Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom

We may gain a heart of wisdom...

Hospitals made her sick! The smell of hundreds of different mixtures of medication, the site of people in despair; wondering if this would be their last stop, but most especially, she trembled at the memories it brought back. Today was as crowded as every other day. She often wondered why consultations lasted so long. They had already seen the doctor. He had sent them to the lab to give some blood samples and they now waited for their results.

She remembers the night they had rushed her brother in. The memory is so vivid and stings like a bee.  She blinks back the tears that come burning her eyes. Hospitals always did this to her. She looks around as more people come in. With no empty seats available, they hover around the entrance of the waiting room. Most Private clinics were a lot bearable than the general hospitals. Still, hospitals in Cameroon were more or less the same. Overworked doctors, disgruntled nurses, negligence at its best. It is all very sickening sitting here! She will never recover from the sight of Mbanwie’s lifeless body.

“Everything will be fine Miya.” Akere’s voice brings her back to the present. “I’m so sorry I have to put you through this. You know my mother won’t let us take those vows until she sees both our test results.”

“My test results you mean.” Miya scoffs, looking away from him. “The woman is unbelievable! Why does she have so much power over you? Giving ultimatums two days to our damn wedding?!”

Mrs. Bridget Nchonkeh found every opportunity to remind Miya that she, Miya was not good enough for her son.  Miya was constantly amazed that such an overbearing, obnoxious woman had raised such a fine young man as Akere. He was everything his mother was not. How he had managed not to pick up his mother’s many vices, was a mystery to Miya. The apple did fall far from the tree sometimes, she grimaced. She was still a formidable force in his life, however, and Miya could not wait to nullify Bridget Nchonkeh’s stronghold. It will be a cold day in hell before Bridget had an iota of influence in her new home. She would let the woman know who was the true boss, just not yet.

Now she understood why most of her friends prayed for husbands who were either orphans or who had at least lost their mothers. It always felt like an odd prayer request but it was beginning to make sense to her every time she had to deal with Mrs. Nchonkeh. Mothers-in-law were truly the reason most wives cried themselves to sleep in Cameroon.

Just this morning, she had ordered Miya to cancel whatever meetings she had and come and take the test. She had yelled “over her dead body” will there be any wedding if she was not certain Miya was healthy enough. Akere had stood there like he was deaf while his mother rained accusations. All the tears she has been fighting this whole time come flooding like an avalanche. Akere tries to pull her close to him but she pushes him away and walks out of the waiting room. Too many pairs eyes of are beginning to stare at them. Akere chases after her with pleas but she just keeps walking away.

“Hello Miya, it’s me”

“Hey Mbanwie, wasup Cherie coco de moi?”

A talk with Mbanwie was a constant breath of fresh air, he not only was her brother, but he was also her friend. His wisdom and sense of purpose transcended way beyond his years.

“I’m great my dear, just busy with work as usual. Listen, I have good news and bad news. Which do you want first?” He always went straight to the point.

Miya’s heart begins to pound in her chest. What had happened to him? Good thing it was him on the phone and not some stranger. Her mind scrambles to her parents, are they alright? And what about her naughty brother in Buea? She just chatted with him on Whatsapp. If at all there is anything at stake she should know before Mbanwie. Though she lived and worked in another city, she was in Cameroon with them.

“Miya! You are still filled with imaginations, aren’t you? Creating all kinds of scenarios now in your head of what must have gone wrong with whom. Chill man, it’s not that serious!”

She giggles a little.  He still can read her even from across the ocean.

“You know I worry too much so why haven’t you spilled already?

“The bad news is, I have to push my flight three weeks ahead and-”

“No Mbanwie!!! No!” Miya interjects basically yelling. “You promised you won’t let work come before family this time”. Mbanwie had been in America for ten years and had only come back home twice. He had had a full scholarship after his advanced level to study at MIT, had graduated later with honours and was now working with some top-notch company. Unlike many other Cameroonians who could not come home either because they could not afford the trip, or because they did not have valid resident permits, Mbanwie simply did not have the luxury of time. He worked like a dog! As always, she had to be the bearer of bad news, and relay this recent development to the entire family.

“Women!! Miya, I didn’t say I won’t be coming, there is an emergency at work and I’ve to take one for the team. I’ll miss Afa’s graduation and Christmas and new year but I’ll be there on the fourth”.

Still not good enough Miya thinks to herself in silence.

