“You’ll never know unless you try! Just one pill will take all your problems away!”
The incessant cries of the street vendors fell upon deaf ears as Adamu Otieno raced down the busy road on his rickety bicycle, feeling the warm Mombasa breeze brush past his face.
The cobalt blue paintwork had faded long ago, but the good-natured twenty year old did not mind. His bicycle got him to all the places he needed to be, and for that he was grateful.
He had one more stop to make before he could finally call it a day and head home. As Adamu approached Nehru Road, the vibrant scents from the market wafted towards him. Spicy, aromatic ginger coalesced with the warm fruitiness of cinnamon sticks. Stalks of ruby red tomatoes merged with fiery capsicums and bulging wine-coloured eggplants.
The young man squeezed his way through the bustling crowds of people until he reached a stall positioned at the back of the market.
“Jambo! The usual?”, the market seller asked, switching between his native dialect of Swahili and well-practised lyrical tones of English.
Adamu nodded and watched as Haki Juma reached for the freshest bunch of collard greens, placing them into a clear plastic bag. The older man had worked in the market for as long as Adamu could remember. His coarse hair had grown grey and patchy whilst the pungent tobacco he chewed had slowly blackened his gums and yellowed the few teeth that remained.
The younger man reached into his pocket and pulled out a shabby wallet. He opened it and smiled softly as he glanced at the faded photograph of his little sister. Before Haki handed over the plastic bag, he motioned towards a compartment behind his stall.
“Ready to try some Furaha? It’s much cheaper than the Tapu they sell in the hospitals, it would do your Mama good…”
A dark cloud suddenly formed on Adamu’s face and he spat with anger.
“We don’t need any of your poison. Mama will be fine, wakati tabibu!” He snapped, snatching the bag from the market seller.
As he swung his lean body over the unsteady blue bicycle, he rolled the lilting letters onto his tongue.
Time is a healer.
Not enough time had passed for him to know if the old proverb was true, but anything was better than the “medicine” they sold on the black market. Some pills made you happy, others made you forget. All were a temporary solution that caused more problems than they fixed.
Mama didn’t need pills.
She would be back to her old self soon enough.
The young man flew past the traffic, swerving past colourful matatus which brought weary workers home. As he approached Old Town, a towering billboard caught his attention. The newly plastered image showed a smiling family standing behind giant black letters.
“Tapu! The certified medicine guaranteed to give you peace of mind”
Adamu rolled his eyes and turned into Kibokoni, contemplating how the doctors were just as corrupt as the market sellers. Another Swahili proverb came to mind as he ascended up the dilapidated apartment building.
Dawa haitolewi bure.
Medicine is never given freely.
Reaching the top floor of the building, a thin film of sweat crept onto his brow. As he pushed open the front door of his home, an oppressive heat baked onto his skin.
Adamu headed into the kitchen and poured the collard greens into a large silver pot. He filled the pot with water and turned on the electric cooker. Once the water was boiling, he fried up onions and tomatoes and mixed the entire thing through. He served it alongside a modest helping of ugali - a stodgy maize porridge.
The young man walked down the hall and paused outside the last door on the left. He gently pushed it open and stepped into the darkened room.
“Mama. I made sukumawiki” he said softly, placing the plate down. Taking a few strides forward, he pulled open the threadbare curtains, illuminating the bedroom.
A limp figure lay on top of an unmade bed. Her unkempt hair was tangled and a musty smell emanated from the woman. Adamu cracked open a window and sat down beside her on the creaky bed. He stroked Mama’s hair softly, wishing things could be like how they once were.
“I miss her” a small voice croaked.
“I do too,” Adamu whispered, fighting back tears.
As he stood up, he noticed a flyer lying on the floor amongst a pile of discarded clothes. It had the same image as the one he had seen on the billboard.
“Mama! Why do you have this?” He cried, rousing her out of her slump.
The ageing woman sat up, narrowing her eyes as she caught glimpse of the flyer.
“Be calm mwana, they pushed them under everyone’s door.”
