A Life, A Book, A Chance
Veronika usually woke a few minutes before the church bells rang. This day she had been up for hours, tossing and turning in her small cot. She had lived in the hostel for six months, after her auntie decided there were too many mouths to feed at home. As an Orphan and Vulnerable Child, Veronika could stay at the hostel for a minimum fee, which her auntie neglected to pay.
Several years earlier, Veronika’s father had gone south to work in the mines. She was only five at the time, and missed the way father carried her to church on his shoulders. After he left, she would ask mother every Sunday, “When is father coming back?”
Mother would answer, “Soon, very soon.”
One Sunday, after a week of mother being irritated with her for not helping around the house, Veronika asked, “Is father coming home soon?”
Mother snapped, “Your father is dead. He is not coming home.” Mother grabbed Veronika by the arm and shuffled her out the door. “We’re late.” Mother’s her face remained stern and determined.
“But how did he die?”
“He just died.”
Death was not an unusual thing in her village. Every Saturday morning she heard the singing of church members as they traveled, piled in the back of a bakkie, headed for the cemetery. Their voices rose high over the tops of the trees, daring God to take notice. But he never did because the funerals continued, week after week.
Veronika would sit quietly on her raggedy mattress in the corner of their hut, hoping to hear more about father, but mother and the aunties never spoke his name. There had been two younger brothers who did not make it to age two. Mother never spoke their names either. That was simply the way of her people. A year later, mother began coughing so hard Veronika would cover her ears and run outside. Many people in her village had the cough. They would go to the hospital to get medicine and soon the cough would go away. Many others did not return home. Veronika’s mother did get better, for a while. The last time mother became ill; she was so thin and weak, that she did not have the strength to go out into the bush to relieve herself. Veronika had to clean mother like a baby. Dozens of small plastic bags with medicines littered the floor next to the bed. Veronika reminded mother which pills to take and when. None seemed to help. Aunties whispered of the wasting disease. Mother lingered for less than a year before becoming another Saturday funeral to attend.
Veronika’s auntie returned with her to the hut cleaned it out of what little there was, and went home with Veronika following behind like a lost puppy. Veronika went back to school, made little effort at studying, gossiped with her friends, and then returned home to chores, a meager dinner and a shared mattress. Auntie had five children from three different men, none of which were around to help with support. Auntie worked as a cleaner at the hospital, so there was money for food, but not much more. Life went on uneventfully, until a new man showed up on their sofa. Two days later five of the six children were told to pack their school uniforms and go over to the hostel. They silently did as they were told.
The other girls were still fast asleep in their beds when Veronika rose to wash her face. She stared at her reflection in a broken fragment of mirror which still clung to the stucco wall. Father always said Veronika had the complexion of creamy dark chocolate. This day, her skin looked ashen with dark circles under her eyes. She rubbed a hand over her shaved head and told herself it was the dim lighting that made her look ill.
She found her shoes and walked into the bush to relieve herself. A charity organization had built two sets of pit latrines, one for the girls’ hostel and one for the boys’. Father Andrew preached to them about not going to the toilet in the bushes. But everyone hated the smell of the latrines and every morning walked pass the red plastic cubicles. Their life skills teacher read to them about washing their hands with soap and warm water after going to the toilet. They looked at pictures of children standing at sinks with soap bubbles rising into the air. Their school had no soap, or sinks, and the bore hole was too far away to get to, except during break.
Martha was walking out of the hostel as Veronika walked back. They had been friends since pre-primary. Martha’s village was 12k away, so she stayed at the hostel while school was in session. Veronika was glad to have a friend that she could talk with. The other girls were not always so kind.
Martha took Veronika’s hand. “Are you well? You don’t look so good.”
“You should go to hospital.”
“We have school.” With all the death in her family, Veronika did not want to admit that she was scared of hospitals.
Martha eyed her suspiciously. “Since when do you care about school? Not as if the teachers will notice.”
Veronika had been a child who was rarely sick, except for the occasional running stomach. This day, there was no denying that she felt tired and weak. Martha wasn’t the only one to notice. The math teacher also asked her what was wrong. Teen pregnancy was a big problem at her school, so the teacher assumed that Veronika had fallen victim to the lure of a free cell phone or paid school fees, offered up by one of the few local men who had jobs.