“The good news is, I met some good Samaritan who is bringing a box of all your stuff. Not ten kilograms Miya, twenty-three! How cool is that?”

Now he is talking. Miya smiles to herself. In all the years he had been canceling his trips, the boxes he shipped almost consoled them. At least she and her other brother felt this way. Her parents, on the other hand, didn’t care much for material things, they wanted their son home more often. Miya stops smiling as another thought pops into her head.

“Mbanwie what do you mean good Samaritan? Aren’t you paying for it?”

She listens in perplexity as Mbanwie explains he had met this guy at a party, they had had a couple of laughs comparing their mothers and how dramatic they always are. He had mentioned he could imagine his mother literally dropping to the floor when he tells her he must postpone his trip. The guy had then told him he was going to Cameroon before Christmas, and if he needed to send Christmas gifts, he will be happy to help. Miya cannot believe her ears. She is greatly concerned, firstly because her brother did not go for parties. He claimed it was work-related.

Notwithstanding, no one offered to carry things for people in December. If Cameroonians could, they would travel with hamburgers and pizzas in their boxes. There was never enough space, not even for chewing gum. And here was some guy claiming he could carry a whole box? There was just one explanation to Miya, he was a scammer! They will never see the box, Mbanwie would never hear from the young man ever again. How could people be so ruthless? And how could Mbanwie be so naive? Had he been under a rock? Scammers were coming up with new tricks daily. Even grandmothers in interior villages were becoming aware of this trade. Had he checked the guy’s profile on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter or Snapchat to make sure he was who he said he was? He was not a social media person was Mbanwie’s reply. Miya feels light-headed with every answer she gets. And he had already posted the box to the address the young man gave him.

“Miya, you seem to have lost all faith in humanity. There are still kind people in this world okay madam? I think helping with luggage is ‘a guy thing’ though. You women… well, let’s not get into that. He actually lands today and should ring you ASAP. Everything in the box is labeled so, no fighting.”

He says chuckling. “I know you plan on showing up for Afa’s graduation like you are the graduate. No worries, I made sure you actually achieve that goal”.

Teasing each other is what they do best and it always cracks them up but she can’t laugh today. She is so consumed with worry about whether she’ll receive her ground cargo. She is certain there will be nothing to pick up.

How come he hadn’t talked to her before posting the box? Her phone rings again, she stares down at it, an unknown number. Everyone seems to want a piece of her today. She lets it ring as she broods over her conversation with Mbanwie. What did this box carrier mean by he was not a social media person? Who wasn’t on social media in this age? He was either a scammer or a sweet person to offer a complete stranger this kind of help. If he were real, he could have at least charged them and made some extra cash. No one was this kind. Her phone rings again. The same unknown number, she might as well take her mind off her present chagrin.

“Hello, is this Miyaka Tembu? Here is Akere Nchonkeh. I have a parcel for you. I just landed at the Douala airport and I’m leaving for Bamenda early tomorrow morning. Do you want to send me your address so I can drop it off? Helloo…”

She seems to have lost her tongue. He speaks really fast but clearly, she can hear an older lady grumbling in the background.

“Miss Tembu, are you ok?” The box guy asks.

“Yes, yes I’m fine thank you. I live quite far from the airport and with all the traffic today it will take you forever to get here. I could meet you where you are putting up instead?”

“Let me call you when I’ve settled in ok? I just wanted to let you know your parcel is here. I was concerned it wouldn’t arrive today, and no worries I’ll bring it to you, talk soon.” He hangs up.

She puts down her phone slowly as she takes in what just happened. This seemingly meaningless act of kindness on his part is what first strikes her about him. She would look back in a couple of years and be forever thankful he had offered to help a stranger.

“Common Miya, it’s just a routine test! Why are you making a mountain out of an anthill?” Akere is saying running towards her. Very typical of men, Miya thinks to herself as she approaches the hospital’s canteen. Always looking at things on the surface. This is more than just a test. It is an inexplicable grip a mother has on a grown man such as himself. It is his mother, projecting her paranoia and mistrust unto their beautiful friendship and relationship. It is his mother, trying to dictate terms and conditions in their lives, two days to the happiest day of her life. She slumps into a chair as she dries her eyes. Thankfully there are not many people at the canteen, she can scream at Akere all she wants without creating a scene. Just as she is about to respond, as he takes a seat next to her, her phone rings-

“Hello mummy.”

