|Too Young to Die (Zambia Educational Publishing House, 1992, 56 p.)|
Mr. Foloko was about 45 years old, a Colonel in the army, stockily-built and very amiable. I had first met him in 1983 when I had attended to one of his brothers who had died from fungal meningitis, a very rare disease then which almost certainly must have occurred because of HIV infection. After that I had heard that one of his sisters had died from a mysterious disease, but I was unable to get any details except that witchcraft was strongly suspected. His admission to hospital caused consternation among family members. Though I had last seen the man about two years previously, I recognized him immediately he was wheeled into the Admission Ward, for he was the family member I had been liaising with during his late brother's illness. I had been called to see a seriously sick patient by one of the junior doctors and after I had attended to the emergency, I went to see Mr. Foloko. He recognized me, as did his wife. He had lost a lot of weight, had a fever and was very pale, indicating that he had little blood. He also had swollen lymph nodes in his neck, arm pits and groin. I suspected that he may have the HIV infection but I did not tell him that then. He told me that he had been going to one of the private clinics in town for about a month and it was them who had suggested that he be admitted because he had become very anaemic. We gave him some blood and did some investigations to try and find the cause of the fever.
Mr. Foloko did not stay long in hospital however because his family decided to send him to a U.K. hospital before our results were ready. Before he left I had a discussion with his wife and she asked me if I thought it could be AIDS. I told her that it was a possibility but we had to wait for the results. The results came back positive but by then the patient had already left. About two weeks later I heard that he had died in a London Hospital. Then, according to the grapevine, the widow was forced to undergo one of those heinous stone age traditions which has somehow survived up to the microchip age. She was made to sleep with one of the deceased's relatives as a mark of cleansing. This practice was meant to rid a widow of the husband's ghost and though not as widely done as before, it still exists in some Zambian clans. The lady in question promptly got pregnant and gave birth to a sickly child who died a few months after delivery. The woman herself developed signs of AIDS and one year to the week after her husband's death, she also died in her home village where her relatives had undoubtedly taken her to a traditional healer.
I was aghast when I heard the details of Mrs. Foloko's death. To begin with I knew for a fact that some of the relatives knew that Mr. Foloko died from AIDS. Yet it seemed they were powerless or just unwilling to balk tradition and leave out the sexual act in the 'cleansing' of the widow regarding it, I suppose, as a sine qua non, which is of course total nonsense. We had not tested Mrs. Foloko for HIV, but if she had been negative then it is possible that whichever relative slept with her, if he himself was positive, could have passed on the virus to her. If on the other hand - as seems more likely - she was already HIV positive, then whoever slept with her for that obnoxious tradition could have got infected from her. Worse still, pregnancy probably accelerates development of AIDS and the unfortunate woman did get pregnant. I wonder what has happened to the chap who slept with her. This could be one freebie he might live to regret. This diabolical tradition is worse than playing Russian Roulette and should be condemned unreservedly and stopped.
Then of course there is this other tradition in some tribes of 'ukupyanika'. According to this tradition, when a spouse dies, the relatives of the deceased have the obligation of finding a spouse for the surviving partner from among their unmarried men or women, as the case may be, within the family. In the past this used to be useful because, for instance, when a wife died, then a sister or other close female relative to the deceased would be given to the widower as a new wife.
This woman was expected to care for the deceased's children being already closely related to them. Through this system, the relatives of the deceased continued to have access to the man's property.
But now that so many spouses are dying of AIDS, is there any sense at all in continuing this practice? What if the surviving spouse is HIV positive and the new one negative? The latter certainly runs the risk of getting infected. There is therefore a burning need to change some of our traditions NOW.