It was the last day of the conference. The atmosphere fit the picture. Folks had started putting their belongings together, ahead of departure the next day. Uche looked around and saw his roommates were happy, exchanging numbers and promising to be in touch. He felt like hiding in a hole. He had lost it all. He had no friend anymore.
The conference had started so well for him on the first day when he met Fatima. She had brought newness to his life and she had introduced him to Christ. All that had been spoilt a few days back when she refused to date him. In his despondent state, he had met Christiana and thought he would feel accepted again, only to be rejected all over again.
Uche sighed. He remembered the words of Fatima as she acted her one-man drama the previous night. It was like God was calling to him to come back home. He had sat where no one would see him, so he was sure Fatima didn’t see him throughout her drama. He had shed tears when she acted.
Even as he remembered, the tears threatened to come again but he wouldn’t allow them. He wanted to go back to God; he really wanted to come back home but the shame he felt was killing. He wondered how his friends would look at him. Worse, he couldn’t think of a way he would tell Fatima what he had done with Christiana. He had really messed up bad and he wondered if he would ever get his life together again.
He looked round again. No one was coming to him to get his number. While friends with Fatima and the rest, his room mates had found him a pleasant guy but the moment he became friends with Christiana, they had withdrawn from him; he hadn’t even had time for them either; he had been so pre-occupied with her. Now, he wished he hadn’t been so stupid.
Looking back at the day Fatima refused to date him, he began to see why she had done so. They obviously were not mature enough both spiritually and emotionally to get involved in a relationship. She had seen what he hadn’t. ‘No wonder I fell so easy for Christiana’s charms. I’m still so naïve.’ He thought and slapped himself across the face. ‘You were a big fool, Uche’, he said to himself.
If what Fatima said during the play was anything to hold on to, then there was hope for him. He didn’t know how he would do it but he was going to try anyway. And with that resolve, he braced himself up to face the challenge of the day. One thing he didn’t know was that the hardest blow hadn’t hit him yet.
Fatima listened as the CD made his announcements. The briefing had been the longest they had had so far and she wondered how many minutes it would take. She understood; the conference was almost over and there were a lot of things to address.
The Conference Director had said that after breakfast, all the groups would give a fifteen-minute report on their community project implementation of the day before. Afterwards, he said they would have HIV testing. That had elicited protests from the students. The CD had to explain.
“I know you’re all not so keen on doing this but one of the groups did HIV testing for a community yesterday with the help of USAID and SFH. We asked the officials of those organizations if they wouldn’t mind doing the same for all of you and they said it would be their utmost pleasure.” The CD picked his words carefully. “Please note that this test is free. It is also optional. You don’t have to do it but if I may say, it is advisable you do it once and for all.”
Those were the words of the CD. Fatima had mixed feelings about it as she was sure there would be students who had no clue whatsoever that they were carrying the virus. The results could either break them permanently or make them stronger. She hoped it would be the latter.
The CD later went on to tell them that after the test, they would be served an early lunch. From after lunch till evening, he stated that they would be free; no program. He asked them to use the opportunity to get each other’s contacts and make more friends. He stated that the Dinner-Awards night would start at 6pm. He encouraged them to come in their suits and decent gowns.
Fatima had smiled when she heard the word decent. She could imagine the different kinds of gowns the female students were capable of wearing. The diner was going to be the last activity of the conference as outstanding students and facilitators would be given awards. She had heard before coming to the conference that it was always the highlight of the whole event for most students.
‘That’s for them’, she silently thought. ‘I’ve already had my highlight; the meetings where God touched hurting hearts and lost souls. Nothing more could be more fun and fulfilling.’
A few minutes after, the Conference Director was through and Fatima looked at her wristwatch. He had spent well over one hour. That was a record-breaker. She waited a few minutes to allow the throng of students at the outlets thin out. As she was about standing she saw someone walk towards her and her heart literarily stopped breathing. She couldn’t believe her eyes. It was Uche.
She didn’t wait for him to reach her as she stood and walked towards him. Without his consent, she wrapped her arms around him and hugged him. She had missed him so much.
She drew back and looked in his eyes. He was fighting tears.
“Please can I talk with you?” he asked, wary.
Fatima smiled, fighting tears now herself. “It would be my greatest pleasure. I have been waiting for this. Please sit!”
Uche frowned. “Not now. During lunch”, he said.
Fatima wanted to insist but she was afraid of doing or saying something that would drive him away again. If it was during lunch he wanted, then during lunch it would be. She was delighted. “Okay. Talk to you soon”, she said, beaming right from the heart.
Uche turned and walked away. Fatima couldn’t move. She was too happy; she didn’t know how to express her joy. She just watched him walk away and longed to speak with him. The few hours she would have to wait now seemed like years. She knew she wouldn’t be able to think of anything else until she had spoken with Uche. Until he was back home.
She smiled. ‘Thank you Lord’. She would wait patiently.
The Community Project report had ended a few minutes back and outside the hall where twenty different tents located some distance from each other. Each had a queue in front of it. It was time for students to ascertain their HIV status. The CD was impressed as 90% of the conference population turned out for the testing. It was for their good; he only hoped they saw it in that light.
There were folks ready to counsel the students immediately after the testing irrespective of their status. The counseling was going to be five minutes each; compulsory for everyone who did the test. They couldn’t afford students who discovered they were positive committing suicide immediately when out of the conference walls. They needed them to know that even though they had the virus, they could still live healthy.
It was going to be a lot of work but it was worth all the energy and time. Students had started coming out, some with smiles, some with plain faces, and some with forced smiles; the latter spoke volumes of what the result most likely was.