“Miya! Is everything ok? We have called your phone until. Are you with Akere? Cos we tried his phone too. He wouldn’t pick! Miya answer me when I am talking to you!”

Why did she turn on her phone? She rolls her eyes. “Put her on loud!” She hears her father say.

“Miya!!” Both her parents scream.

“Weh, must you people shout?”

“But you are not saying anything madam. So we assumed we needed to be louder in case you can’t hear us. Where are you? You’ve been disconnected for more than two hours. We were almost going to the police.” Her father says.

“Don’t be so dramatic daddy. I’m at the general hospital. You know there is always a queue here, might be here for a bit.”

“You are where? Doing what there? Now we are really confused, open your mouth and talk Miyaka!”

She pictures her parents both fighting to hold the phone and pacing back and forth like two deranged people. They both knew how to blow things out of proportion.

“I came to…um, Akere’s mother ehm… she asked us to both take the… she said it will be nice for both of us to know our HIV/AIDS status before we get married.” She closes her eyes as she waits for all hell to break loose.

There is a minute of silence and then both her parents burst out laughing so loud she has to move the phone away from her ears. They go on laughing for what seems like an eternity. Now she is confused.

“What is funny?” She asks.

“I don’t know why your father is laughing but personally, I think your mother-in-law to be is the biggest clown I’ve ever met. She will do anything to sabotage this wedding abi? From day one she has had a thousand and one problems with you. First, you were the daughter of illiterate farmers, now that we are on our way to obtain our degrees, we are social climbers.”  Her mother burst out laughing again.

“I think the woman is a nutcase! Then what happens if one or both of you are infected?”

Her father is still in fits of laughter. “Miya your wedding is in two days. What exactly is the purpose of the test again? And by the way, didn’t you just take the test three months ago?” She did not get what was funny, yet both her parents are in stitches. Akere has been next to her, hearing echoes of the unison laughter, and is equally as puzzled as Miya.

“Miyaka” her father says. He has stopped laughing and she can tell he is drying his eyes from the tears that often followed every time he laughs so hard.

“I guess you find humour in the silliness of humankind after you’ve buried three children. There are worst diseases out here than HIV. I know people who have been living with it for more than twenty years. People need to get over the stigma that surrounds the disease already! We should be the ones demanding Akere does a test. But we trust you are adults and know how to handle these things. First, she accuses you of wanting to give her son sickle cell, now this mad fellow in the name of Bridget hauls you out of your house before you have had breakfast with your family- two days to your wedding- with ultimatums. Her timing is ridiculous!

Miya sighs. She knows her parents will never recover from losing her siblings. She wasn’t born yet when her two sisters passed. But Mbanwie’s death almost left them in ruins. He had battled sickle cell for twenty-eight years and had triumphed every crisis. He was thriving in every area of his life and they had all stopped worrying about him. He had come home for holidays and was having such a great time when three weeks after his arrival, he started feeling pains in his joints.

He was rushed to the hospital and was out within two days feeling well. A week later he was back in the hospital and needed a blood transfusion. From then on things spiraled out of control and before arrangement could be made for him to be evacuated to America, he was gone. No one could understand what happened. His friends and colleagues in America had flown in to bury the guy they described as “the smartest, kindest, most empathic, down-to-earth human they ever met”.

The healing process was long and tough but they individually found ways to deal with their grief. Her parents unanimously decided to go to evening school, while still doing their farm work. Miya started a blog about sickle cell which helped her cope with her pain. She felt connected to the hundreds of people who shared their stories. She could relate to every devastating tale. And though she cried every time she was on the blog, she was glad she was creating awareness. She was on the same page with her parents on the absurdity of the timing of Bridget’s ultimatum, but Akere had begged her to indulge his mother one last time. After all, he said they both had nothing to worry about. Still, she couldn’t wrap her head around the hold his mother had on him.

“Miya are you there?” Her mother’s voice interrupts her thoughts.

She isn’t expecting to hear any more from her father. Even though he has laughed so hard, she can tell he is hurting, she knows talking about the children he had buried always left him drained.

“Yes mummy, Akere’s mother just wants the best for us you know, she says we have been apart for a year and during the time I may have ehm… we may have…”

“You may have contracted HIV abi, or better still AIDS! that woman needs to be spanked!”

