Feb 21, 2024
Feb 21, 2024
by Ola de Sas
'What is his name?' Doctor Martha Lund asked, looking compassionately at the little boy lying on the couch in her reception room. 'What is his name?' she repeated.
The Mosotho highlander shrugged his shoulders, 'I don't know,' he answered indifferently. 'He is just a bag of bones-masapo. Why bother about his name? He will die anyhow. I only brought him because the Fathers told me to and now I must be off.'
He went out and Martha looking through the window watched him mount his pony and ride away. She shivered seeing the snow lying thickly over the countryside. It started to snow four days ago and it seemed as though it would never stop. She turned back to the child who was trembling with a high fever. He was very ill.
She began to examine him, asking the nurse to remove his thin dirty blanket he was wrapped in. Underneath, he wore just a torn shirt and his little body was pathetically undernourished. He really was just a bag of bones, which in Sotho means masapo.
'Pneumonia,' she thought, 'he will never pull through. He had no resistance to fight the illness.' She rang for the nurse and told her to put him straight to bed.
The Mosotho woman looked at Martha in astonishment. 'But doctor,' she exclaimed, 'you know we have no beds left, we are even using mattresses on the floor. The hospital is full on account of this White Death,' she pointed to the snow.
Martha thought fast. The boy must be taken to her quarters and given a bed there. He would have to stay with her until one of the hospital beds was vacant, or' She looked at the child with growing compassion. He was such a tiny human being, without a family or a home, without even a name. The Highlander had told her his mother had been found dead by the Relief Party in a hut buried in the snow, together with his brothers and little sister. They had perished from cold and starvation, only Masapo had survived.
'I am taking the child to my quarters,' she told the nurse. 'Tell my maid to make up a bed on the couch for him and to fill some hot water bottles. In the mean time I shall give him an injection. He has pneumonia and is very ill.'
The nurse looked at Martha in surprise. 'But doctor,' she called 'you cannot take a brown child to your quarters. It isn't right! Besides, he is just a bag of bones-masapo. You mustn't do it!'
Martha looked at her coldly, 'You are supposed to be a nurse,' she said reproachfully. 'You should know that one's first duty is to save life regardless of creed or color, or however hopeless it may look to you. Please do as I say.'
And so Masapo was installed in Martha's private quarters. Martha was a doctor in charge of the small missionary hospital situated in a tiny hamlet called Imyakasuba. She was a spinster aged 36, and had lived in Basutoland (now Lesotho) for the last five years. She had come from Europe to work and care for the Basotho people, and was a good, able doctor. Since her early youth her one ambition had been to look after the sick and poor. She had been a brilliant student and a successful young doctor, but that had never really satisfied her and she had searched for something more in life. Maybe if she had married and had children of her own she would have settled down, but although she was pretty and had many accomplishments, she remained single. When she read the advertisement in the medical journal asking for a doctor in a missionary hospital in a distant country called Basutoland. She applied for the post and unexpectedly got it without difficulty. This remote outpost in Africa was not a very lucrative proposition especially since the salary was very small. But Martha accepted it with enthusiasm and left her home country with no regrets.
She found the hospital even more remote than she had expected. It was situated high in the Maluti Mountains and the only means of communication was by horseback or an occasional plane which dropped supplies once a fortnight. But in winter (like this one) the hospital was completely cut off from the outside world, and Martha could not even visit her friends at the nearby mission. She was usually kept very busy during the day, but the long winter evenings were lonely in spite of the books she read, and the letters she wrote to family and friends. The country was beautiful, and in summer she spent many hours riding and walking, but in winter the same country was full of danger and hostility. It was very cold and snowed often. Basotho families and their animals were often found frozen to death in the huts beneath the snow.
The winter this year was exceptionally severe and Martha thought with misgivings about the food and drug supplies which were getting low. Masapo was still very ill and was unconscious for most of the time but he fought hard for his life. Martha did everything in her power to help him. In her small bedroom, Masapo lay in semi-darkness and Martha spent many hours with him, nursing him and watching over him.
It snowed for seven days, but on the eighth night the wind rose and the next morning the sun shone through the curtains of her room. Martha ran to the window and could hardly believe her eyes. The sky was blue and the snow sparkled brightly under the warm rays. There was such an intense shining whiteness all around that Martha was dazzled by it. When finally she turned away from the window she saw a pair of enormous brown eyes watching her.
