must make sure you leave. People know about my illness and those stories will continue to follow you. Serge will also make sure you can’t get a good job here, he is vindictive. I am also afraid of his people. So leave. Go to America and don’t ever come back here. Promise me that.”
“I promise, Mama.”
“Good. When you go there, study something substantial. I’m not going to tell you what to do. You are smart and you can do anything you put your mind to. Whatever you choose make sure it results in a real job that pays you well.”
Beatrice Mbemba paused to cough. The hollow, hacking sound continued for the next ten minutes and her emaciated form shook so violently with each gasp, Mabel feared she would break. Tuberculosis was a hard disease. Tuberculosis made worse by HIV was a harsher combination. Mabel rubbed her mother’s back and held the folded towel up to her lips as she coughed. The pristine white of the towel was soon speckled with the telltale greenish yellow blood streaked phlegm. The coughing subsided but Beatrice continued to wheeze, struggling to fill her lungs with air. It was a horrible sound, desperate and hollow. Almost a death rattle. Mabel fought back tears as she murmured reassuringly to her mother.
The portable oxygen concentrator Dieudonné, her mother’s brother, had sent from America lay unused in a corner. It had been like a gift sent from heaven when it had arrived, helping Beatrice to breathe a little easier even as the deadly virus ravaged her body. But it had malfunctioned and no one had been able to repair it. Dieudonné was going to send another one but Beatrice had refused. She’d asked him to save that money for Mabel, who would need his help after her death.
The wheezing eventually subsided and Beatrice sank back into her pillows. Mabel cleanedher mother’s face and discarded the towel into the bucket of bleach kept in the room. She washed her hands and then brought a glass of water to her mother. The routine was one she had performed hundreds of times in the last months. Beatrice sipped at the water gratefully. When she could speak again, her words pulled startled laughter out of Mabel.
“All my life, I dreamed of a life where I didn’t have to do anything but lay in bed and be tended to, head to toe like a queen. Who knew all I had to do all along was get AIDS?”
“Mama… Don’t make jokes like that” Mabel said, smiling in spite of her bitterness and crushing sorrow. She sat down again next to her mothers reclining form and fixed the sheet covering her, tucking the edges in around the frail body that once used to be lush and full. A blanket would have been too heavy for the Douala heat. seeping in from outside despite the efforts of the ceiling fan. They had turned off the air conditioning to save money.
“But if I don’t, how else will I see your beautiful smile, my darling daughter? I love your smile. So like your grandmothers. I don’t want you to lose that smile, Yekouni.”
“How can I smile,Mama? How can I smile?” The tears that she had been fighting spilled down her face. She buried her face in the crook of her mothers arm, careful to be gentle. The lesions on Beatrice’s body had spread as her condition declined. The doctor had said that this was a sign that her immune system was already severely compromised. “You are dying Mama. How can I smile?”
“I know, my sweet baby. I know. And I am so sorry you have to see me go like this. I wish I could change all the decisions I took that led me here. But I can’t.”
“You did what you had to do to survive, Mama.” Mabel said her voice hard. “…and you were faithful. He is the one who slept with all those other girls and then blamed it on you.”
Serge, her mother’s lover, had refused to pay for antiretroviral therapy even though his position as director general of the Cameroonian branch of a H.W Telecom a South African company providing 4G mobile technology to Cameroons elite, meant that he could easily afford them. He had accused Beatrice of infecting him with the virus, conveniently ignoring his predilection for the underage prostitutes whose presence in Douala and Yaounde was an increasing source of concern in those cities. So sure was he of his conviction, he’d carried out a vicious but private campaign of vengeance on her.
Beatrice was not a stupid woman. She had used her connection to Serge to build cyber cafes which used 4G in Douala, Yaounde and Buea. She had also started a mobile phone retailing business of her own, importing the latest models of phones, tablets and accessories to sell. The profits from those ventures was what had enabled her to live relatively easy, take care of her family and send her daughter to the best schools she could afford. It was also what had enabled her to purchase the treatments for herself after her disease was diagnosed. Business had dried up, Serge having cut her out of the 4G deal and blacklisted her among her suppliers. Soon enough, Beatrice had decided to stop purchasing treatments and save the money she would have been spending to secure her daughters future.
“I am the one who stayed with him even after I knew about his indiscretions. I am the one who stayed even though it was clear he would never marry me or love me like I loved him.” There was sadness in Beatrice’s voice. She had loved Serge deeply despite his faults. And the contracts he had sent her way had meant the difference between a miserable life and one with some promise for her and her daughter.
Her mother had named her Mabel to respect the wishes of her father, who had liked the name. But she had stopped using the name, reverting instead to the name she had given, the name which was her own mother’s name. Mabel suspected it was because using the name her father had chosen reminded Beatrice of her first love who had died in a car accident on the famously deadly Tiko-Douala road ,when Mabel was barely a toddler.
“You have to promise me one more thing.” Beatrice made sure her daughter was looking her straight in the eyes before she spoke.
“They say a woman’s virginity is the most precious thing she has. That virtue is an organ put between your legs by biology and its functions, all of them, are pure biology and nothing else. The most precious thing you have is your trust, your devotion, your unconditional love. Don’t give it away lightly. Don’t ever trust a man to take care of you. Never make yourself that vulnerable. I don’t care how much you love him or what promises he makes or what he has. You must always be able to stand by yourself. Don’t ever give a man control over your life. Ever. Until he has proven himself worthy beyond doubt, do not change an inch of who you are to accommodate him and even then, it has to be give and take.”
Beatrice paused to cough again and Mabel tended to her gently, repeated the familiar routine. When Beatrice could speak, she continued.
“Be happy, my child. Live your life fearlessly. There are risks you must take but always be careful. Do not lose yourself for anything or anyone. And not for love. Especially not for love.”
Beatrice had taken her daughter’s hand in hers and held it silently. The gesture communicated everything else she wanted to say but could not say given how exhausted the incessant coughing had made her. The room remained silent, the whirling fan and crickets outside being the only noises Mabel could hear. Her mother had chosen Bali in Douala to build her home because it was quieter and respectable enough to shield her from the busier commercial neighborhoods but was not as expensive to live in, as Bonapriso where all the foreigners and richer Cameroonians live. She was grateful for the silence now. She felt so tired. So tired. Aside from her aunt Bernadette who stopped by to check in on her, she had assumed all responsibility for the care of her mother after she had been discharged from the Laquintinie Hospital – sent home to die because she could no longer afford to stay in the hospital. Night and day, she tended her mother, watched over her. Talked with her, bathed her, fed her, watched her wither away, dying slowly but surely as the virus given to her by the man she loved, the man who had refused to help her in her time of greatest need, destroyed her body.
I will never love a man who cannot be there for me one hundred percent. Mabel swore to herself even as her eyes fluttered and her body gave into her exhaustion. I will never love someone who would not give me back everything I give him. Never.
Her mother’s hand was stone cold when she woke up the next morning.
Mabel came awake from the dream, which was more a memory than a dream, with a sob. Her chest weighed down with the heaviness of a loss so deep her sorrow and heart break was still plunging to find the depths.
Her promise to her mother echoed in her mind.
She knew then what she had to do.
Read Part 7.5 here