The last of our rations had run out the night before. My wife, with the little strength she had left, had prepared a soggy mess of maize meal and water that our children had fought over. We braced ourselves for the worst.
No help was forthcoming — news had reached us that the Red Cross trucks carrying relief food had been attacked on the way to us. The rest of the country seemed too caught up in their concerns to care.
The upcoming elections completely overshadowed our starvation, with aspirants trying to outdo each other by promising to bring “visible change” to the country. Our leaders turned a blind eye to our plight, and so we waited to die.
News of the death of our neighbour’s youngest reached us. The wind seemed all too eager to pass messages of grief. Her thin, frail frame made her look far much younger than her eight months. We wanted to walk over to their hut, three kilometres away, to condole with them, but the heat and the dull ache in our bellies would not let us.
We had no more strength to weep, to mourn, to bury. Death was not a stranger anymore. He had come and camped at the door of every hut, waiting for the slightest sign of weakness to swoop in. We had to stay alert, not to slip into the blissful abyss that he dangled before our eyes.
His fever was high now, my son, eight years old and already taller than his peers. He had been bed-ridden for almost three weeks now. His fever would come and go; his temperature spiked and he shook and shivered. Sometimes in his sleep he muttered and let out loud cries.
His two younger sisters had not fallen ill, we thanked God, although they had lost a lot of weight. I watched helplessly as he shivered. We covered him with all the blankets we had, but still he was shaking.
There is a sense of powerlessness that comes from being unable to help your child. You are meant to be the provider, the protector, to know all the answers, and when you tell them that it will be okay, to mean it and make it okay.
But this starvation was a whole new can of worms. I was watching my son suffer, and there was nothing I could do about it.
My wife had resigned herself to the fact that we were all going to die. She alternated between loud sobs and soft whimpers. She was convinced no one cared about us — we were the children of a lesser God. A God whom she cursed as she watched her little ones go to bed every night on empty stomachs.
When she was not mad at God, she was mad at the government. Our local leaders had done little to help, and the central government that should have realised by now that drought in this region was a perennial problem had not implemented long-term measures to fight it. I had given up on remonstrating with her because when I did, I sometimes caught the edge of her anger.
I heard the screams before I figured out what was going on. It must have been a nasty dream or my son having one of his night terrors. As I roused from my sleep, the screams became clear and shriller, and my wife was calling out my name. I opened my eyes and pushed away the blanket. Then I reached for the last burning piece of wood from the hearth and used that to light the hurricane lamp.
My wife was holding our second child to her breast, screaming and cursing at the ancestors, the government, and God. It did not take me long to realise what had happened. She was our gentle child — calm and agreeable. She never caused trouble like her siblings and hardly ever left her mother’s side. In happier times, her mother had and I had joked that when we got old we would have her to take care of us because she would never stray far from home.
She had made the fewest complaints. She happily shared her food with her younger sister and older brother, no matter how little it was. She helped my wife to sponge my son whenever his temperature shot up, and prepare the meagre meals.
We had not seen her death coming. Granted she had lost weight, but she still had a smile on her face.
As I walked over to where my wife was, and took my daughter from her arms; I was awed at how stealthy death was. The pain in my heart made me question how many more children would die before help arrived.