Smoke fills my eyes, making them water as I try to blink away the burning blindness. My hand touches the cold floor stamped smooth and clean made from a heady mixture of cow dung and mud. The walls surrounding me in their cylindrical shape have the same colour and texture as the floor with two shelves breaking the monotony of the circle, apart from the almost cartoon like cut out that makes a doorway.
The offensive fire spewing from the centre of the room is unrelenting in its mission to kill all the occupants of the roundavill (hut) with carbon monoxide and a gentle breeze that invades the darkened space is a welcome relief. Dark figures huddle on the floor, making room for the elders seated on the woven straw mats close to the fire and the one small wooden bench close to the hut entrance. Everyone murmurs their greeting and I cup my hands, clapping and greeting each person in turn, asking after themselves and their family. Respect and manners in the African culture is important, and greetings are extended to show that your business is only important after you have respectfully asked after each other’s families.
I sit and wait, barely understanding as the elders share the latest news on the crops and local politics. Murmurs of agreement surround me and smiles flicker on old crackled faces. Heat wafts in waves and I am consumed by thirst. I smile at the young mother sitting near me and she smiles back, gently holding her baby’s huge lolling head. My discomfort is forgotten in the smoky wisps emanating up into the thatched roof that protects the inhabitants from the elements, but manages to contain a heat that could cook the chickens happily scratching the dirt outside the hut entrance.
The local matters discussed and exhausted, we are allowed to move forward to my reason for visiting this place, this home consisting of one room with no windows, just a cartoon cut-out door and warm semi-darkness to accompany the smoky fire. I am here to write a feature story on a child suffering from hydrocephalus. Her name is Precious and her head is the size of a basketball whilst her small four month old body lies is a metal basin. She is kept in this bowl so that her large head can be supported. Her eyes roll out of focus as the fluid filling the cavities between her skull and brain puts pressure on them and well, just everything else in her head.
I ask my friend to translate my questions into Shona so that Precious’ mother can understand and I quickly note the devastating history of this little child. The elders watch my reactions to the answers and murmur their own replies. The hut is stifling and I shift uneasily, trying to get the feeling back into my crossed legs before crouching forward to take heart-breaking photographs of the family. Once the interview is over I bow and clap my hands together, softly thanking everyone for allowing me into their home and lives. My eyes fill with tears as I see their smiles and laughter at my shoddy attempt at a beautiful language. Stix, my friend and fellow reporter gently nudges me to the door. We stop as the entrance is blocked by a new visitor, Patience’s grandmother. She drags her body into the hut and greets everyone, huffing and laughing as though it’s the most natural thing to drag your body across the dry dust outside.
I later find out that the old lady was paralysed and looked after Patience whilst her daughter travelled to the city to find work. Money was tight and someone had to support the family. Crops weren’t sufficient to pay for the operations and head shunts Patience required to drain the fluid from her brain.
I left the room with a view and we published the feature article in the Sunday Mail. I found out six months later that Patience died from the excessive pressure on her brain and the lack of hospital care to ensure her shunt worked.
My life continued but the visions of that day in a round hut in the middle of Mutoko, a rural area with village hamlets filled with respectful kind, gentle people will remain in my mind and heart forever.