The power is out again. Above the ward, the ceiling fans have click-shush-ticked into stillness, letting a stifling miasma of sweat, stress and sickness settle down over salt-stained skin. The patients shuffle stoically but nobody stops work or passes comment.
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Inside the tiny treatment room, a single bulb has faded, leaving only dust-strung twilight. The atmosphere is hotter than my blood - as thick and moist - yet the boy on the gurney looks strangely dry, his limbs an ashy umber in the half-dark. Around his neck, three jujus on their greasy leather thongs point baldly at his nakedness. He moans and convulses, his eyes squirming backwards in their sockets. Ebako grips his wrist to stop the needle jerking free. Anaemia has failed to thin his blood: the sample tube is still half-empty. Time and biology seem to slow down under pressure of heat; under pressure of unwelcome scrutiny.
Ebako didn’t ask you ‘Can we watch this?’ ‘Do you mind?’ Here in The Gambia, doctors are rarer than good scotch or good plumbing; mothers are cheaper than palm wine. A nice bedside manner is just one of many things you do not know you can’t afford.
Ebako, in any case, doesn’t speak Mandinka.
The child, in any case, is not his son.
Now, glancing away from the tube with its glacial ebb of malarial blood, I catch your eyes as you crouch down beside the gurney. Beneath the bright headscarf, your face is shut up and impassive but I realize my own is not so guarded. Reflected in it, all this looks obscene and you have seen this: you have seen me see this. You reach across your child’s naked penis with a fold of cotton sheet.
What - if I had language - could I say now? What possible apology could cover all the complicated things for which I’m sorry? What sympathy could slice through all the sedimented strata of our difference to the small, hot core of motherhood we share?
Perhaps – if I had language - I would ask your name and his name; perhaps I would offer my own in return, and my futile, desperate wish for your son to recover. Perhaps I would offer, absurdly, to sew up my doctorate, book-smarts and best-of-intentions into a little leather bag to bless and save your child. ‘Look, the dusty magic of your tribe is old and feeble: it cannot keep your children safe from sickness. Take my articles of faith instead.’
But you’d have as little use for such a juju as I’d have for one of yours.
Your child stirs again, eyes fixed on phantoms. The cotton sheet falls open and this time you do not reach to re-adjust it.