“I want to go back home!”
Five-year-old Olivia Sichilima cried her heart out while her two cousins, fifteen-year-old Chris and thirteen-year-old Nancy held her down. It had only been two weeks since she started living with them but it already felt like two unending gruesome years.
“Hold her still!” Aunt Hilda thundered before slapping Olivia across her face, sending her straight to the floor sobbing.
“Lock her up in the pantry before she gets the neighbors talking.” Aunt Hilda instructed her two children.
The two dragged the now semi-conscious Olivia to the pantry across the hallway.
“Why did you even bring her here if you hate her so much?” Nancy asked her mother when she joined her mother in the kitchen again.
“I didn’t have a choice,” her mother growled. “I am the only relative she has. I was Gavin’s only sibling and yet he left me to suffer while he enjoyed the high life with his wife. Now they’ve left me with this burden child.”
“If her parents were rich, doesn’t that mean she’s rich too?” Nancy asked.
“No, she’s not. But I am!” Hilda thundered. “Gavin owed me for neglecting me. I also deserve to be paid for taking care of his daughter. It’s no joke raising a child.“
So does that mean we are rich now Ma?” Chris had joined them.
“Of course my children we are now rich and we’ve earned it.” Hilda said. “Whoever said this widow was going to live in poverty forever huh?”
“Mum, if she is our cousin, why does she use a different name from yours? Isn’t your maiden name Nachilima? Then why is she Olivia Sichilima?”
“According to the Mambwe and Namwanga tradition, all male children use the masculine form of the name which usually starts with Si and the female children have to use the feminine form Na. Because your cousin was born in Australia, her father didn’t want to complicate things for her so they used the masculine form Sichilima on her birth certificate.”
“So will she need to change her name now that she’s living with us?” Nancy asked.
“For what?” Hilda said. “Is she going to die just because a few letters of her name do not confine to tradition?”
When dinner was finally ready, Chris turned dancing eyes towards his mother.
“What is it?” Hilda asked, no longer able to ignore her son’s persistence.
“Should I tell her to come join us?” Chris motioned his head towards the pantry.
“If she’s not yet dead,” Hilda grumbled.
“Mum!” Nancy hollered.
“What?” Hilda said in response to her daughter’s reprobative look. “She is the weakest child I have ever seen.” She said. “…busy feeding an African child white people’s food.”
Chris got up quickly to check on his cousin. An hour had passed and no sound had come from her. This was the first time she had given up fighting so early. She usually cried and kicked in protest for hours before giving up or crying herself to sleep.
I sure hope she’s alive in there. Chris said to himself as he neared the pantry.
“Mum!” Chris shrieked from the pantry. “Mum, hurry come!”
Both mother and daughter rushed to the pantry.
“She’s not breathing, check.” Chris was shaking Olivia trying to wake her up.
“Move away.” Hilda pushed him to the side to check her pulse. She lifted her up from the cold floor and carried her outside. “She is not going to die on me and have people accuse me of murder. Bring my car keys from the bedroom, hurry!”
“Is she going to be okay doctor?” Hilda asked when the doctor called her to his office.
“Your child is malnourished, severely.” The doctor said. “When was the last time you fed her anything?”
“First of all she’s not my child, she’s my niece,” Hilda said. “Her parents died three weeks ago and I was kind enough to take her in. She just keeps crying day in and day out? This isn’t my fault.”
“I’m not accusing you of anything, yet.” The doctor said.
“I can see the look in your eyes, the judgment.”
“That’s got more to do with your conscious than anything I said, ma’am.” The doctor fired back. “I called you in here to talk about the health of the child I presume is under your custodianship right?”
“I hope you are aware that as her attending physician, I am mandated by law to report any concern of child abuse or neglect.”
“Child abuse?” Hilda scoffed.
“The child has four full blazing finger imprints on her right cheek, She also looks like she has not eaten anything in weeks. As her guardian, you are responsible for her health and well-being. There is an obvious case of neglect here and its cause for alarm.”
“I don’t think there is any need for you involve anyone here doc.” Hilda tried to warm herself to the stoic doctor. “It’s my first time raising a child with a whole different background and culture than am used to so you must understand me. I am still trying to adjust…and so is the child.”
“I am still going to file a report but only to ensure that that child does not end up here or any other hospital…or worse, a morgue before her time. If you are unable to look after the child, it’s best to hand her over to social services and they will find a home to place her. At least the kids in these orphanages are not as malnourished or underweight as her.”
Olivia was left at the hospital for observation for a week. Nothing much had changed when she was brought back home. The only thing that seemed to have changed was that unlike before when she would refuse to eat and they would all leave her alone, this time around, Nancy and Chris were instructed to shove the food down her throat wily-nilly. Exhausted from being force-fed like a slave, Olivia resorted to quietly having her meals with the rest of the family without protest. She neither spoke nor cried since her return home from the hospital.
When Olivia was not cleaning or doing some chore under her aunt’s instruction, she and her dolls were safely tucked away in her room under the bed where no one would find them. She had found the one place in her strange new environment where she felt comfortable being herself. It was the only time and place she could speak her mind without fear. She shared her dreams, her fantasies, and all her wishes to the dolls that her parents had left her. They were the only tangible things she had left of their memory. She shared her dreams, hopes, fears, and anger with her three pink dolls.
And as the years went by, the dolls would speak right back to her.
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