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Today's Story by Tej Rae

"Is it true that in America people don’t die of AIDS anymore?"

Plot A

Lusaka, October 2009.

Shining skin, rubbed with glycerin. Men in poly-something suits, protruding bellies against the tailored inseams; women with shoulders like party balloons in bright chitenge puffed sleeves. If you were important enough to attend this meeting, you’d better show it with your girth. A thin man was a poor man in Zambia.

Issa looked around the conference room at the Lusaka Hotel. Sun against peeling walls, bougainvillea knocking on the windows of the cramped room, the kind of place you held conferences when you were trying to show that you were a budget-minded organization. After holding the last meeting at the Intercontinental, her boss had been duly chastised.

She sighed at the civil service aura of the place and the prospect of getting out of there before lunch. People were still trickling in for a workshop that started at nine. A man in a dark grey suit from Health Wise Partners, a large woman with cork-screw curls from Community Action Zambia. Each place on the long red tables punctuated with a bottle of Manzi. She glanced up at the clock, a bas-relief scene of farm workers pounded into copper, a throwback to the days of Kaunda’s Humanism: copper + farming = Socialist bliss. It was half past ten – Socialism’s true legacy.

Issa stood up to open the window in the stuffy room. Back in her chair, she wondered if Kezzy had woken up yet. She had left Beauty walking with the boys on the way to school and Kezzy still in bed, the air thick with beer vapor as it worked itself out of his veins, his mouth slightly ajar as he slept. Are you up? she texted under the table.

Before eleven, after some of the NGOs had done their presentations, the District Director of Health entered. He walked solidly; his cheeks round from nights of feet up, roasted t-bone and oily chips. He stood behind the table at the front of the room, and, after whispering to his aides, addressed the group.

“Good morning colleagues, distinguished guests. All protocol observed. I apologize for my tardiness but was on official state business. Thank you for inviting me this important initiative on Zero Grazing: How to Reduce Multiple Concurrent Partnerships and stop the spread of HIV and AIDS, hosted by Zambian National AIDS Association for Community Action. I would like to commend our partners, including STRIKE-OUT, Health Wise Partners, and Community Action Zambia for being in attendance today.”

He nodded as he looked around the room, as if to indicate they could officially begin.

“In the early days, 1964, before we knew that there was such a thing as this virus…”

Issa masked the look of dismay on her face, bracing herself for a long speech. Why did a certain breed of government beaurocrat feel he must start every address at the beginning. October 24, 1964, the day the Brits pulled out.

She put the phone on silent and read Kezzy’s reply. Didn’t want to interrupt the dream of last night. She hadn’t realized he could still make her blush. Ha ha, she wrote, I had fun too. There were some nights when he crawled into bed, his hands reaching for her breasts, when she dreaded what was coming. But last night, she was grateful. So many young women at the bars, typing their numbers into his phone, and what he really wanted was her.

She took out a gold pen she had been given when she left her job at Soccer4Life, and opened her notebook, looking as if she was taking notes. Call pool guy. Buy soccer uniform for Godfrey. Interview Anu’s cook.

Poor Anu. The press seemed to get too much joy out of the dissolution of a marriage between a foreigner and a Zambian, the subtext always the same: I told you so. How did the proverb go – about two cows from the same village? She would have to look it up. But not before she got the cook on the phone. She used to work for the Japanese amabassador, and was the only cook she had heard of who know how to make sushi. If Kezzy was at home for dinner more often, she wouldn’t be able to get away with sushi.

She tuned back in when the Minister caught up to the reason for the meeting. “…in the Ministry, we have embraced the concept of Zero Grazing, and are committed to making it a success. I therefore urge all the participants to put in the utmost in ensuring that this session today will yield very good results in our quest to eliminate HIV and AIDS in Zambia. Because AIDS affects us all, not just the poor. We might think that those people did something to deserve it, that they brought it on themselves, but that is the old way of thinking. We in the Ministry of Health do not blame the victims. No. But clearly, because of AIDS we are losing our workforce, which we cannot afford to do. We have lost so many teachers, nurses, builders, office workers already. I tell you, our economy cannot sustain this kind of loss.”

He regarded the half-empty room as if what he was saying was something original. ‘The government pays to train a teacher and they die shortly thereafter.’

