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Ignorance is bliss, Maiya always said. My reply, too, was unchanging. I would agree with her, let my brow pucker into an irate frown, and wrap my arm around her shoulders protectively.
We spent thirteen years with rose-coloured glasses over our eyes, a shade of naivety barricading our minds from the harsh reality of our world. And up until only recently did I truly believe those years were blissful.
If Maiya were here to say it again – ignorance is bliss, Taleh – my response would be different.
“That’s the coward’s way out, Mai,” I’d whisper. “The coward’s way out.”
We were thirteen years old when the hints started dropping. They were probably there the whole time, but the hungry spark of curiosity ignited in adolescence and increased quality of education didn’t weigh in till that time.
To us, we’d had the charmed life, and we were as normal as they got. It’s funny how children can’t recognise devastation when it surrounds them.
As soon as we were old enough, we began working for our families; making our contribution to provide for those we loved – just like everyone else. My brothers, friends – all the men – and I were the hunters, myself being one of the best amongst the youngest, or at least according to Tana, an influential male in our community.
The issue of a deficient amount of food, water, and shelter wasn’t disregarded just because we were children. It was just taken in stride. Life is simple when you are a six-year-old boy. You worked, you provided, you brought happiness to your family. If you didn’t provide, you hadn’t worked hard enough. It was black and white and subsequently, very easy for me to carry this philosophy through the years that followed.
The shades of grey weren’t unveiled until we saw what we were missing out on. When a neighbouring community was selected to receive charity work, my family and friends watched, marking progress in its development and our growing understanding of what was going on.
My best friend, Maiya, and I were fourteen at the time, and even though we considered ourselves old, mature, and all knowing, we couldn’t really grasp what was happening.
Their lives flourished into colour right before our eyes; long gone were the earthy hues of malnourishment, dehydration, and an environment impoverished in every way possible.
It was the small things at first. The way they dressed, the little bit less work they did. Their numbers slowly grew, and so did the smiles – children were smiling everywhere you went, but it was much more of a rarity to see the elders alight in contentment.
It evoked incomparable emotions in me. I wanted it for my brothers and sisters, for my mother and father, my grandmother. I didn’t mind if I didn’t have it, I just knew that I would if they didn’t. Impoverished or not, villagers were easygoing people, making it unusual for one to be inundated in a roar of passionate emotions. I’d never felt so fiercely protective.
I was relieved of these overwhelming emotions until one hot summer’s day. Two of my younger brothers and I were playing in the dirt, dust floating unhealthily in the air around our heads. The harsh sunlight generously poured its rays onto us; my grandmother kept her squinting eyes trained on the kids, struggling against the glare.
Mata, the youngest child in my family at five, hurled a rock into the air in a reasonably impressive overarm throw. My other brother, aged in the middle, and I watched it soar through the air to crash onto the plane of dirt metres in front of us. At the nod of Mata’s head, signifying my turn, I squatted down and reached to curl my fingers around a rock.
“Taleh!” my little sister intercepted.
I whipped my head around. “Laki?”
“Come, come! It’s Maiya!” She bounced on her heels, exuding utter impatience.
I frowned, then without a second thought, broke into a sprint, moving past Laki before she could register that I was even heading towards her.
Underneath a bed of sticks disguised as a roof, my Maiya sat, curled up into a ball, between my mother and her mother. It was strange, seeing Maiya so small and fragile – so pained. I crouched down, outstretching my arm to her. “Mai?”
Maiya’s mother, Keeri, smacked my hand away before I could make contact. My eyes snapped to her expectantly, mouth parted slightly as the shock lit up my face.
“Don’t touch her,” she said curtly, before turning back to Maiya.
“She’s dying, Taleh!” Laki shouted without regard.
The two mothers flicked their gazes to her, shunning my sister with callous frowns. She took the hint and spun on her heel to trot away. I did not know what hit me.
The days after were long and torturous, a blur of soothing murmurs given and blood curdling screams received in return. She was stricken with extreme pain, spluttering and coughing blood frequently, and her skin had lost its magnificent glow. Diseases like this weren’t unheard of – we lost people often – but somehow, this was different.
I never left Maiya’s side, despite how agonising it was and the constant rousing from our parents to stay away for my own good.
Four days later, Maiya died.
Keeri said she went peacefully considering. I’ve always taken solace in that thought.
The months that followed were not dissimilar to the months that followed any deaths before. Everyone around me moved on. They kept working.
For some reason, I couldn’t.
I ate less; a dull ache encompassing my abdomen became normality, as did the solemn look painted across my face. It truly befuddled me the way smiling began to feel irregular. Why? I’d say to myself. Why? as I tried to force the corners of my mouth to turn upwards.
Just preceding my seventeenth birthday, a group of light-skinned men and women visited our village, saying they were “from an organisation called World Vision, who would help us onto our feet”. These Americans said it would be a lengthy process and that they were working with other communities, too, so we would see progress one step at a time. It didn’t take long for me to make the connection between the new situation blessed unto us and that blessed unto the neighbouring community three years previous.
Maiya’s face was still etched into my mind’s eye, despite the number of years that had passed. The full lips, the dark skin, incessantly radiant, and the kind, innocent eyes – they were never far from my thoughts. Why wasn’t she here to live this with me? Why did her life have to end before she could see the rich green of the trees around us, or the carefully woven shoes now covering our feet?
The colour of my clothes brightened, but my thoughts didn’t. The water quenching my desperate thirst day after day became clearer, but the answers I sought didn’t. The world around me was coming to life, yet I remained dead inside. Why?
It’s been two years since the charity approached my village. I blamed myself for letting Maiya go, and staying here without my best friend. I’d blame the gods above for their cruel plague, if my constant disappointment hadn’t rid any divine belief I’d beared.
And here I am – rough, calloused hands evidence of my workmanship, something I’d spent years pouring love into, while others took it for granted.
I’ve let myself fill to the brim with resentment, frustration, and cynicism, and to make all of that even worse, I was deeply ashamed of myself for feeling those emotions. I should be thankful, not angry.
I lie now under the black expanse of night peppered with gleaming stars winking down at me. I glare back at the sky, just daring it to fade into the cool colours of morning.
Nothing said I had to keep this grudge in the tight grip of my fingers forever.
Sick of the eerie, uncomfortable feeling constantly swirling in the pit of my stomach, I decide it’s time to let go. I close my eyes, and calmly, I inhale a slow breath through my nose, feeling it wash through my body. As I gently ease my eyes open again, I feel it. The weight rising off my shoulders.
Maiya was wrong. Ignorance wasn’t bliss. Forgiveness was.