Miya is doing a great job sugar-coating Bridget’s words. Bridget had claimed that girls of today could not be trusted. It scandalized Miya how Bridget spewed out foolishness based on her ignorance. People contracted the disease through other means other than sexual intercourse. And if only she knew that Akere was the only man Miya had ever been with. He had taken her innocence which she regretted deeply. She still believed virginity was a virtue and she had only accepted to date him if they both stayed celibate. Besides wanting to be celibate, she had been given proper sex education as a young teenager in case she chose to be active.

Her mother was not a typical Cameroonian mother who shied away from sex conversations. Or lived in the fantasy world where there existed morally bankrupt as opposed to morally upright children. She will rather have them be sexually active the right way than pretend that they weren’t doing anything while they put themselves at risk of STDs and wedlock babies. She knew the things young people could do when they thought they were in love. Well brought up or not, they would lock themselves in some room and take off every shred of clothing to consummate the burning passion.

That is exactly what had happened to Miya the night she let Akere take her virginity. After all the promises she had made to herself.  Looking back, it felt like a horror story, like someone had kidnapped her body and she watched them let Akere do with it as he pleased, and she could do nothing about it. When she had cried and told her closest friends who cared very little about celibacy, they had all said sarcastically “poor holy Mary!”

“This woman is not only ignorant about how people contract this disease, she assumes everyone is as loose as she is?”

“Weh mummy. It has not come to that now”.

She was thankful Akere had left her side to take a call. In as much as she detested his mother, she didn’t like him to know her parents’ opinions of his mother. She would rather he remained in his blissful state about his in-laws and their perception of his mother.

“Miya, it has not come to what? So, you still have mouth to defend that woman? After everything she has put you through? After she has gone through brim and fire so you and Akere can be at loggerheads?”. 

Miya chuckles at her mother’s choice of words. Since her mother went back to school she no longer spoke like a market woman. She made use of every new word and phrase she learned. Throwing them at her children at every given opportunity she got.

“Mummy I’m dealing with this woman the way I see fit.”

“Really madam? I don’t see you doing anything at all oh. All I see you doing is asking her how high when she says jump! And God knows your father and I did not sweat all these years for you to come and answer “yes ma” to a buffoon with bought degrees!”

“Chai! Na wah for you oh mummy. I don’t like being here any more than you do but I’m sure the lab will be done running the test soon. Then we can all go back to last-minute preparations for the wedding”.

“Miya, you are too good for this world aswear! Too good my daughter, that brainless woman doesn’t deserve a gem like you. You remember when you first starting dating, when you told him you were a sickle cell carrier and couldn’t marry someone who was a carrier too, you remember how that empty-headed woman had gone all ludicrous? Do you remember?”

Of course, she remembers. She had called Miya with threats. Asking her not to contaminate her son with whatever ailment it was that she and her social-climbing family were suffering from.

“I’m seriously worried about her state of mind oh, ah.” Her mother goes on with the drama.

Even if the woman was one step away from becoming a lunatic, Miya was not getting married to the woman. And after the wedding, she would make sure she was the one holding the reigns on Akere Nchonkeh. She had heard his brother’s wives had succeeded in keeping their mother-in-law at arm’s length, she was certain she could do the same.

“Yea sometimes I wonder myself if all her faculties are intact, not to worry mummy, nalast time be time nor? And by the way, I don’t jump when she says jump. Never! Akere begs me to, and if it’s a little reasonable, I do.” They both burst out laughing. Her mother knew Akere was her world and she was sorry his mother was a mental case.

“Where is Akere?”

“He got a call and left so we didn’t talk above each other, but I see him coming back this way. I’m at the canteen.”

“You still have not answered my question, what happens if Akere is positive?”

“Why would you ask that kind of question mummy? Would you want him not to marry me if I’m positive?”

“You, Miyaka, I can vouch for. But him- “she pauses and clears her throat. “Boys will always be boys. But how careful has he been? His mother is right when she says one year is a long time, but she is pointing fingers in the wrong direction. We know that we have given you the right tools in life that’s why your father and I aren’t constantly breathing down your throats…”

Her mother’s voice fades in her head. She has been going through a roller coaster of emotions and she had enough for one day. She trusts Akere with her life but, what if her mother is right? America is packed with temptation as she had heard. He is standing above her now looking at her with those mesmerizing eyes.

“I’ll have to call you back mummy, talk later, muahh!”

She hangs up as her mother protests that she is not done talking. Akere sits beside her and takes her slender hands in his. Her engagement ring glitters on her finger, oozing out extravagance. He can see she is teary again.

