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|Every Child's Hero|
Most kids have heroes, someone they look up to. Whom did you look up to when you were growing up? I for myself have to confess that I had it all wrong, at least until recently.
Recently, I came to know Mama Zewditu, a remarkable old woman who lives in Edaga Hamus, a small town 20 kilometers south of Adi Grat, Tigray.
What was I doing in Edaga Hamus? As usual, I was looking for an interesting story, a story about teenagers and HIV testing. Luckily, I found one. Lemlem was a first-ranking 10th grader, who tested HIV negative. I was interested to know why and how Lemlem decided to get tested. The more I kept asking questions, the more I got interested in what Lemlem had to tell me. That was how I got introduced to Mama Zewditu, Lemlem’s grandmother.
Upon my request, Lemlem took me to the house where this woman lived. Some minutes’ walk later, we arrived at a moderate size house, built a couple of blocks away from the high way. I was expecting a very old woman, with gray hair, probably leaning on a cane. We were welcomed by two women, a younger woman called Guey and an older woman who was mama Zewditu.
Mama Zewditu was a tall and slim woman with gray hair done into a couple dozens of braids. She had a charismatic look.
As long as Mama Zewditu could remember, she lived all her life in Edaga Hamus, with frequent visits to Adi Grat. Mama Zewditu was very fond of her two grandchildren and their mother, Guey. Guey was the only daughter Mama Zewditu raised among sons. When Guey got married and moved to Adi Grat, Mama Zewditu was very pleased because it was just a few minutes drive away from her house. Soon, Guey had two kids, a girl and a boy. This made mama Zewditu happy with her daughter’s life. And so was Guey.
Mama Zewditu said, ‘One day, I told her that she must leave her husband.’
What? Why? You must be thinking. Let’s rewind a little.
Mama Zewditu’s only daughter surely married the man she loved and was living happily with him for about a decade. Although, she was trying hard to maintain a good life with her husband and their two kids, life for them turned out to be challenging. She had to work as a cleaner to generate additional income for the family. Unlike Guey her husband was not contributing. Soon, things started to get out of hand.
‘Despite my efforts to get more money, my husband was not helpful,’ said Guey who was busy making coffee for me. She stopped what she was doing for a moment and looked at me. ‘My husband’s salary was not paying the bills at home. He was spending all his earnings and probably more in the houses where he chew khat and in the bars where he soaked himself with drinks.’ Guey’s expression turned melancholic.
Her husband would frequently spend all night drinking in bars. Sometimes, he would also spend the nights in rented hotel rooms. ‘…with women, god-knows-who. I tried to talk him out of the things he did. He never listened. With all these problems, I tried to find excuses not to leave him’ added Guey, who was frustrated by her husband’s recent change in behavior.
That was not all, Guey’s family was suffering with the pains brought by poverty and malnutrition. Mama Zewditu was getting sadder and sadder everyday intensifying Guey’s misery. However, Guey’s husband kept on with his selfish ways. Day after day, the problems Guey and her two kids were facing was getting worse. Her own health was not as good as it used to be. She was frequently getting sick.
One day she confronted her husband threatening to leave him.
‘Go ahead, leave me.’ He retorted. ‘I have it and so do you,’ was what he finally said. Guey didn’t comprehend what he meant by that at the time. It’s only after some time that she came to understand what her husband was trying to inform her.
Her health began to deteriorate, and she got seriously sick. That was when she was diagnosed HIV+. She thought everything was over. She cried so hard.
She never hesitated for a moment to tell her status to her husband. But he seemed not to care. She also told him what the health professionals said - he too had to get tested. His reaction told her that her husband must already have known his status. The thought of this even made her more depressed and miserable.
She didn’t want her mother to know about it all. She thought Mama would be so disappointed with her; Mama would die out of sheer sadness. However, she had no choice but to tell because her mother suspected something was up.
Guey cried, not Mama. ‘So what?’ was the old woman’s reaction, ‘I know a lot of people even as old as I am who take care of themselves and attend masses like I do. That doesn’t deprive you from living your everyday life. The important thing is you be strong enough to accept it and start taking good care of yourself.’
Having said this to the only daughter she had, Mama Zewditu went straight to Trinity Church and cried out her anger on the Almighty and His angels. A moment later, she went to the Church of St. Mary and did the same. That day Mama Zewditu went to a total of five churches.
