I am not a doctor or nurse, but I believe that my neighbor, Mama Issa, died of shame today. It could have been one of the other AIDS related illnesses, but I am pretty sure that it was shame. Had she not had this case of shame, she would have gotten the free and necessary medicine months ago and probably been on the road to recovery right now, instead of having her sisters clean and prepare her body for burial. For so long, people said “Mama Issa has a stomach problem……..Mama Issa is in the hospital again””. She wasn’t around much so I could put it out of my mind and assume that it really was a stomach ailment. Then finally, I saw her last week, laying outside on a woven mat. Her mother said “they took her blood to Kibaha”” which, among people in the know serves as a code for saying that they tested her CD4 count, and she was getting Anti Retrovirals for HIV. She was extremely skinny, but I had seen people who looked far worse recover so naively assumed that she would get better. Although we know them quite well, and have helped other kids in the family, I had barely met Mama Issa. The last thing I saw her do, despite her apparent lack of strength was reach up and smack her niece. I told her that I was glad she was getting what she needed and I went home.
Today, Caito watched the activity at the house and knew that someone had died. I was invited to mourn so I donned a kanga. We sat in a dark mud room on the floor. Mama Issa’s body lay in the next room and her mother and sisters stayed with her. I sat next to Mama Mwajuma, who has been attending the ARV clinic for a year and tried to find the right words to say. Women filtered in and, as they crossed the threshold began to wail. This upset everyone, including me, and a fresh shower of tears would flow. Her sister, Mama Rama moaned Jamani over and over. Then, things would settle down until someone new arrived. I left and brought cooking oil to contribute to the large pot of food being cooked.
I feel cold. Mama Issa is lying not 300 feet from me. Caito sits with the male mourners. I sit behind our fence and type. Have I no respect? Her son has no mother, a family grieves, but all I can think is “why did she wait?””