Mahitaji School and Health Center
Dear Mr. Harwich,
Thank you for your recent donation to the Mahitaji School and Health Center. I’m sure you will be pleased to know how far your American dollars can go in this distant land!
Our school is based along the same calendar as many US schools, with the year beginning on September first and ending on June first, even though Zambia is in the southern hemisphere. Our students are selected from nearby towns and villages as well as other African nations. They are chosen to attend our boarding school based on their potential to contribute the most to society.
I appreciate your concern about our isolation from surrounding areas. Let me reassure you that this is, in fact, to the benefit of the students rather than their detriment. Although the HIV virus has been eliminated or subdued in most of Europe and North America, it reappears here regularly. While our students are able to communicate with their families by mail, we do not want to risk contact with infected members of society. I’m sure you can see this is actually a protection of our investment in the current and future well-being of these children.
I also would like to point out that, although our students live in Mahitaji, they are not cut off from their cultures of origin. Many former students have remained here, working the farms, sharing their talents in the fine arts, and even teaching. In fact, as I sit here, preparations are underway for the back-to-school musical presentation. It is so delightful to see the children’s faces light up when they experience the original songs and dances.
In response to the question in your letter, we do indeed have paved roads, electricity, etc. Because of that carefree way children have of playing in residential areas, we try to keep motorized traffic to a minimum. Instead, we have many bicycles which, in addition to keeping costs and pollution low, increase the health of the children as they love to ride the bikes around our campus. As you know, we are located in a former state park, and there are many opportunities for the children to ride bicycles or go on hikes.
While our dieticians often use familiar spices in our school cafeteria, we find that the children’s diets before they arrived were insufficient for their healthy growth. Instead, their food follows the healthier guidelines laid down by our own government for American children. What better start can we give to healthy bodies?
As you noted from the brochure, our children do wear school uniforms. As a West Point graduate yourself, I’m sure you can appreciate how important this is when bringing together children from different towns and even nations. I assure you that they were play clothes on the weekends and school holidays.
If you have any further questions, please don’t hesitate to ask. On behalf of the children and staff at the Mahitaji School and Health Center, I want to thank you again for your very generous donation.
Elliot Heideman, Administrator
Mahitaji School and Health Center
“You, O Lord, are always my shield from danger; you give me victory and restore my courage. I call to the Lord for help, and from his sacred hill he answers me.” The two boys smiled as their mother sat on the side of their bed, reciting the Psalm as she did each morning. She knew that only the older one remembered the time when his father was here to recite the Psalm with her. Andrew was the only one old enough to know his secret name, Chinualumogu – and the only one old enough to both question the Psalm’s meaning and yet not ask the question aloud. If this tradition had not been one of the very few things she had left from her husband, she might have dropped it. Instead, it was the prelude to a day filled with dreary routine.
As the boys got their school uniforms on, she got her daughter up and dressed, and served the breakfast that she was required to feed the children and they were required to eat. They all knew of children who didn’t eat right in their apartments and were sent to the Dorms instead. The Dorms – the threat used by all the parents at the Mahitaji School & Health Center. It wasn’t just the loss of identity, having your surname changed to match the name of one of the Senators, binding you on paper to all the others on that dorm floor and equally separating you from your family– it was the unnamed terror when a roommate didn’t come back from supper – ever – or you woke up and the perfectly healthy child in the next bed the night before was now gone. No one ever talked about it, not out loud. They never discussed how children from a culture full of passion and exuberance were transformed into dull creatures without curiosity and initiative. Dzindili stifled a shiver and got her laundry ready as soon as Andrew and Jason went off to school with the other children in the building. Her clothes were much cleaner now, using the modern machines, but she couldn’t help remembering carrying laundry on her head down to the river, just like the big girls. When The Staff finally took her on her home visit, they made the trip to the river. Somehow it didn’t seem as horrific to her as they intended. Rather, it solidified the wisps of memory she had of laughter, camaraderie. More importantly, they spoke her language there, and they knew her name. Her old friends, her family, her neighbors – never once did they call her Suzanne Cooper. They laughed, and cried, and shouted, and were happy, and sad, and angry – they were alive in her village. They were alive, yet most were either HIV infected or already had AIDS. She was disease-free and living in an environment built to keep her as healthy as possible, but she wasn’t alive. Frustrated by the irony, Dzindili cleaned the apartment with extra thoroughness, in case there was an inspection, and made her daily trip to the grocery store.
The Ghost waved the empty milk jug over a scanner before handing it to Nwando. Dzindili thought the pale, unfriendly woman was scary – as did everyone else at the school. If anyone knew her real name, they didn’t consider it worth sharing. Dzindili took the now sterilized and refilled jug from Nwando and put it in her cart. Even Stephanie was silent until they got away to the produce section.
“Nanas. Beets. Cawits. Appows.” The toddler proudly pointed to the fruits and vegetables as she named them.
Dzindili took a deep breath and then smiled. “That’s right! And are they better raw or cooked?”
“Good girl! But first we …”
“Wash ’em.” Stephanie clapped at her own success and giggled, earning her a kiss on the forehead from her mother.