‘I didn’t want her to see me like that.’ Mama seemed to regret it. ‘That would make her remorseful. Regret and sorrow would have killed her.’
What Mama Zewditu did was take time to bring herself together and try to comprehend the situation, accept the fact that her daughter was HIV+, and concentrate on what should be done about it all. Having done this, she later went to have a talk with her son-in-law.
‘Look, what matters is that you both need to make peace with yourselves, resolve your issues, and live in harmony like you used to. If everybody taking ART does it, why can’t you?’ She told her son-in-law.
‘I was trying to get their marriage back on track’ Mama Zewditu told me.
Guey’s husband, however, did not take it well. He was furious at his wife for telling her status to her mother. He took out his anger on Guey who was already suffering from poor health.
Like a story in some kind of fiction, Guey’s life reached a turning point. The coughing and the blood-spitting started to get worse. With hardly anything to eat, no one to really care after her except her scared little kids, Guey was determined to fight against all odds. And fight she did until she developed TB.
‘I was really incapable of doing anything at home let alone go out and bring something that I can prepare for my kids. They had nothing to eat. I could not see them starving.’ In no time, Guey became unable to make use of her right hand and legs. To make matters worse, Guey even became powerless to get out of bed. She was suffering in bed day and night. All she remembered doing was wait on her bed for death.
That was when Mama Zewditu said, ‘I’ve had enough! I am taking you with me.’ As long as Mama Zewditu was alive, she was determined to keep her only daughter alive.
Then Mama Zewditu insisted that Guey leave her husband. Mama’s real challenge was not the husband, who really fought hard, for whatever reason, to keep his wife at arm’s reach. It was Guey’s pride that was the problem. Guey felt humiliated to return to the house where neighbors witnessed her getting married to the man she once loved. Since she was going to die soon, she thought moving back would not do any good. Guey vehemently tried to resist her mother’s efforts.
It was only with difficulty that Guey gave in to return home to Edaga Hamus with her two kids, where Mama Zewditu gained the complete responsibility of looking after her sick daughter.
Many people had given up hope and thought that her daughter was about to die. Not Mama Zewditu. Back home, Mama made every possible effort to save her only daughter. From preparing fresh meals to washing her and changing her into clean clothes, Mama did everything at home. She even carried Guey back and forth to the hospital for medical treatment. But by then, Guey had already developed Mutiple Drug Resistant TB (MDR) and needed better treatment.
Thanks to Guey’s brothers, Guey was finally admitted at St. Peter’s Specialized Hospital in Addis Ababa, where she was properly treated for MDR and was able to return home.
Mama was not the only one who helped Guey. Guey’s kids were also part of the effort. Lemlem, Guey’s daughter would usually act like Guey’s elder sister and was always on her side assisting her in medication and hygiene. She would take her for afternoon walks helping her get refreshed.
How did Guey disclose her status to the kids? ‘I was familiar with certain notions concerning HIV/AIDS. I was suspicious when she warned me not to use her brushes and stuff like that,’ told me Lemlem.
Guey took over, ‘I was so careful about that. Mama was too. But I knew sooner or later I had to tell her.’
‘I was…so sad at first but eventually I got used to it. Then I started to be of some help.’ Lemlem Said.
‘She was mature enough to handle the situation. But I didn’t tell my son. Not that I don’t want to but I guess he needs some time before he’s capable of understanding what it is all about.’ Guey explained
Guey was always worried about her kids’ wellbeing. She had always feared that somehow the virus might have been transmitted to them. Sharing Guey’s worries, Mama took both grandkids for HIV test. Both were diagnosed negative, which in turn contributed to Guey’s improved well-being. And that was how Lemlem came to know her HIV status.
‘Sure enough there are times I wished my father was alive, especially in the holidays I would feel as though my family was incomplete. I do blame everything on my father. I was old enough to notice what he used to do. But let bygones be bygones. Now everything is so well; I and my brother are HIV negative, my mother is doing great, and we all have Mama who never tired of loving us all. Without her, I don’t know what would have happened to us.’
An article like this could not possibly give a complete portrayal of Mama Zewditu, who never underestimated what her love could do for her daughter. Words alone cannot express what I felt about the elderly woman. I was overwhelmed with so much respect for the old woman. I just felt like giving Mama a standing ovation. Mama Zewditu was the kind of mother everyone dreams to have. She was the kind of mother who could be every child’s hero.