“Miya listen, I know I should not let my mother overpower me as she does and I’m really sorry I did not defend you early today. I’m sorry I have not been standing up for you as much I should. I promise from today henceforth; my mother has no say whatsoever in how we run our affairs. Forgive me?”

How could she not? she didn’t think it was humanly possible to love like this. Akere was her rock in every storm. It was around this time five years ago when they had first met. The day he brought the box Mbanwie had sent. He had been in traffic for over two hours trying to get to her place. Yet it does not bother him as he recounted the hurdles he’d faced. He was jetlagged but did not want a young girl struggling with such a large box in a dangerous city like Douala.

It struck her how easy he was to talk to. She had served him Ndole and miyonde, which he ate, and asked for more. They had just met, yet he was feeling very much at home. After six hours of what had to be a quick stop, he finally left around midnight. He had called when he got home and thanked her for the lovely dinner and chat. He had again called the following morning, to tell her he was on his way to Bamenda. They had chatted on Whatsapp all day long as he sent her pictures of roadside foods and landscapes of the grasslands. She was so distracted at work that day, blushing each time, she read a message.

Her colleagues cautioned her to beware of bush fallers. Most of them were married men wanting just holiday fun. Akere was neither a married man nor was he like all men. Within two weeks after they first met, they were the best of friends. He had added new meaning to the definition of friendship when Mbanwie passed. He had gone back to America two weeks before the incident and was back two days after it happened. Putting all else on standstill to be her shoulders to cry on. He had stayed all three weeks while they made funeral arrangements at the risk of losing his job. She had begged him to go back but he said he would find another job. He needed to be there for her now. She smiles at him with more tears in her eyes, he lifts her fingers to his mouth and kisses them gently.

But what if her mother is right? What if a trip to the barber’s had infected him? Or what if, even Akere, the perfect man turned out to be like the million others who claimed it was not in their DNA to be monogamous? She knows she is not sick because of the annual health check-ups her company did for its employees. Which showed she was negative for Typhoid, Malaria and HIV/AIDS. But what if Akere is HIV positive? Is she being silly by trusting him so blindly? Most importantly what is she going to do if things turned out for the worst?

“Miya, do you forgive me?” She nods brusquely. He kisses her forehead. “I’m really sorry mon amour. You’ve cried so much today I should have told my mom to back off.  we should get out of here.” He says looking at his watch.  “We’ve been here for over three hours. I’m going to see if the results are ready, you just sit here and try to relax ok? I’ll call you if they need you, if not I’ll be right back.”

She watches as he walks away. He had stood by her in her darkest days. Surely, she could forgive him for his indiscretions even if they have caused him a lifetime of pills and safe sex? In two days she was going to take vows which said, ‘for better, for worst, in sickness and in health… till death do us part’. If the results came back positive and she decides not to marry him, then she truly didn’t love him unconditionally like she claimed she did. She loved the image of the perfect boy in her head. But what is she going to do about children?

She takes out her phone and googles “how to have an aids-free baby if one partner is infected.” Hundreds, if not thousands of articles pop up. She tries to read one but she can’t focus. Had she saved herself all these years only to enter a marriage of uncertainty from the very beginning? What is certain in this life by the way? What is guaranteed? Neither health nor wealth nor life itself. Lives were lost daily on roadside accidents, natural disasters and after brief illnesses. What really mattered was that she had someone to go through this life with. And that someone she had chosen was Akere.

If Mbanwie had taught her anything, it was that every day was a gift she should never take for granted. He had understood from a very young age that he may never live past his twenty-first birthday. Hence, he had accomplished in his twenty-eight years on earth, what most people never will when they die at ninety or a hundred. He had built and furnished a beautiful house for his parents. He had sponsored her and her younger brother through university. He had sent, countless cousins and relatives to school. But he didn’t stop with family.

It was only after his death that his lawyers had contacted them with his will and all that he had been doing the last ten years of his life. he had a sickle cell foundation, two orphanages in Cameroon, and sponsors and partners in Switzerland, Canada and America. He had made provision for his Lawyer in America to bring his body to Cameroon if he died in America. Miya smiles as she remembers how awed they were when the lawyer read his will. She smiles remembering how he often quoted Psalms ninety verse twelve. She couldn’t tell what tomorrow will bring, but she will have faith, and live every day to its fullest. She smiles and says it out loud, “teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.”