Dzindili checked her list out of habit, and put the proper number of each fruit and vegetable in her cart, as another tall, dark-skinned pregnant woman joined her. Dzindili almost greeted her best friend in the common welcome of their distant childhood village, but Chinwe held her hand up in a gesture The Ghost could interpret as a greeting wave.
“The carrots look good, Elizabeth,” Dzindili declared in English. Chinwe smoothed her maternity smock in response to the coded “I see you’re still pregnant.” This was the longest she’d carried an infant, and Dzindili fervently hoped that this time her friend would be allowed to carry the child to term and give birth. Even then, there was no guarantee that she’d be permitted to bring her baby home and raise it. The only guarantees here were the best health care and nutrition available anywhere in the world, for a price.
Dzindili gently placed the fruit and vegetables on the counter, and then reached into her colorful bag for the jug of milk. As soon as the milk was in the refrigerator next to another partially filled jug, Dzindili washed and dried the fruit to remove all germs. Shopping was a simple routine: Monday meats, Friday fruits, and the other food groups in-between. By tomorrow’s shopping time the other jug would be empty, cleaned, and brought with her to be refilled at the store. She would pick up her family’s allotment of rice, cereal, pasta, and bread. In fact, she still had some pasta in the cupboard; she would have to serve that tonight for supper.
Jason burst into the apartment with his usual energy. Although he was only in his first year of school, he was already adept at having the uniform off by the time he reached his bedroom. He was in the kitchen in no time.
“Where’s your brother?”
“The school nurse called for him,” the boy answered, reaching for an apple.
Dzindili gripped the counter to keep from fainting. There was nothing she could do at the moment. Regular people – the Students and the Graduates – weren’t allowed in the Mahitaji Health Center, or at least not voluntarily. There was no one to call for information. She simply had to wait, and hope they only needed something little like a kidney. Not like her husband. Not a heart.
Dzindili moved through the day automatically, her body working while her mind was frozen in time. She only sent one son to school this Saturday morning. Jason wasn’t old enough to worry about where his brother was, but he was old enough to know not to ask questions. The awareness of how early curiosity was stamped out flitted among the many other shadows in Dzindili’s brain before it disappeared again, barely noticed.
At the grocery store, Dzindili handed the empty milk jug to The Ghost out of force of habit. The white woman scanned the jug and twitched, suddenly alert. She read the scanner and looked at Dzindili. Then she put the jug under the counter and handed Nwando a smaller one to fill with milk. The unspoken message was clear: You no longer need as much milk.
In her head, Dzindili screamed so loudly she would’ve crushed a telepathic society. But her lips remained tightly sealed, and she continued with her shopping, learning at each station about her new allotment – the grocery list for a family with two children and one adult. Once she got home she vomited, her body unable to contain itself any longer.
After she flushed the toilet and rinsed out her mouth with water from the sink, she headed toward the kitchen where the groceries remained on the counter. The scratching at the door was so quiet that Stephanie didn’t bother to look up from her nutrition coloring book.
“I brought you some fabric for your quilt,” Elizabeth said in her happy voice. They never knew which neighbors were spies, which ones would turn them in for “disturbing the peace” — the crime of talking openly about reality. Elizabeth was good at using the happy voice to dispel suspicion.
Dzindili let her best friend in and shut the door. Elizabeth put her packet on the counter next to the food. Then the two women held each other and cried long and hard … and silently – another thing they’d learned at the Mahitaji School & Health Center. Elizabeth then helped Dzindili put the groceries away, or rather she put them away while Dzindili stood there glances alternating between the clock and her daughter.
“Jason will come home,” Elizabeth tried to reassure her. Then she handed Dzindili the package. “Here.”
Dzindili immediately knew the hard package contained something in addition to fabric. She looked back at her friend and then unwrapped the paper. Inside was a flat plastic box nestled in the blue striped cloth. Within the box were photos of white men and fancy words. “I don’t understand. Is there more air in the package?”
“No, Air Supply is a name. It’s a music disc.” Dzindili’s face showed that actually cleared up absolutely nothing. Elizabeth began again. “Don’t ask me how Frank got it, or why he didn’t use it before it was too late. He wouldn’t tell me, and I didn’t ask. I’m sure I’d rather not know.”
“But what’s it for?”
Dzindili glanced around to reassure herself that they were alone except for her daughter. “You want me to give this to The Ghost?”
“She saves these. Listens to them. They’re from where she used to live. To her they’re like, well, better than chocolate pie.” She craved a lot of chocolate pie during this pregnancy, but sweets were a rare treat.
“And I’m supposed to go up and hand this to her, and what?”
Elizabeth looked around. “No, you have to go through Nwando.” She shuddered. “But there’s a price.”
“A price to Nwando?” Her friend nodded. “What price?”
“The price women have to pay.” She waited for the meaning to sink in. “Only in Nwando’s case, men have to pay it too. Then he will make arrangements with The Ghost for you.”
“The Ghost works in a grocery store. How can she help me get my family out of here? I don’t even know where to go? And besides, she hates us.”
