Drowning in Ashes

By Adaeze Ibechukwu

‘How and where do I begin?’ I ask my younger brother as he opens to the middle page of his long note exercise book and rips off two sheets of paper from the book.

‘Are you sure these will be enough?’ I ask again.

He replies, ‘If it isn’t, I will get more sheets of paper’.

Nodding in the affirmative, I cleared my throat and began my tale.

‘My name is Hauwa Garuba, this year I would be sixteen years old. I am the tenth child of a family of thirty-five children, I have twenty-two sisters and twelve brothers. My father has four wives and my mother is his second wife, I come from a well-respected family. The community look up to us and other children are advised to follow our footsteps. The story of my life began the day I was born which was the first day in December in the year nineteen hundred and ninety-six. I am sure that it was after eight days of my birth that I was named. There was nothing special about my birth because at the time I was born, my father’s first wife had just had a daughter and so had the third wife but hers was a son, thus there was nothing special about my birth because we were three children born to one man at the same time.

By the time I was almost two years old, we were visited by strange people. I call them strange because they were very different from the rest of us. They were a mixture of different complexions, some shone like the sun while some others were dark and brown-skinned like us though a bit different from us. They were well dressed and slung on their shoulders square-shaped boxes and they spoke an unfamiliar language. The only person that was familiar to us was our village local head. He came with them and stopped at the front of our house calling out greetings.

In my tradition, males do not enter the house of a married man, they call out greetings and wait outside to be attended to. At the sound of their voice a male member of the family they have come to visit will go out to greet them. They tell the male member their mission and who they want to see, and he in turn goes back into the house to call the person they are looking for. Women don’t go through these formalities. They come and go to family houses as often as they like. The men that call at our house come specifically to see my father as he is the man of the house. When our village local head and the strangers arrived at our house, we knew who they were looking for. My eldest brother Adamu runs to attend to them and gives them a mat to sit on. The visitors are under our inquisitive scrutiny as we move from one foot to the other and stare at them. Our village local head sits on the mat, and motions to his strange companions to sit. They comply. Our local head signals to my elder sister to fetch drinking water for himself and his companions and she runs off and returns shortly with a small clay pot on her head and a small cup in her hands. As soon as she sets the pot of water on the ground, our local head takes the cup of water from her and removing the cover of the pot, he dips the cup into the pot and scoops water. He drinks it hastily and offers the water to the strangers but they refuse.

Shortly, my father comes out with a grim expression on his face, he greets the local head quietly and stares down at the strangers. He doesn’t greet them. Issuing a harsh command he sends us into the house and we run as fast as our legs can carry us. Even I who had just started mastering the art of movement at the time almost fell in the desperate attempt to catch up with my siblings. After escaping from my father’s sight we waited for barely two minutes before tiptoeing back to the wall of the entrance in order to eavesdrop on the conversation amongst our local head, the strangers and my father. We hear snatches of conversation, but it isn’t clear to us. My father’s voice kept rising until he couldn’t contain himself anymore and he angrily ordered the visitors out of his house. On hearing the change in my father’s voice we scampered away, each and everyone of us running to our mothers for cover. Minutes later, my father stood before all the members of his household and warned us never to entertain such guests in his house and on no condition should we drink the medicine the strangers carried about.

We all stared at him in fear as he left for his hut; then our mothers started whispering amongst themselves. I did not understand the topic of discussion or why the strangers were sent away. Tired eventually of the issue, I run to play. Life moved on smoothly as I grew up. The strangers repeated their visit twice or most times thrice a month but we always told them that our father did not approve of their medicine. I saw most of my friends strut around with the sweets and gift items they received after being administered with the medicine of the strangers. They even showed off the blue ink mark on their littlest finger. I followed them about asking what the medicine tasted like, but they couldn’t describe it. I envied them over the sweets and washing soaps that they were given, and wished that I could have some too. It was impossible.

One day, as I walked down the street on my way to my brother’s kiosk, I saw one of the strangers. Surprisingly she could speak our language. She asked me about my age and I happily told her that I was four years old. She crouched before me and, opening her bag, she retrieved the strange medicine. She also brought out sweets too. I opened my mouth to receive the medicine when I heard a familiar roar. It was my father and he was walking towards us, anger clearly written on his face. I turned and ran back home as fast as my legs could carry me. When he came home later that evening, I was given a sound beating for almost receiving the stranger’s medicine.

Two weeks after the incident with the stranger I fell ill, it started with headaches and fever. Native medicine was administered but the ailment seemed to get much worse. A week later, my limbs were loose and floppy, I lost reflexes in both my hands and legs. I couldn’t walk. I dragged myself about, and the fever left me but I was paralyzed. I was taken to all native healers but there was no cure. I was massaged with hot scalding water night and day to no avail. I was placed under the sun and moon but it was not useful either. I remember dragging myself from place to place and bruising myself in the process till I was provided with a knee and elbow pad to shield my body from the incessant wounds. I remember people calling me cursed. I recall the stones that my friends and most children threw at me. I remember my cries of self-pity and I still see my father’s worried gaze in my mind’s eye.

It was then that the truth set in. I was the example, the scapegoat, the one who made the words of the strangers sound more like words of wisdom than those of foolishness. My father’s stubbornness and male pride prevented me and my siblings from being immunized against Poliomyelitis and unfortunately, I had to pay the price. For eleven years I have crawled on the dust. I have watched my friends and siblings grow, dance, play, walk about on their feet and go to school, I have seen the look of pity on people’s faces when they look at me. I have watched my mates prepare for marriage or better yet, education and I lie at the background and watch. I cannot remain this way.

Is there going to be a cure for Polio? Will I grow old with the virus and die lame? Will I ever have children? Will I be able to someday sit and stand upright? Should I hate my father or should I let it pass as a case of ignorance? To whom do I pour out my anger? My father for being ignorant? My mother for not being brave enough to go against her husband? The society for not making Oral Polio Vaccine mandatory? Should I blame Polio for leaving every other child in my father’s house and attacking me alone? Till date I still see and hear of parents making the same mistakes my father made. I crawl to their houses in silent plea that they stop the disease from gaining wings, even my father has joined the fight against Polio. I see locally recruited women vaccinators pour away vaccine and go home to rest instead of immunizing children. At the end of the day, they give false reports of vaccination rounds to Polio facilitators. I see supervisors falsify reports of the number of children immunized against the number of Oral Polio Vaccine vials used and I sigh in frustration and despair. I am not the only person affected by the Polio virus and I know that every day at least one child in Africa is paralyzed by Poliomyelitis.

No matter how hard I try to make a change, I am just one crippled individual in the midst of a walking generation. I need help because I fear that I am drowning in a heap of ashes.’