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A small village in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo, not far from the Rwandan border. Just before midnight.
They would be dead by morning. When you’ve seen it happen enough times, you get used to the signs. Naked apart from an old pair of underpants, he lay listlessly on the elderly, stained mattress, its springs broken and its stuffing now home to a thousand invisible bugs. By the dim, smoky light of a candle, she watched his chest rise and fall in time with his heavy, laboured breathing. It seemed somehow too big for the rest of his emaciated body. He had not eaten for eight days, not since he fell ill. And he hadn’t eaten much even before that: he was a poor man.
Beside him on the mattress lay his wife. Her body, heavier than her husband’s, was covered with a piece of material that had once been colourful but was now ragged and dirty. Her breathing was forced too. Rasping. Occasionally her eyes would open and roll around, unseeing, in their sockets, before closing again. Now and then she would shout out, but it was impossible to understand what she was saying. She sounded frightened, though.
Her left hand lay lightly against her husband’s arm; but like his, it didn’t move. The unmistakable buzz of a mosquito hummed around them, explaining the angry welts that covered their skin. And despite the hot humidity of the night air, they did not sweat. Their bodies were too dehydrated for that.
A young girl, no more than fourteen, walked across the dusty floor of the hut with an earthenware cup of water in her hands. Gently she dipped her fingers into it, then brushed the moistness against the cracked lips of her two patients. The man’s tongue, furred and leathery, moved slightly towards the wetness, but in the end it seemed like too much effort and it fell back into the hollow of his mouth, giving his tired face an even more spectral appearance. Her wide eyes gazed at them, then she sighed and stepped back to the small wooden stool from which she had nursed them ever since they had become too weak to stand up.
The girl spoke five languages: French, three dialects of Bantu, and even some English. And in all of them she had repeated the same words over the past few days more times than she could count. ‘Mama, Papa, please do not die.’ But she knew it was a vain hope. She had seen villagers die of malaria before, driven to madness by their feverish hallucinations, and she muttered a silent prayer of thanks that her parents had, at least, been spared that. It had been the same for the two other families who had been hit by the disease in recent days: quick, virulent. Malaria was a constant presence in the life of these villagers, and the girl had learned enough about it in her short life to know that it came in different forms. But she had never seen it this bad before.
Perhaps that was why there were others in the village who thought there was something more sinister at work.
It had been a year since the mine on the edge of the village had been opened. Originally they had hoped to be digging for tin, but the boss men had found something else down there. Something valuable. It had made some in the village nervous. They knew that the ground was sacred to the village ancestors, being the final resting place of the tribal elders for as long as their people had been in these parts. They knew that great harm would befall those who disturbed it. But the lure of the money had been too great.
Her father had worked hard all his life. When the mine-owners came, he was offered three times his normal pay to work for them - enough to make him forget about tribal superstitions, or at least put them to a far corner of his mind. Many other workers in the village had made the same decision, although most of them carried magical objects somewhere about their bodies to protect them from ancient evils. And now three of them had succumbed to this horrific illness, as had various members of their families. The tribal elders, who had been so keen to welcome the mineowners into the village in the first place, had ordered an X to be marked in thick, red paint on the corrugatediron doors of their dwellings - so that the villagers could identify the cursed houses, and stay away.
But the superstitions were not enough to keep men from going down the mine. Poverty and war had killed so many in this part of the world for so long that death was a common occurrence, more likely to come upon you if you had no money. And money was what the mine was all about.
The girl put all these thoughts from her head. It wasn’t that she didn’t believe in the malevolent powers of the ancestors; it was just that all she could think about was that her parents were at death’s door, and she had to look after them.
But not for long. As the first light of dawn eased the village and the dense jungle that surrounded it out of darkness, her father drew his last breath. He exhaled as though he was breathing his spirit out of his body. Five minutes later, her mother too slipped silently away.
The girl had expected to cry when it happened, but now the moment was upon her, she found she could not. She just sat on that little wooden stool and looked at them, her mind a confusion of memories. And then she stood up and walked out of the tiny hut. A small group of villagers had congregated at the end of her ramshackle street, looking out onto a stark clearing. They were safely outside the ring of protective symbols that had been crudely drawn in the dusty earth. How long they had been there the girl did not know - all night, probably - but now they watched her expectantly, not daring to draw near to the house that had fallen under this terrible curse for fear of bringing it upon themselves - just like the girl’s father had done upon her mother, and upon the girl herself, for all they knew.
She stood up straight and, in a clear voice, spoke in Kikongo, the language of the region. ‘They have departed.’
The bystanders looked fearfully at each other, then melted away, no doubt to spread the news around the village. The girl knew what they would be saying, knew the rumour that would be spreading round the population like a contagious infection. She half believed it herself. ‘The curse of the ancestors has not been lifted,’ the villagers would be muttering. ‘Halima’s parents are dead. We told you it would be so...’