The teacher accused, “I see you talking to those men in the shebeen. Stupid girl. Go to the office and ask for a pass to go to hospital.” Veronika just stared at the teacher’s round belly and nodded. With this third baby, the teacher’s boyfriend had finally agreed to get married. The boyfriend had a government job and a car. This teacher was one of the lucky ones.
Veronika did not blame her teacher for jumping to conclusions. She had seen the men hanging around cuca shops frequented by learners. They would offer to buy the girls a cool drink or takeaway chicken. They would shout, “Hey. Hey! What’s your name?” Their buddies would snicker. “Hey, girl, I’m talking to you. Don’t you know you stop when a man is talking to you?”
It was worse if the shop was next to a shebeen. It didn’t matter the time of day. Men gathered out front, in the shade, guzzling their lagers, laughing and accosting any female who happened by. Veronika always felt shamed after one of those men addressed her. Their life skills teacher had warned the girls that the men were married, had several girlfriends, and were at high risk for HIV. This same teacher was known to have relations with girls at school. One had even gotten pregnant and dropped out.
Veronika ignored the math teacher’s instructions and walked towards class when Martha ran up. “Guess what. We have a new teacher. She’s from America. I think she’s teaching English.”
“How do you know?”
“I was here in time for assembly, which you missed, again.”
“What grade is she teaching?”
“Lower secondary, so that means us.” Veronika had been kept back in grade 5. She should have been in grade 8, and with her current grades would be lucky to pass out of grade 7.
As soon as the bell rang, Martha hustled Veronika out of her chair, and they scurried across the courtyard for a glimpse at the new teacher. They weren’t the only ones. When Veronika caught sight of the young woman, her face dropped with disappointment.
“I thought you said she was from America?”
Veronika wrinkled her nose. “She’s black.”
“American’s are makuwa.”
“Beyonce’s not white and she’s American”
Veronika thought for a moment. “But she’s different.”
“Because she’s rich.”
“Don’t you watch movies, stupid? They have black people in America. Wait till you hear her talk.”
“I bet she’s Nigerian. They speak good English.”
Martha waived her off.
Veronika stood watching the new teacher. She looked too young to be teaching. She wore a flowered skirt which hung just pass her knees and a white blouse. Her hair was in short braids that fell about her ears. Veronika noticed that she had already acquired some of the local jewelry. Veronika noticed something else. This volunteer from America held her head up, with shoulders back, and when someone stopped to speak to her, she looked them in the eye. Veronika had been taught never to look anyone in the eye, especially a man, and to just nod yes. You didn’t speak unless asked a question and you only answered in a whisper. She couldn’t recall who taught her these things. That was just the way things were.
After lunch, she did not return to school for study period. To her it was a waste of time anyway. Most of the teachers didn’t return to school, so the learners spent their afternoons sitting in stuffy, old classrooms, gossiping or sleeping. Besides she felt too weak to walk the 20 minutes back. Instead, she curled up on her cot to sleep.
Veronika ate a little porridge that evening, but only because Martha threatened to report her to Father Andrew. Veronika wasn’t sure which she hated most, Father Andrew’s threats to send her home for misbehaving, his stench of cigarettes and liquor, or the way he would touch her arm and ask if she was a good girl. He rarely left his house, not even to perform Sunday mass. He left that to the local parish priests. When he did emerge, the learners scattered into the bush, like springbok at the first scent of a lion.
The next morning, Veronika forced herself out of bed, anxious for her first class with the new teacher. The teacher’s name was Ms. Sonia. Ms. Sonia never sat down behind the desk, preferring to pace up and down the aisles. She made each of them stand and introduce themselves. If they did not speak loudly and clearly enough, Ms. Sonia would have them say their name again and again until she could hear. She looked directly at each of them and insisted they take their eyes off the floor, stand straight, and take their hands out from in front of their mouths when they spoke. Veronika was terrified and thrilled at the same time.
With introductions out of the way, Ms. Sonia went on to explain what she expected from the class. “I am here to teach English. The best way to improve you spelling and vocabulary is by reading and writing. You will each be expected to read one book a week and write a book report about what you read. Later, I’ll go over what I want in the book report.” Veronika heard herself groan, along with several others in the class. She hated to read.
Martha raised her hand. “Miss, what books?”
