I am one of those who aren’t blessed with the greatest of gnashers. Apparently my lower jaw is just too small to accommodate all the teeth I’m supposed to have in this lifetime. So in my adulthood I’ve had to have some ‘minor surgery’ on one of my wisdom teeth. The procedure was poorly done and as a result I got a major infection (pus and all) that traumatised me ever since. At that time I was told I needed more ‘minor surgery’ done on both my lower wisdom teeth that are stuck under my gum and failing to come out causing such harrowing pain. Not removing them would mean a life of grinding jaws from my early 30s onwards. I am only 24 and last Friday I had one of my very healthy wisdom teeth taken out.
I was contemplating the possibility of the procedure going wrong and having another infection. Add to that, the dentist was just too damn expensive, what a rip-off! For consultation alone, I was to fork out Z$1 700 (10 trillion and seven hundred thousand dollars in the old currency), but that is only if I was paying cash. Any other form of payment like cheque or bank transfer meant that I’d have to pay double. Since there was no way I could get 10 trillion out of the bank I had to pay double through bank cheque.
The minor surgery was to cost me Z$38 000 (380 trillion old currency). Alternatively, I could simply pay USD267, the nosy nurse said. My backside. The exchange rate would more than double the required Zim dollar equivalent! My only consolation was that the dentist came highly recommended and is one of the few remaining ENT (ear, nose and throat) experts in the country. I’d be damned if I let another quack touch my teeth.
So you can imagine I wasn’t in the best of moods as I made my way to the dentist until I met Joyce. As I trudged down 4th Street, I noticed the figure of a young woman a few yards ahead. At first she appeared to be losing her balance, falling slowly and ending up slumped next to a dirty trash. She was passed unnoticed by at least three people. When I caught up with her she was sobbing quite loudly and I was tempted to just also pass her because among other things, I was late for my dreaded appointment. However something inside me just wouldn’t let me leave her. I crouched next to her to ask what was wrong and to see if there was any way I could help.
Her sobbing transformed into downright mourning as she started an incoherent barrage of what was going on with her. She was just too damn tired of this life, she had walked all the way from Greendale where she stays with a sister; a single mother and they were struggling to make ends meet. She was exhausted and her legs were swelling and running out of strength. Above all, she hadn’t eaten a thing and she happened to be HIV positive and needed to take some medication. Her name was Joyce and she was 20 years old. While she continued her story, my eyes travelled along her skinny frame. Her short hair was strangely curly, her bony little hands were shaking slightly, and she was either suffering from kwashiorkor or simply pregnant. She also seemed too small for her age.
My first instinct was to think here was another itinerant just trying to swindle me out of my money with some pathetic little story. Instinctively I took out a hundred-dollar note and pressed it into her hands. Whatever her story was, I really needed to get a move on and she did look like she could do with a banana or two. Seeing there was nothing more I could do for her, I stood to leave and then she weakly tugged at my trouser leg. I had to bend really low to hear her. She thanked me and was glad that now she could afford more maize for her small business. She then asked me, “Why does God punish me by keeping me alive?” She had been on her way to Mbare, on foot, where she intended to buy some maize as evidenced by the empty rucksack she carried. I doubted she could carry 2kgs of maize. She could hardly carry her own weight.
We were beginning to gather a small audience. A curious sight we must have looked. Surprisingly, the audience remained just that, curious but not enough to actually want to help. After a while, two ladies stopped and I explained to them what had happened. One whipped out her posh cell phone and asked Joyce for a number of a relative or friend she could phone so that they could come and collect her.
Meanwhile, two police officers arrived at the scene and set up some sort of roadblock just a few meters away. I walked up to the female officer and explained what had happened. She listened intently and when I finished, she shrugged, smiled and told me I could never finish all the troubles of this world and I ought to watch out for lazy swindlers out to make a quick buck. With a slight wave of her hand she dismissed me saying that they would look into it. I felt a little better leaving her now that the police would take care of her. As I walked down the road, I kept turning back occasionally and not once did the officers make any move towards Joyce. Her lone figure next to the trash can get smaller and smaller until I could not see her anymore.
As the dentist pierced the insides of my gum with an anaesthetic laden needle I stared into the blinding light realising that the Z$100 note wouldn’t make any marked difference in her life. Again, only God knew how many other pedestrians just passed by and left her slumped there because they simply had nothing to offer her except pity. Others would simply be indifferent because after all, we all have problems.
Joyce, like everyone else has a right to a standard of living adequate for her health and well being, including food, clothing, medical care and social service. But if a person like herself develops bad molars, would she be able to fork out 380 trillion just to have one of them extracted? When she can hardly feed herself who has the duty to ensure that her right to access proper nutrition and medical healthcare is met? People like Joyce simply wither away and die silently. She is one of the Tarisais Mr. Magaisa talks about. Even by her dire standards, things have gotten worse recently.
As the dentist held my healthy molar up in the air it seemed to rebuke me in all its glory. There are people with far worse problems in this country and if you can have your molars fixed for 380 trillion, you are one of the privileged few.
I wondered what became of Joyce. I wondered how often we stop to think how lucky we are compared to others worse off than ourselves, and actually thank God for it rather than complain.
Joyce has been one of those encounters in life that keeps knocking at the back of my conscience. The kind that makes you keep asking yourself, could I have done more? What if it was me and all those people were ignoring me at the time I needed help the most? Life is not all that exciting in Zimbabwe nowadays for we have been reduced to considering ourselves extremely lucky each time we manage to salvage something to fill our stomachs or bump into headache tablets at the pharmacy and those are supposed to be such basic things.
But Joyce displayed a certain characteristic inherent in many a Zimbabwean – determination. Despite her dire circumstances, all she wanted to do was walk all the way to Mbare and buy maize for her small business, and lead a normal life.