The audience wasn’t paying much attention anyway. The people gathered in the room spent so much of their time like this, with the same peers, Power Points, bottles of Manzi, red table cloths, tea breaks with dried milk and Joko tea bags, metal silos of boiling water that leaked onto the carpets when cups were pulled away too fast. If there was a verb for the state of too much collaboration, then it was this, for Issa’s peers spent a good part of every month planning for meetings, approving plans for meetings, resolving to make better plans, and when they couldn’t stand thinking about the plan any longer, sitting through the long hours of what they’d planned. After all, they were fighting the same battle.

After a tea break, it was Issa’s turn. She started by getting everyone to stand, reach up and stretch down, and of course there were giggles and amused glances, but most of all, she wanted her audience awake. It was a role she enjoyed and frequented often, explaining Zambian culture to Zambians, breastfeeding to other mothers, alcoholism to Kezzy. With her shiny long hair and form-hugging skirt, she looked the men in the eye as she outlined the real reason for the high rate of AIDS in Zambia: Plot A and Plot B.

She paused to make sure she had the Minister’s attention. ‘Plot A: the wife and husband live in the big house.’ On chart paper, she drew a box house, and four stick figures. ‘Mother. Father. Sister. Brother. They eat nshima together every night, the mother serves the father on her knees, the daughter washes plates afterwards while the brother and father relax. Just like at my house,’ she smiled to indicate she was just kidding. The Minister looked her up and down, approvingly.

Off to the side, Issa drew a smaller box. ‘This is the other house, Plot B. The mistress, the girlfriend – eventually, kids will appear there, too.’ She drew babies, round circles for bodies, stick arms. While her picture of the big house was a box with a triangle on top, the smaller house had no roof, as everyone understood it to be a compound house, make of rough cinderblock with a sheet of tin for a roof. ‘The husband from Plot A visits Plot B. Everyday in the beginning, then maybe once a week.’ She could deliver this talk without a crack, knowing the audience assumed that such indignities did not happen to women like her.

“As risky as this is, a closed system of three – wife, husband, and girlfriend – does not pose a real problem, as long as it stays closed. But as with anything else, it comes down to kwacha. Plot B can’t survive on the small money the husband gives her.” She drew a dollar sign next to the smaller house. “Where is she going to get it?” Though the answer was obvious, no one raised their hand. “You know, right? If she doesn’t have a job, she’s going to get it from other men. And now she finds herself in a predicament, because she has to convince each boyfriend that that he is the only one by having ‘live’ sex with him. To ask any of her men to wear a condom would be to admit that she has more than one lover.”

The Minister was distracted, talking to his aid. Pour billions into the country for AIDS education, hold meetings and trainings, roll out free ARVs in every clinic and hospital, but by all means, don’t interfere with the way I live. While Zambian men joked about Plot A and Plot B at bars, it wasn’t something one spoke about in such formal venues as the Long Acres Lodge.

“So the woman in Plot B, out of economic necessity, is the most vulnerable to AIDS. She passes it to the husband, who passes it to his wife, who could pass it onto her unborn children in utero or through breastfeeding. And of course, there’s nothing stopping the Plot A wife, who might suspect the husband, from having her own boyfriends, drawing even more people into the network.” Kezzy couldn’t help it if he was charming; that’s what made him irresistible to her when they first met. The problem was, and she wouldn’t say this in her presentation, but it was true that the women in this country were unusually aggressive, the way they stuffed numbers into his pockets when he wasn’t paying attention.

After fifteen minutes, she paused to take questions. “Yes, the man in the dark grey suit?”

“Why aren’t people dying of this in the West? Is it true that in America people don’t die of AIDS anymore?”

She was prepared for this – that no one would want to talk about Plot A and Plot B, that they would divert and deflect.

“A commonly asked question. There are many answers, but it has to do with the medical infrastructure in America. The question for today is not, will someone in American live a full and happy life, but will you?”

The Minister shifted in his chair, indicating he was taking the floor. “When we talk about Zero Grazing in this country, we are talking about the sanctity of the Zambian family. In government, we like to say that the future for us Zambians lies in the family. The wife, the husband, the children. This is how we are building our future.”

