In February of 2022, we released our first Open Call: How might we recreate public health as art, letters, stories, and poetry? The following is a story submission we received from this open call.
“My story submission is aimed at debunking the belief that diseases (especially epidemics) are results of some punishment from supernatural beings or curses. It throws light on the common symptoms of Cholera in order to make it recognizable to the public and thus equip them with the knowledge to take the right decisions. In addition, the story exposes the common mode by which the disease is transmitted especially in rural communities where the sources of water are often untreated, and are consumed by every household in the vicinity. Furthermore, the story also provides pointers on what to do when an epidemic is suspected in a community in general.”
The women wailed at the door to the throne room at the top of their voices, they were unconsolable. Traditionally it was a taboo for anyone other than royal blood to raise their voice in the throne room but the king could not fault them. This particular household had already lost four of its members in the last month and this month two more were sick.
The affliction had began about three months ago and so many households had already lost their loved ones to it. In addition, the symptoms were horrible: after a few days of high fever, stomach pains and vomiting, the people began stooling excessively. Every victim looked like a shell of himself after a few days, their skin taking a sickly pallor that often foreshadowed their demise. The king could understand the pain these women felt after watching their loved ones die such a cruel death after prolonged suffering.
“It is a curse from the ancestral fathers, for deviating from their ways,”said the dibia, drawing the king’s mind back into the meeting he was currently holding with the chiefs.
“We must perform the traditional rites to appease them before more people die,”he continued.
“This isn’t a curse!”countered the crowned prince Obi shaking his head, his voice soaked in disbelief. “If it was a curse, why haven’t you removed the curse from any of the victims yet?”
“You mock me?” asked the dibia his voice filling with rage,“my family have been communing with the ancestors for hundreds of years! You would do well to listen to your elders and stay out of matters you do not understand boy!”
The chiefs seated around the throne room shifted uncomfortably. The head of Ofomata family has always been the dibia since the kingdom was created thousands of years ago and no one dared anger any of them for fear of angering the ancestral fathers, and the only family which held even greater reverence was the royal family. Hence the chiefs did not know how to approach the confrontation between the two.
“I mean no disrespect, however this is no curse” said prince Obi firmly “we must quarantine all those who have been in contact with the disease and alert the government, their specialists-“
“It is attitude like this that have angered our fathers”, shrieked Ofomata, “you shall lead this kingdom to ruin!”
“You must let go of your ignorance-“
“Enough!” said the king. “Both of you!”
They abruptly kept quiet and a wave of relief washed through the chiefs.
“Leave me” said the king “I need to ponder on what must be done.”
“Remember what your father would have done, igwe, a man must never forget his ancestors” said Ofomata before turning to leave with the chiefs.
After the chiefs had departed, there was a tense silence between the prince and the king.
“I do not remember raising you to be disrespectful” said the king cutting him off.
“I apologize” said the prince “but father you must inform the government if we’re to save our people.”
“The dibia believes it to be a curse and certainly so do the chiefs” said the kings “that is also what the entire kingdom will believe it to be.”
“I did not spend years studying abroad only to come back and watch my people die” said the prince exasperated, “This curse is nothing more than a disease that’s fast becoming an epidemic, if we don’t act fast, more people will die.”
The king stayed silent. The prince could very well be right, but his western education had no place in their tradition. His father would have wasted no time in demanding that the dibia began the rites of cleansing.
“I hope you do the right thing father” said the prince turning to leave the throne room.
“The right thing,” mused the king staring at the door which the prince had just shut behind him. “but what is the right thing?”
The next day, the king sent for Ofomata and requested that he begin the rites for the cleansing of the land.
“I am happy you have come to your senses” said Ofomata throwing a smug look at the prince “I would need 40 black cows, 30 white cows, 16 horses, 25 Chickens, 25-”
“Before you complete the list” said the king cutting him off “you must heal one of the victims of this affliction and after you have done that, we shall provide the necessary items for the cleansing”
The dibia was taken aback, he had never tried healing anyone with this affliction, but he knew the ancestors would never fail him.
“As you wish my igwe” he said,“but testing the fathers would mean I would need a bigger sacrifice to appease them when the time comes.”
“And it shall be provided” said the king,“my good friend chief Nnabueze has been struck with this affliction, cure him and present him to me in two market days.”
“My igwe! As you have wished it, so shall it be done” said Ofomata as he took his leave.
On the day of the presentation the king summoned all his chiefs to palace. They all gathered waiting for Ofomata to present them with a hale and hearty Chief Nnabueze. Noon came and there were no signs of him, another two hours passed and he was still nowhere to be found. The king lost his patience and summoned two guards to go and bring the dibia to the throne room.
In a few minutes they escorted a timid looking Ofomata into the throne room.
“Why have you kept me and my chiefs waiting?” demanded the king.
“My igwe, l-I am very sorry for my actions” he said trembling.
“Very well we shall discuss your punishment later” replied the king “where is chief Nnabueze?”
“My igwe…long may you live-“
“Thank you but where is the Chief?”
At that moment, a middle aged woman burst into the throne room and lay down in the middle of the throne room wailing.
The king recognized her, she was Ada, the wife of Chief Nnabueze.
“He has killed my husband!” She shrieked in tears,“Ofomata has killed my husband”
“Ofomata, what has happened to the Chief?” demanded the king in anger.
The dibia fell silent, his eyes cast down to the ground. He had no way of explaining what had gone wrong as he did not even understand it himself.
“Take him away” said the king his voice filled with disgust.
As he was being dragged away, Ofomata begged for his life to be spared, for tradition demanded that he who takes the life of a man must lose his. As he struggled, he could see the prince leading a group of men and women dressed in white clothing into the throne room.
“Please my okpara eze, help me” he cried but his pleas fell on deaf ears. The prince paid him no mind sparing him nothing more than a glance.
“Father” said the prince after Ofomata had been taken far enough that his pleas could no longer be heard, “Here are the epidemiologists, they have identified the disease and the government has promised that appropriate care would be provided by today”
“Thank you my son” said the king “it was your wise counsel that led me to inform the government two days ago instead of relying solely on the greedy Ofomata.”
Turning to the chief epidemiologist he asked, “please what disease is it that has been plaguing my people?”
“The disease is Cholera, it spread due to drinking infected water from the local stream” the man replied.
“I advice that only treated water be drunk by the people from today and anyone who has been infected or has had any contact with those infected should come to the clinic we’ve set up at the edge of town.”
The king rose and said to his chiefs “you have all heard him, go and inform the people . Every one is to cooperate with the specialists sent by our government.”
“Igwe!”They said bowing in unison.
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