|Too Young to Die (Zambia Educational Publishing House, 1992, 56 p.)|
Lusaka is a small city. Having spent many years in it, there were a lot of people I knew just because I had been seeing them for so long, on the streets, at parties, in bars, or at various clubs. One such person was Peter. We had been meeting so many times that one day we just shook our heads and shook hands. 'Hi Jack,' he said. I told him that my name was not Jack but Chishimba. 'Righto, Jack,' he replied. From then on we would sort of chat whenever we met usually at one well-known sports club. Peter was a real ladies' man. His job as an accountant took him all over the country and though he never talked much about women, it was common knowledge that he was probably the only man in Zambia with a girlfriend in each town. He also had this peculiar habit of calling everyone Jack, and even if you told him your name, he would just say, 'Okay, Jack, next time, Jack,' and still call you Jack the next time you met. This was his 'trademark', and because of his pursuit of the opposite sex, some wag at the club nicknamed him 'Jack the Zipper'; presumably after a famous assassinated U.S. president who is reputed to have been a real ladies' man.
The last time I met Peter was at the hospital bus station. My pushmatic car was in the garage then, where it seemed to be spending more time than on the roads, and I was trying to get a lift to town. The queue for the minibuses was unending as usual. I tried to hire a taxi but the first one wanted to charge me more money than I made in a day. I tried the second cab but it seemed there was a well-orchestrated conspiracy, for he too wanted as much as the first one. I was considering my options, including a leisurely four-kilometre aerobic pedal exercise when I heard someone calling out 'Ba doc!' I looked around and seeing no other doctor around - at least not any medical doctor that I knew - I assumed it was I being called. I could see a vaguely familiar figure some distance away. As he got closer I recognised him as Peter. He was thin and looked ill. I remember thinking: Him as well!
'How are you?' I said as we shook hands.
'I am not all right doc,' he replied. 'No, I am not all right,' he repeated. For the very first time since I had known him, he didn't call me Jack. This fact probably more than his physical appearance told me that Peter was indeed not himself.
'What is the problem?' I asked half-knowing the answer already.
'I have T.B., doc. It started about 2 months back. At first it was just like an ordinary cough which persisted despite taking antibiotics. I later developed a fever and weight loss. I came looking for you but I was told that you were out of the country.'
'Well, I was just on long leave actually,' I said.
'Anyway, I eventually ended up at the chest clinic and after some sputum tests I was told I had T.B.'
'Yes, and I have been on treatment since then. I have received 40 injections.'
'Well,' I said, 'that leaves you with only 20.'
'Yes. But doc, I am not getting any better.' Indeed he did not look at all healthy. Usually someone responding well to T.B. treatment will be well on the way to recovery by the time he is half-way through his injections. 'Actually my problems started in August when I had Herpes Zoster,' Peter said and inwardly I shuddered. It was the same story over and over again. God, we are a doomed generation, I thought to myself. 'The reason I wanted to talk to you,' he continued, 'is that I have just come from the chest clinic and the doctor there referred me to the tumour clinic this afternoon. He says I have a tumour called Kaposi's Sarcoma.' The plot thickens, I thought, and gets worse and worse. K.S. the most virulent of the AIDS-related cancers. Doomed, really doomed, I thought. As I said, I knew Peter only through casual contact. Nevertheless I had known him for several years. The man had a death sentence on him, like I suppose we all have from the time we are conceived.
'This is what he said was K.S.,' Peter said and opened his mouth to show me. We were at the bus stop mind you, with several people around and this action caught me completely off-guard. I quickly glanced in his mouth and there was no mistaking the purplish swellings on the roof of his mouth. He then showed me another swelling on the upper gum, I have seen dozens of such tumours and I nodded. There was no doubt, but in addition I had also noticed some flecks of oral thrush which was also associated with immune depression.
'It is K.S.; I said numbly. 'Well, there are some drugs which are given for K.S. with very good results. As a matter of fact I have treated some patients with K.S.,' I said. True, I had treated several people with the disease, but not a single one had lived beyond 12 months as far as I could recall. I could hardly tell him in public. I decided to dissemble. 'Look, Peter, why don't you go and see the doctors in the tumour clinic? They will tell you what you need to know. I am not a specialist in such matters.' I ended lamely. It didn't take a specialist to know the poor survival rate of this new form of K.S. called Atypical Aggressive Kaposi's Sarcoma.
'You did say the drugs do help didn't you?' he persisted.
'Well, to a point, but just talk to the doctors,' I said. I wanted to be very far away from the station at that time, and if someone had been able to stop the world, I would have probably considered jumping off. 'Look, Peter, I have a clinic every Monday afternoon. Why don't you come and pass by any time after the appointment with the tumour clinic and tell me how it goes?'
'Okay, doc,' he said. Just then a cab came and parked near where we were standing and I jumped in without even asking the fare, for I was prepared to pay even double the asking price to get away from the bus stop. Would there ever be an end to this tragedy, I thought. The realist's answer is: probably not in the foreseeable future. If no cure or vaccine is found or people do not drastically change their sexual behaviour, it is estimated that it would take about 100 years before the disease burns out and becomes just another sexually transmitted disease. Millions would have to die first. Meanwhile the decimation will continue. The germ is like a nuclear missile with independent multiple warheads. Just one teeny weeny virus, leading or predisposing to Herpes Zoster, Tuberculosis, Kaposi's Sarcoma and oral thrush as in Peter's case, but also capable of causing or predisposing to pneumonia, diarrhoea, meningitis, lymphomas, dementia, and so on. Peter, by the way, is no more.