“I don’t know why. The music disks can’t be that great! But yeah, if she’s the last person you’d think would help us, then maybe the Administrator thinks the same way.”
“Why didn’t you use it yourself? Why didn’t Frank?”
“Frank didn’t want to pay Nwando’s price.”
“They sent Timothy to me almost as soon as Frank … was gone. Timothy’s a Drake, but he’s from our village, remember? His sister was friends with your older sisters. When he went on that home visit, it scared him too much. He doesn’t want to go back there. And my family, well, they were all sick already, remember? They already had the marks.”
Dzindili shivered, remembering the trip – and her own family. Even without words, The Staff made it clear that she was only safe from her oldest brother because they were there to protect her. She looked at her toddler.
“You were eleven, Dzindili. If you manage to do this, you’re not going to let anyone hurt Stephanie. And your kids are young enough that they can learn to answer to their … other names, and learn their language. I can’t use this. Timothy is staying, period.”
“Tomorrow when you get your milk, speak to Nwando. It doesn’t matter what you say. The very fact that you talk to him will tell him … what he needs to know.”
The front door opened and Jason had his school uniform off by the time he got to his bedroom.
“Be careful not to spill the milk.” Dzindili felt dumb. What exactly was she supposed to have said to Nwando? But he nodded, ever so slightly, so it must’ve been enough. She was grateful that Chinwe was watching the kids for her while she shopped.
As she entered the cleaning products area, she was tempted to turn back and tell Nwando that it all had been a mistake. She had only slept with her husband, and although there were other attractive or companionable young men in their age group, Nwando was neither.
Without the children with her, Dzindili’s shopping went much faster. As she reached for the bleach, she noticed a group she usually avoided. It was too late now, though. She would look silly, turning around and coming back down this aisle later. One of the women glanced up at her and kept on talking in a low voice.
“Six children this week. That’s what Ikechukwu said. Six.”
“There was some kind of thing at a school there, something that made people breathe poison. One of the kids is Senator Cooper’s grandson.”
“How does he know all this?”
“Ikechukwu works in the Health Center. Just because he mops floors doesn’t mean he’s deaf. He said he overheard the staff talking, and they were annoyed that only the lungs were needed. They thought it was a waste of all the other organs.”
Dzindili managed to finish her shopping without throwing up, barely.
Dzindili didn’t tell Chinwe what she heard at the store; it was too awful to think about. So was having sex with Nwando, but she knew she had to do something. She didn’t want her remaining children sacrificed so some American could have the body parts. Dzindili did what she usually did: she pretended everything was normal, feeding her children the right foods and putting them to bed at the right time so they’d get the right amount of sleep. Then she waited for Nwando’s scratch at the door.
Nwando took his shirt off as soon as he entered the apartment. Dzindili tried not to look at the ancient burn scar on his face, or the scar on his chest where one of his lungs had once been. This was strictly business, and they both knew it. It was rough and brief.
“Wake up the boy. He has to walk. You can carry the girl.” He pulled his shirt over his head while Dzindili tried to cover herself with the blanket. She quickly got dressed and got her children. Stephanie weighed a ton asleep, but it wouldn’t do for her to wake up and start talking or crying.
Without saying a word, Nwando walked out the door, leaving it open behind him. Dzindili indicated to Jason that he should remain silent. She quietly shut the door behind them, and they followed the man down the hall to the stairwell at the end. As she passed her best friend’s apartment, she noted that the light in the main room was off; there was no shine under the door. She probably went to bed early; being pregnant tires you out, Dzindili thought.
Eventually they reached the basement, an area that was a forbidden zone. Nwando pulled out a key and opened a door. Instead of entering a room, they were now in a long dark corridor that was more like a tunnel than a hall. After about ten minutes they turned a corner, and met The Ghost. Dzindili handed Nwando the music disk, which he gave to The Ghost. She had a fleeting look of delight as she petted the plastic case, but quickly returned to reality. She nodded at Nwando, and he left. Dzindili shifted Stephanie to her other hip.
The Ghost simply turned around and walked down the tunnel without a word. Dzindili and the children followed. After another twenty minutes of walking, it was clear that Jason was tired. He’d only slept a couple of hours before being awakened. Dzindili was glad when they finally reached another door. Although her sense of direction was off in the tunnels, the distance was enough that perhaps they were now at the helicopter pad. That would be the fastest and easiest way to be smuggled out.
As soon as The Ghost opened the door, Dzindili was blinded by the light after being in the darkened tunnel. She automatically put her free hand up to shield her eyes, and felt – too late – her daughter being removed from her arm. Her eyes adjusted well enough for her to see her children ahead of her. Chinwe had Stephanie snuggling on her shoulder, still asleep, as she held Jason’s hand. “You changed your mind!” For a moment, Dzindili was happy that her best friend was going to join her on this journey to freedom.
“Thank you, Elizabeth.” The Ghost wanted Dzindili to understand what was really happening.
“Let’s go home,” the pregnant woman said to Stephanie in her happy voice as Dzindili felt the pinch of a needle in her arm.