As the sky darkens and thunder is heard from off in the distance, villagers continue in their afternoon activities. Children dawdle noisily on their way home from school. Mothers pound manioc roots into flour, making tshump-tshump sounds with their mortars and pestles. Men return from the tobacco and cotton stations, pausing momentarily to watch the train pass through on its way to the next town.
The first few drops of rain fall, prompting a collective murmur of relief from the villagers. The sky had threatened to rain for the past week and now the clouds are finally making good on the promise. Workers in the fields hide their tools under piles of brush and start on their way home, getting soaked as the rain steadily increases in volume.
Mothers hurry to bring manioc roots that were previously drying in the sun in from the rain. Children quickly run home to put buckets under the edges of tin roofs to collect water.
Tonight, they will bathe.
A child of two regards the activity of his mother and older siblings with interest, his eyes following their movements intently as he sits on a straw mat. The sudden darkening of the sky frightens him. As the raindrops touch his skin, he wails for his mother, who yells to her oldest daughter to bring him inside. Once there, he continues wailing, now for his mother’s milk.
He is left to wait until his mother finishes bringing in the manioc flour she was pounding. As he begins feeding, his mother regards him fearfully. Her other children played and pushed happily at her breasts while they fed. Not this one. Even now, after he has begun to gather some strength, he clutches desperately at his mother, his eyes open wide, as if he’s studying some fearful object off in the distance.
The older children take off their clothes and run naked in the rain. Buckets fill up. Lightning comes and the children come inside, laughing and shivering as they dress.
Mother carries her child while she prepares the evening meal. The baby continues to suck but soon finds no milk in either breast. The children gather around the bowl of bidia and manioc leaves. The mother tries feeding the baby a piece of bidia, but he refuses. She regrets not having waited until he had eaten some solid food to offer him her breasts, but his wailing was intolerable.
The other children had all lost weight and suffered from diarrhea during weaning. This child was frail to begin with, so she postponed the trauma for her and her child by waiting a few months longer than the nurse had said before giving him solid food. Again, she offers him a piece of bidia.
This time he accepts.
The other children watch briefly for a moment before returning to talking and tussling amongst themselves.
After everyone is bathed and sleeping, the mother sits quietly and worries about the child. Leaving her youngest child in the care of his brothers and sisters is the only way she’s going to get any work done. When she returned to the fields a few weeks after the birth, she brought him with her, but eventually, she had to leave him at home for a few hours of uninterrupted work. There was no one else to work the fields.
Her husband lives in a nearby village working his own fields of manioc and corn. He used to come home on weekends expecting to be fed and taken care of when he was too drunk to take care of himself, but now there was another woman doing that for him.
She thinks back to when she was the young girl, and another woman was in her place. The attention he gave her and her desire to leave her parents overrode her reservations of being this man’s third wife. After eight years and four children with her, he has found his fourth wife.
He was supposed to split his time between the two families but hasn’t been able to make the trip because he has been too drunk and weak to bike the distance from the next village over. He has stopped working his fields altogether and sits in a parcel in the nearby village supervising his new wife’s work.
After checking on the children as they sleep, she bathes and goes to bed.
Upon waking, she finds her youngest hot to the touch and wet from diarrhea. He does not cry. She clutches her baby closely and thinks desperately of where to bring him. She decides to bring him to the shopkeeper with the red cross over his door because it’s the only place she can be sure her child will get an injection.
As she walks into his shop, the old man’s eyes narrow to focus on the sick child. He looks at the mother.
The mother nods in assent.
“I’ll treat him for 500 Zaires.”
The mother looks at him imploringly.
He does not yield.
She reaches carefully into her belt for the money.
Bringing the child back to the house, she considers sending a message to her husband. He ignored the first three children. It was this child, whose grip on life was so tenuous, that he paid the most attention to, continually rebuking her for his poor health.
She stays home from the fields, watching for signs of improvement.
They do not come.
She brings the child to the local health center the next day. The child’s eyes are sunken deeply into his head and his gaze is unfocused. His head flops around like a doll’s. The nurse stifles his impulse to chase the mother and her dying child from the center. If she had brought the child in a few days before, he might have survived after being given steady doses of water, sugar and salt, but now it’s too late for that.
The nurse goes through the motions of making the solution. He opens the contents of a foil packet into a measuring cup, adds the correct amount of water and holds the cup to the child’s mouth. The child takes a small gulp and then stops. The packet contains nothing more than salt and sugar, but it’s a manufactured product with foreign packaging and therefore regarded as more effective than what the mother could make on her own at much less expense.
“Where did you bring this child?” the nurse asks. He already knows the answer. The mother does not respond. He tries again to get the child to drink, but he refuses.
The child throws up what little of the solution he was able to digest. He offers the child the cup again. He refuses, laying his head on his mother’s chest, closing his eyes. The mother tries to convince her child to drink, but again he refuses. She rubs the empty foil packet on his forearm but the child is oblivious to his please.
As the child’s hold becomes weaker, the mother’s grip tightens until she clutches him like a blanket close to her chest.
She drops the foil to the ground, carries her baby into the street and keens loudly as she walks home.