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Dying in silence: A story on tuberculosis

Dr. Akin-Onitolo A.

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My birthday was four days away and I was very excited. Brother Tiwa had promised me a gift because I was going to be ten years old. I was going to be a big girl. I wanted a bicycle so bad that I dreamt about it every night. If I got one, going to school would be so much easier. And I would no longer have to beg that mean boy for a ride.
I tried to finish my maths homework with the fading sunlight. It was too dark to see clearly inside our room. I watched the neighbours’ children running around in underwear, their necks and faces powdered up against the heat. They were rolling bucket covers attached to a piece of wood like it was a bicycle wheel. I was not allowed to play with them. If mother even found me watching like I was, biro in my mouth, she would have slapped the back of my head.
There’s another reason I was sitting outside. I was tired of listening to grandpa’s continual cough. His cough medicine was not working well enough. He needed to go to the hospital but mother said there was no money. So I sat outside as long as I could.
“What are you doing here?”
It was brother Tiwa’s voice. I ran up to meet him. There were two bags in his hands so I helped him with one. He had a very wide smile on his face.
“Haven’t you finished your homework?”
“One more page,” I told him.
“What subject?”
“Maths.”
He burst into laughter. Everyone knew how much I hate maths. It was the one subject that gave me Ds and Es at the end of the term.
“Hello everyone.”
He greeted when we got into our room. He patted my other brother’s head. I have two brothers and four sisters and we shared two rooms with our parents, grandpa and two cousins.
“I bought a phone today,” brother Tiwa announced.
We gathered excitedly around him. Out of one bag came a small orange box. The phone was a huge screen, bright enough to light up the whole room. Grandpa sat in his usual corner by the window, his face like a ghost’s. He looked worse than he did the day before. I could count his ribs straining through his skin; he wore only a wrapper around his waist.
There were plenty games on brother Tiwa’s phone. He let me play some of them while he changed his clothes in the other room and left. Everyone watched me flip objects in Candy crush which I learnt to play from my seat partner, Muna who always sneaked her phone into school. Even mother watched briefly before she left to complete her washing.
I held the large screen in both hands and swiped up, down, sideways. Mother soon came in hissing and mumbling that it was going to rain. She was already annoyed that she had to wait for the neighbour’s washing to dry, and then knock on their doors announcing, “Your clothes are dry. Should I pack them for you?” The rain made it worse.
Our room had gone dark. It was not as hot as usual because of the cool breeze coming in. I loved such nights except for when the rain was heavy enough to flood our house. On such days, we fetched water from off the carpet – back-breaking work.
The rain tested the roofs first in a slight patter. That was when I remembered my books. I dropped the new phone and rushed out. My textbook and note were already wet. I put them by the window, hoping they would dry before morning and rushed back to my game.
The phone slipped from my wet hands to the floor. Even grandpa sat up in surprise, his cough rising a notch higher. My heart stopped and my hands trembled as I reached down to pick it up. When I eventually turned it on, the screen lighted up in patches. What was I going to tell brother Tiwa?
Tears started down my face. My head was burning. I could say goodbye to my bicycle. Mother broke the silence.
“Stupid girl! Can’t you hold a phone? You know your brother will kill you. I don’t know why you’re always shaking, always dropping everything.”
That was not true but I dared not disagree. The only one time I dropped something before was when I broke her China plates on my fifth birthday. I held the broken phone to my chest. I wanted to bite myself. How could I have been so careless?
I must have sat there for a while. Then I heard his voice in the corridor and fell out of my seat. What was I going to do?
I hurriedly packed it back into its box. Grandpa watched me in silence, he rarely spoke. He only broke the silence at intervals with his hacking cough and spat the phlegm out through the window.
My throat itched a little. My hands felt numb. I packed my schoolbag for the next day like nothing just happened. I was doing the zip when he entered the room.
“Feyi, you have finished the game?”
“No, sir,” I replied. My voice swayed a little.
“Where is it? I want to show it to Jude.” He was already checking the nylon bag for it so I stayed quiet. And waited.
He hurried out. I heaved a sigh of relief. Maybe he did not care that it was broken, I told myself. Or was there another phone in the bag? Didn’t he see it? He would soon see it. Maybe I should pretend to be asleep.
I quickly laid the mat I shared with my siblings and took my position. The itch in my throat had worsened. I felt a little chilly. My wrapper was in the basket near the door but I risked losing my façade if I got up. So I lay quietly and counted my breaths. One, two, three, four…
“Feyi!!!”
Despite my anticipation, it caught me by surprise. I heard his angry footsteps in the corridor and wished the ground would eat me up. I had to stay quiet, pretend I was fast asleep. But no, I couldn’t. As soon as he opened the door, he was welcomed with my own version of grandpa’s hacking cough….

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Dr. Akin-onitolo A. is a graduate of the University of Lagos whose mission is to achieve the sustainable development goals (SDGs) using health promotion and improved health literacy. She is an MDCN (Medical and Dental Council of Nigeria) certified doctor who had her elective at King's College London. Hugely interested in travel, meeting people and generally being creative, reading and writing fiction are a few hobbies you could find her engaged in during her spare time. Catch up with her on Twitter @Akinonitolo and Instagram @t_onitolo