Adamu regulated his breathing. After a moments pause, she continued.
“But, maybe it would be better to forget what happened…”
The young man fiercely shook his head and ripped up the paper like it was filth.
“Forgetting won’t help! You need to get out, meet your friends again. That is what will help you”
The dishevelled woman lay back down and absently nodded, but Adamu had already shut the door behind him.
Safely inside his bedroom, he walked towards the chest of drawers and gazed at the photographs on top. He traced his fingers slowly over the beautiful girl with wild locks who was running along the beach. Next to her stood Adamu, in red shorts and flip flops, whilst an older woman wore a long floral dress that swept against the breeze.
Mama looked so much happier then, with her bouncy afro and pearly white smile. A lump formed in his throat as he thought about the sister he would never see again, cruelly taken by the merciless Malaria.
Before he climbed into bed, he kissed the photograph and whispered, “I love you Makena.”
The next day, Adamu rose, kissed Mama goodbye, and rode his bicycle along Baringo Road to the butchers he worked at on the weekends. The stench of death permeated through his clothes, and no amount of water could ever make him feel clean. But the pay was necessary, especially since Mama had stopped attending her cleaning job.
As evening enveloped the sky in an inky blackness, Adamu wiped his bloody hands clean and flew towards Nehru Road before the market shut.
Today he was in luck, and he approached Haki Juma just before he started to pack away his stall. The market seller flashed two yellowed teeth and reached for the last bunch of collard greens.
“Jambo Adamu. I see you changed your mind”, he smiled, handing over the plastic bag.
The younger man looked puzzled, prompting Haki to continue.
“Your Mama. This morning, I saw her go into Aga Khan hospital. You know, where they are doing the Tapu. Don’t know why she trusts the doctors over our medicine, it’s just as good..”
The market seller paused, plastic bag still in hand, as he watched the panicked boy clamber onto his bicycle and race out of the market.
Adamu’s heart palpitated as his clammy hands clumsily navigated through the busy roads. Once he arrived at the hospital, he leapt off the bicycle and bolted inside the building. The agitated man grabbed onto the nearest person dressed in scrubs and begged them for directions to his Mama. The assistant shrugged helplessly but pointed upwards to the fourth floor, where the Tapu patients were being treated.
Adamu bounded along the glass corridor until a kind doctor noticed his distress and directed him to Mama’s room. Before they stepped inside, the physician placed a hand on Adamu’s shoulder, bracing him for what was to come.
“Memory deletion is not an exact science, mwana. Mistakes can happen, even in the hospital. Do not be alarmed if more has been erased than she asked for.”
Barely registering the older man’s voice, Adamu burst into the ward and immediately recoiled at what he saw.
His Mama lay on the bed, with a plethora of tubes trailing out of her head. All around her, machines beeped incessantly. Her once beautiful locks were now gone, and her roughly shaved scalp was covered in a big ugly scar that curved like a black python.
Adamu stood in shock, eyes watering.
Noticing his discomfort, the frail woman smiled feebly and said, “This is the price I’ve paid for peace of mind.”
Unable to respond, Adamu shook his head, struggling to compose himself. He couldn’t help noticing that there was something strange about the way she was speaking to him.
She paused for a moment, then asked, “Young man. Are you here to take more readings?”
Realisation hit him deep in the stomach. He felt winded and could not comprehend what was happening.
Mama did not remember who he was.
Adamu quivered and hot tears fell onto his cheeks. As he attempted to speak, the doctor in the white coat entered the room and gently pulled him aside.
“You cannot remind her of what she no longer knows. That kind of contradiction will overload her brain and the consequences...” the older man continued to talk, but Adamu fled out of the room and ran down the corridor.
A new kind of grief rattled through his body. The boy sobbed uncontrollably until he found a quiet spot behind a water cooler. This is where he collapsed, shaking like a leaf from an Acacia tree.
His trembling fingers reached into his wallet and he pulled out the small photograph of his little sister. Adamu held it against his heart, eyes clenched tightly, whispering over and over again,
“I will never forget you Makena.”