She had known all along what the result was going to be because she had seen that same kind of print out before. She had seen it barely a month before the conference. Christiana wasn’t surprised that the paper in front of her read she was HIV positive. It wasn’t what she saw that bothered her now but the words George had spoken to her the previous day.
She had allowed the hurts of her past to make her what she was. Her brother had suddenly died and then her father left her mother; leaving just two females; she and her mother to take care of each other. Trying to raise a living for them, her mother had been mostly away from home traveling to Dubai every now and then, trying to make something worthwhile in the business field. Whenever she was away, she asked her younger brother to stay with Christiana. That started four years back, when she was ten.
All had gone well for a few weeks until the man came into her room one sad night and raped her. He told her he loved her and begged her not to tell anyone. It soon changed from rape to mutual consensus in the act; an act her mother had not found out about till present.
She had no clue that he was also doing stuff with other girls. He had told her it was only her, and her naïve heart had believed him for years. She had come home earlier one day, about four months back, when she caught him in the act with a girl that sold oranges near her house. She had been mad at him that day.
Christiana sighed as she remembered that day. She felt like dying. It was so horrible knowing he was sleeping with someone else. It was now worse, seeing the kind of girl he was sleeping with; a street hawker. She wanted to kill him and kill herself but she did neither.
The moment her mother came back from her latest trip, she told her mother she wanted the uncle to leave. Her mother asked her why but she refused giving any explanations. “I’m old enough to take care of myself.” That was all she said and that settled it. The uncle left and she wept almost every night, mourning all she had lost.
She kept to herself in school and looked forward to being alone when she got home. She was experiencing the highest form of depression. Hatred for guys was beginning to take root in her heart but it was still in bits. Then one day, something happened that blew the hatred out of control.
She walked by a street on a weekend and saw a small gathering. She looked and saw some young folks wearing blue shirts on green trousers on yellow boots. She heard someone say they were corp members. She moved closer and read the banner they had there. It read, ‘NYSC Peer Educator Trainers in conjunction with SFH offer free HIV testing for all’.
Christiana had wanted to turn away when she remembered the picture she saw of her uncle and the hawker girl. That was enough to make her take one step after the other toward the point where they were doing the test. She queued up behind a few people. When it was her turn, she entered the tent with so much trepidation. She waited with her heart in her throat.
Christiana blinked back tears as she remembered that day. She was handed the slip of paper and she was s afraid to look at it. The facial expression of the lady that gave didn’t make matters any better.
When she summoned the courage to look at it, what she saw made her numb. She couldn’t say or word; she didn’t even any strength to say anything. It was like her feelings had been shut down. The lady began ranting some words of encouragement. Christiana couldn’t remember a word of what the lady said that day.
She had gone home without speaking a word to anyone. Her mother had been on one of her trips and wouldn’t be back for a week. So, she was alone at home. She didn’t get out of the house for the whole week; she was locked in. She only ate when her tummy forced her to. She didn’t care. She just stared at the TV when there was light and slept when there was nothing to stare at.
The first time she had cried since four months back when she knew her status was yesterday when George spoke with her. She had cried for hours after he left her; she had cried herself to sleep. All the pent-up tears just flowed out unabated.
Christiana remembered as if it was yesterday what happened next, just before her mother returned. She had awoken on a rainy morning and an idea hit her so hard; it was the first time she was feeling anything in the week. The thought brought with it the height of bitterness she had ever felt.
It came in the words of one of her teachers; one Christian teacher that almost always preached during his classes. He always said the words but the words were coming to her in a different light. The words had been, ‘Freely you have received; freely give.’
Those were the six words that had directed the course of her life in the past four months. She had been given what she never asked for from an uncle that couldn’t keep his zip up. It was now time to her to give it back to as many as couldn’t control their desires. She wouldn’t hold back from anyone that wanted her. Infact, she would pursue them if she had to.
She had slept with dozens of guys; old and young in the past months. Her mother’s frequent trips and pre-occupation with her boutique had created ample time, space and opportunity for her.
She had come to the conference with the same desire. She had come just to get the bad boys but with time, she convinced herself that all guys were the same. It was then she sought to get the good guys like Uche and George. It was in the bid to get George the night before that she heard him speak words to her that no one else had said. It was like he had been there in her house when all those horrible things happened to her.
She looked at the paper again and this time, she felt a deep pit of sorrow in her chest. A pit that seemed too deep to be ever filled again. Worse was that she obviously had infected more people. Most painful to her was Uche. A tear slipped out of her eye.
George had talked about the love of God. Christiana wasn’t sure she believed him on that. ‘God would never forgive me for the many lives I’ve destroyed’, she convinced herself and forgot of that part of George’s talk. There was just one thing she felt she owed the boys she had been with at the conference. It was the least she could do. It would be heartless of her to let them go without knowing what they carried away from the conference.
She was sure their tests would show negative as the virus couldn’t be detected in a few days of being in the host. But it would eventually show. She needed them to know. She hated to think of how pained and horrible they would feel. But the deed had been done; they had to know the truth.
She asked a girl near her if there was any place on the conference ground where photocopies were made. The girl pointed and Christiana walked in that direction. She was going to make copies of her report and give to the guys. She couldn’t say it with her mouth. She just couldn’t.
She located the place and made all the copies she wanted to make. On each of them, she wrote four words. They were four words she had to say or she’ll never find rest. ‘I AM SO SORRY!’ Those were the words she wrote on each paper. She knew those words couldn’t change the fact that the lives of those boys would never be the same again. Never.