Ms. Sonia stepped behind her desk and lifted a box from a stack of four in the corner of the classroom. She opened the box and began stacking books on her desk, occasionally holding one up for everyone to see. The books were all paperbacks with bright covers. A murmur went up around the room. None of them had ever seen so many books, other than textbooks. Veronika found herself intrigued by all this, but still dreaded the idea of reading any of them.
“Along with writing book reports, we will also spend time writing essays and on creative writing.” Ms. Sonia spent the next few minutes explaining fiction and non-fiction and how they would get to make up their own stories. Then she talked about what it meant to write an essay, to give your own opinion on a topic. They would address some of the social issues facing their country.
Veronika listened hard to understanding what this American meant. What was she supposed to have an opinion on? She was just a kid, and a girl. Who cared what she thought anyway?
Ms. Sonia continued. “I understand that you haven’t had an English teacher for a few weeks, so we have a lot of catching up to do.” It was true. Their last English teacher left on maternity leave weeks ago. Other teachers would stop in to tell them to be quiet and that they should be studying for exams. “I am told you have study period in the afternoons. So, I expect all of you here as soon as lunch is over. I’ll sign out books for your first reading assignment and we’ll talk about your first essay.”
Veronika expected to hear more groans. Instead she heard excited chatter coming from her classmates. Veronika had to admit that she was a little excited, too. She was used to teachers who lectured at them, wrote stuff on the board that they were expected to copy and memorize, and yelled at them for being lazy and stupid. They had never had a teacher who expected anything from them. Several learners got up to get a closer look at the books still stacked on teacher’s desk after Ms. Sonia left. They all scurried back to their desks, like roaches, when the math teacher walked in.
It took every ounce of strength for Veronika to get back to school that afternoon, but sick or not, she wasn’t going to miss out on getting a new book, even if she had no real intensions of reading it. She was handed a book with the words Super Fudge across the top and a cartoon picture of two boys. She had no idea what super fudge meant, but the book seemed short enough and had more pictures on the inside. She slipped the book into the plastic grocery bag that Ms. Sonia had handed out.
She had explained as she handed out the bags. “I see that most of you don’t have a place to keep your books, so they’re scattered all over the floor getting dirty. That is not how you take care of books. The books that I’m giving you are new and I expect them to stay that way.” She went on to explain things like dog earing and breaking the spine of a book. “You each now have a bag to keep your books in. I don’t want to see any books on the floor. Understood?” Veronika nodded her head along with everyone else.
“Next, we are going to talk about your first essay.” Ms. Sonia turned to write some numbers on the chalkboard. She wrote .06 and 13.4, with big fat dots for the decimal points. She pointed to the .06. “This is the percentage of HIV cases in the United States, where I come from. The decimal point is in front of the 06. The infection rate in this country is 13.4.” She pointed to the decimal point. “I assume you all know your math. Twenty-three percent of the deaths in this country are from AIDS. You go to funerals every Saturday. Two, three funerals, EVERY Saturday. What do you think these people are dying of? They’re not dying of TB. They’re not dying of cancer. Or my favorite answer, ‘Oh, he just died.’ No one JUST dies. These people are dying of AIDS. Until you stop pretending otherwise, people will keep right on dying.” She stopped to let all this sink in.
Veronika thought about how many times she had been to a friend’s hut, where someone was sick, and plastic bags of medicines littered the floor like with her own mother. How often had that person died? How many times had she heard, “She just died.” Or “He just died.” Their life skills teacher talked about HIV/AIDs, how to prevent getting it, and how the virus works in the body. But these were abstract facts. She and her friends would whisper and make fun of learners who they thought were too skinny, but they never seriously thought that person had AIDS. She had always assumed that Father had died in the mines, or been robbed and killed, or any number of other possibilities. The newspapers had stories about sex workers spreading HIV to truck drivers and men in the mining camps. Could Father have been with a sex worker? And what about mother? She had men friends who often stayed overnight. Veronica took a deep breath forcing down the emotions that wanted to bubble up. It wasn’t like anyone lied. They just never said anything.
Ms. Sonia was still talking when Veronika looked up from her shaking hands. “How hard is it to put a condom on? Who do you think pays for all these free condoms that you don’t use? Who pays for all the free medicines and free medical care? My government does, the United States, and countries in Europe, like Germany, Finland, France. And after years of educating you on the importance of wearing a condom,” she walks back to the board and circles the 13.4, “after all this time you still won’t do something as simple as put a condom on.” She paused.