The wife, the husband, the children. Last weekend, when she was tucking Godfrey into bed, he told her that it was the best day of his life, because his Papa had taken him out on his bicycle. This was not how she had imagined married life in her 20s, that a harmonious, family-oriented, un-hungover Sunday would be such an anomalie. In her Bethesda days, her future looked like a logical continuation of her graduate student life. There would be a house in the city, a brownstone in an edgy part of town, filled with books. A bicycle in the hallway that her husband would ride to his office, because he was environmentally aware, not because he totaled the car. In retrospect, she had to admit that the few boyfriends she’d had that might fit that mold didn’t stay around very long, and when they left, they threw words like needy at her. She had been a bit more distinguished in this future vision of herself, the kind of woman who wore her hair in a twist. Maybe what she had really been imagining, in her twenties, was the married life of another woman entirely.

She rose to speak. “Then we are in agreement, your Honor, because that family is exactly what I am describing, and also what Zero Grazing encourages. One man, one woman.”

He nodded, but she wasn’t quite done. “It would be good, better – she looked around the room to invite others to joing the discussion – if all families were like that, but the divorce rate in Lusaka is almost 50%, unheard of in the previous generation. In many families it is the wife who is out all day working, the children look after themselves or are cared for by a young cousin, and the father is absent. That is why we at ZNACAA are trying to raise awareness about the realities of an urbanized population. We can’t fix the problem until we acknowledge it.” She stood rigid in her spot in front of the conference room, addressing the Minister.

His disinterested gaze maintained his air of authority, unmoved by another muzungu who wanted to tell him how to live. “I think we can all agree it is not government’s job to interfere within the province of the family. What goes on in a private home, that is not our domain.”

There was a murmur of agreement passed around the room. When she had brought her concerns to Kezzy’s mother, listed all her grievances – drinking, joblessness, other women – his mom stared at her blankly. “And, what’s the problem?” she had asked, with genuine wonder.

Issa emitted a puff of frustration. “Sir, if I may. Sex is sex,” she leveled. “Rich or poor, Christian or Muslim, white or black, sex is sex. That will always be the case. But the way it is happening here cannot continue. That is what the honorable Minsiter meant by Zero Grazing when he introduced it to us.”

The other NGO workers eyed each other, wondering who was going to speak up. The woman with the corkscrew curls opened her mouth, and closed it. Issa looked at her, wishing she would find a way to back her up and quell the discontent in the room.

“Honorable Minister,” corkscrews spoke up. “Us Zambians, we are not like those whites. We have our ways of marriage. We have our traditions,” she smiled, her coils shaking as she straightened her shoulders. “I believe what the Madame is saying,” she hesitated, “is that we have to notice what IS going on in the Zambian home. Is it not enough to say that families should carry on the way they have always done, no. What we have always done is changing, and what we are doing now is killing us.”

Issa was grateful for the intervention, but it wasn’t enough. She needed to convince the Minister because of the way people forgave Kezzy for everything. His parents forgave him in one breath. His friends forgave him for his charm. His children forgave him for not coming home for dinner. Someone in this room needed to be held accountable.

“How many in this room know someone who has died of AIDS this year? Whatever we’ve been doing for the past 20 years hasn’t done much to reduce the prevalence. And it’s not for lack of trying. So maybe today we think about Plot A and Plot B. And maybe tomorrow we will think about how many beers we drink. And maybe after many, many days, we won’t be sitting in a room remembering all our friends who have passed away.” Or got away, like Anu.

This was not how it was supposed to go. The meeting was about Power Points and policies that had worked in neighboring countries. It wasn’t supposed to be about real deaths of people you knew and real mistresses turning tricks for extra cash.

The Minister pushed his chair back and stood. “There is a difference between those-y policies that focus on social services, and those-y that focus on the individual Zambian,” he reminded the group, obstinately He looked at corkscrews, then at Issa. “Are you not trying to undermine the policies we are here to discuss today? It is important to emphasize the link between what the government is offering and what can be done further afield. There are some issues that have been left hanging in the balance…” and here he trailed off, “which should be the topic of future discussions amon-ungst those who are most impacted.”

By eleven-thirty the sun was blazing into the open windows as she took out a spreadsheet and sat herself behind the table to give out the ‘sitting allowance’. The line formed while she flipped the page on her chart and took out a brick of kwacha, rubber banded in small denominations. She checked names off the list, a familiar feeling of defeat blowing through the window she had opened with true optimism earlier. She could not reason with the Minister if he was going to give such circular speeches, leading nowhere; and she could not reason with Kezzy when he acted as if each day erased the one that came before.


An American English teacher who lived in Zambia from 1999 – 2010, Tej Rae’s publishing credits include BBC Focus on Africa magazine, The Washington Post Sunday Magazine, and Mr. Beller’s Neighborhood.


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