I was only five years old, but I knew something was very wrong. For the previous few days, I had noticed changes in my father. He had started losing weight, his face was terribly ugly, he fell over without warning.
One day, I came back from school and my dad was in bed. He wouldn’t talk to anyone about anything, and even when he tried, his dry lips wouldn’t let him.
The two of us stayed alone in a small, blue room with paint that was fading little by little – my mother floated in and out, but was often gone for a long time.
After my father got sick, I started doing the dishes, even though they were very hard to wash for a five-year-old. And each time he would tell me that he loved me. Every day when I came back from school, I would find him in the same place – coughing and smoking in bed.
One morning at school, my teacher asked to talk to me outside.
“Who do you live with?”
“My dad,” I answered.
She looked at me with serious eyes and she bit her lower lip.
“Basetsane,” she said, “for these past two weeks, you look dirty and untidy. Does your father wash your uniform?”
I looked at my grey shirt.
“No, he doesn’t, he just sits on his bed all day and I am too young to wash.”
“And who cooks?”
“We eat takeaways,” I smiled.
“I’d like to talk to your dad. Ask him to come to the school.”
I got home and told my dad what my teacher said, but he didn’t respond. Soon, he grew weaker and stopped eating much of anything.
A few days later, my grandmother came to visit. I pulled on her long black and white skirt, and hugged her tight. She looked straight past me to my dad, who, by then, looked like a zombie to me.
My grandmother sat beside him and brushed his cheek with her hands.
“Why didn’t you tell me you were this sick?” she asked him.
As usual, my dad didn’t answer. He just licked his extremely dry lips.
My granny took out her phone from her bag and dialled a number. After that, there was complete silence in the room – no one knew what to say, and my granny looked at me with pity.
The ambulance people came and my granny just pointed at my dad, her big hands shaking. They picked my dad up and laid him on a stretcher bed. As they got outside, everyone from our neighbourhood looked at us. My dad was put into the ambulance and off he went.
My gran took out clean clothes for me. I changed and took a few things with me, including my Barbie Girl bag.
“Granny, where are we going?” I asked as we got into our third taxi.
“You, my baby girl, are going to live with me in Soweto.”
That’s the most famous township ever, I thought. We got out of the taxi and started to walk and there was her house, with green grass outside and the fence covered in flowers. There was a small wooden house inside the yard. I asked her: “Granny, who lives there?”
“Handsome,” she said. That was her dog’s name, but he had died.
She opened the door, and I froze in awe. The walls were painted peach. I looked at the microwave, floor, plate stove, white tiles, black leather sofas. Here, it seemed, was everything in the world that my father didn’t have.
“This is your room from now on, and I’ll paint it pink,” my granny said.
Why did adults think that when you are a girl and young, you love pink?
“No, I’d like to paint it purple, please,” I said.
“Purple, oh okay. Are you hungry?”
We watched TV and ate until it was dark, and I changed into my pyjamas and went to my own room. I liked the sound of that, “my own room”.
But that first night, out of nowhere, I woke up feeling scared. I felt the right side of my bed and realised my father wasn’t with me. I opened my door and hit something with my foot because it was dark.
“What’s wrong?” my grandmother said as she switched on the light.
She said that I cried from the pain that was demanding to be felt. She picked me up and I rested my head on her big chest.
“I can’t sleep alone,” I said as we got into her room, which had a big mirror on the wall and I saw my eyes in its reflection.
She tucked me in bed. As she slept beside me, I started to slowly close my eyes.
In the morning, I heard my grandmother’s phone ring and, as she talked, her face changed into something unknown. She sat down and then she put her phone down. I could see her mind was not okay, her mind was somewhere else.
“Granny, what is HIV?”
“HIV?! Where?…?where did you hear that?”
“Just now, I heard you talking on the phone, saying dad has HIV.”
“Well, listen here, my dear, you are too young to understand. Your dad will explain everything when you are grown up. It’s something that has been making your dad sick, but he is going to be okay because he is in hospital.”
“When will we visit him?” I asked.
“You can’t visit him, you are too young, but your mother is with him right now, and after that she will come and see you.”
I just nodded and bowed my head.
“Come and give your granny a hug.”
I did that and she hugged me tight.
Eleven years have passed since that day, and I now understand what HIV is. I truly smile when I hear my peers saying that they want to become doctors so that they can find a cure for HIV.
But I also understand that this disease does not have to kill you. My father has survived. With the right medication and by eating healthy food, he has beaten it all. DM
Basetsane Kaunda, 16, is a Grade 10 pupil at Alasang High School in Katlehong. She wrote this story as part of a creative writing class sponsored by the Katlehong Local Aids Council. For more information or to support the council’s work, contact Papi Thetele on [email protected].
Follow the Katlehong stories on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram @Katlehongstories