Veronika tried to keep up with what Ms. Sonia was saying. Thought flooded her mind. She wanted to yell out, “You don’t understand. I’m a girl. I can’t tell a man to put on a condom. He’ll get angry and will think I don’t trust him or don’t love him. If he’s paying your school fees, buying you clothes, buying you and your baby food, he should be able to do what he wants.” Ms. Sonia was saying that even the girls should carry condoms, because the boys won’t. “But then he’ll think you’re a whore and won’t love you. People will think you have HIV. Ms. Sonia doesn’t understand. How can she when she dares to look you in the eye and speaks her mind? How can she know?”
Ms. Sonia continued with her speech. “Do you want to know what the rest of the world is asking? They’re asking, ‘How stupid are these people?’ So, how stupid are you?” She paused again, walked back to the chalkboard, set the chalk stick, that she was still holding, in the tray, and took a deep breath. “I’ve been here long enough to know, you aren’t stupid. That’s not the problem. I want you to explain to me in your essay, why HIV continues to be such a problem? Why do you refuse to save yourselves by simply putting on a condom? And don’t tell me you don’t have sex because I know most of you in this room are sexually active.” Nervous snickers went up around the room. “Then, I want you to tell me what you can do to change this problem. I don’t want to hear what the government can do, or what other people should do, I want to hear what you can do. Solving this problem is up to your generation. The older people are too old to change. You have to change. You have to fix this problem. What are you going to do?” She walked around the room pointing a finger at learners. “What are you going to do? What are you going to do?”
The bell rang, but no one moved. “I want at least a one page essay by tomorrow.” Ms. Sonia started putting away the leftover books. Slowly, learners began to leave. Veronika could hear the energized talk coming from outside. She was still at her desk, the last one left, when Ms. Sonia looked up. “Do you have a question?”
‘No, miss.” She clutched her plastic grocery bag to her chest. Her knees gave out as she reached the door and found herself on the floor.
Ms. Sonia knelt next to her and asked if she was all right. “Have you been to the clinic?” Veronika knew she meant the HIV clinic. She shook her head no. “Could you be pregnant?”
“No, miss.” Veronika saw the doubt in her face. She whispered, “I’m a virgin, miss.”
“How long have you been feeling sick?”
“A couple of days.”
Ms. Sonia put a hand on her forehead. Her hand felt cool and soft. “You feel warm. Where’re your parents?”
“Do you have a guardian?”
“I stay at the hostel, miss.”
“I’ll be right back.”
Ms. Sonia returned a few minutes later with the principal, who didn’t look pleased. “I need you to drive us to the hospital.” Veronika was shocked by Ms. Sonia’s tone. It wasn’t a request. She was even more shocked that the principal agreed.
“The girl’s probably just pregnant. She’ll be the tenth one we’ve had this year. These girls think they can get what they want by opening their legs. The Ministry now makes us keep them in school even if they’re pregnancy. Thankfully, most of them drop out.” When Ms. Sonia didn’t respond, the principal stopped talking.
The principal drove away as soon as they were out of the car. It was late in the afternoon, so the hospital waiting area was without its usual mass of patients. Ms. Sonia told Veronika to sit while she spoke to the man at the reception desk. She soon returned and sat next to Veronica. “Now, we wait.” Veronica could barely keep her eyes open. “You can put your head on my lap, if you want to sleep. We could be here a while.”
Veronica still had trouble putting Ms. Sonia’s face together with her voice. This young woman could be anyone walking through her village, yet when she spoke, Veronika heard a white person’s voice. She didn’t know if she would have dared put her head on a makuwa’s lap.
Veronika hated the smell of the hospital and the sad memories that came with it. But Ms. Sonia’s lap felt warm and she smelled of soap. She asked, “How long have you been here?”
Ms. Sonia gently stroked her head, the way mother had when Veronika was small. “I was here two years ago, liked it so much that I decided to come back.”
“Do you think we’re stupid?”
“No, sweetie. I don’t think you’re stupid. But I do think if you don’t take your education seriously, you’ll never be able to make things better. This is a wonderful country. It hurts me to see your people suffer.”
Veronika was on the edge of sleep, still clutching her grocery bag with Super Fudge inside, when she heard the nurse call her name. Maybe she would read this book after all.