'Masapo,' she cried 'Masapo.' The child frowned and followed her with his eyes but he said nothing until Martha drew back the curtains and let the sun stream into the room. Then he smiled and said dreamily, 'Letsatsi,' meaning, the Sun.
Martha smiled at him and talked to him in his native tongue, Sotho. She told him that he was very ill, but now Letsatsi (the Sun) will shine for him everyday.
The boy smiled and slept. Martha sat watching him for a long time. He was probably five or six years old, but he was very small and so thin he could easily have been taken for three or four. His skin had a velvety touch and his features were small except for those big, brown eyes. 'Masapo', she repeated fondly, 'Masapo,' the little bag of bones.'
He was awake when she came in at noon time. She came straight from the operating theatre where she had just performed a Caesarean on a woman brought in that morning from a nearby village. The operation had been successful and Martha smiled to herself thinking how angry the local witchdoctor would be with her. He had ordered the woman to keep the skin of a skunk on her womb for 24 hours, but when she had lain in agony and as time passed with no improvement in her condition; her husband brought her by sledge to the hospital. The child was alive, the snow was melting and Martha felt her spirits lifting. Masapo looked at her and said very quietly, 'Kelapele,' meaning I am hungry.
Martha laughed, 'Masapo, my little boy, you will get food just now. Oh, how pleased I am that you are hungry.' She ran outside, and forgetting her dignity cried to every nurse she met, 'Masapo is better, Masapo wants some food, please hurry!'
The news was passed from ward to ward and Martha found all her nurses collecting around his bed. Masapo was looking at them thoughtfully, and finally he whispered 'Mme' meaning mummy. The women looked at each other confused and Martha felt tears in her eyes. She left the room quickly. 'I have saved him,' she thought, 'but I cannot bring his mother back to him.'
Everyday Masapo improved, and soon he was sitting on his bed, playing with Martha's mascot, a small toy dog, cuddling it and whispering little words to him. Martha watched him with warm, happy eyes. There were many vacant beds now in hospital, but Martha would not think of being parted from her little boy. Masapo was now allowed to get up and dress in the new suit that Martha had bought for him. He played with new toys and ate the sweets brought for him by the plane.
Masapo adapted himself to his new life with the ease of any small child and played happily in the sunny room, talking, laughing and developing day by day, but he never uttered the word Mme again.
Martha was happier than she had ever been in her life. She was tireless in her work, and when she returned to her quarters, she knew she was returning home. Masapo would always welcome her joyfully, embracing her, and if she arrived late, he would wake up and smile up at her sleepily. He was no more a bag of bones. Martha wanted to call him by his real name but somehow she never did. Everybody knew him as Masapo, so Masapo he remained. He now looked fat and healthy. He had a round, smooth face and his big, brown eyes had lost the feverish, sad look and sparkled with joy and mischief. His velvety skin shone and when he smiled he showed two rows of beautiful, white even teeth. Everyone loved him. But some visitors looked askance at Martha and Masapo when they saw them playing together. However, Martha did not worry. Why should she? It was absurd to worry about the suspicious talk or gossip of strangers.
She began to teach the child, she wanted him to be able to speak at least one foreign language, and Masapo was learning fast. Her hours off duty, and her evenings seemed all too short. There was so much she wanted to teach him. She talked of great countries and cities, of seas and oceans and mountains beyond those he knew. She spoke of ships and planes and how one day they would go together and see it all. But first he must learn to speak her language.
Martha wrote to her family and friends about Masapo and how happy she was with him, and soon he began to receive the most beautiful toys and books of his own. She bought him a little pony, and when spring came they were seen together riding and talking in a 'strange' language. They soon became inseparable and the whole of Basutoland talked about them, but this did not worry Martha. Her life was full, and she was as happy as a woman with a child of her own could be.
Two years passed by and the time was fast approaching when Masapo would begin his schooling with the Sisters at the nearby mission. Martha was loath to part with him, but she was determined to give him the best education possible, as she realized that he was developing into a brilliant child. Meanwhile Christmas was approaching, and Martha taught Masapo to make paper chains and decorations for the Christmas tree. She told him fairy stories as long ago her mother had told her.
One quiet evening as they sat together as usual under the light of the lamp, somebody knocked on the door. 'Here is a call,' thought Martha sighing. She went to the door and opened it. There were two men outside. She closed the door and faced them.
'Lumela,' meaning good-day, they greeted her politely. Martha answered the greeting and moved toward her surgery. The men looked at each other. One of them was wrapped in a blanket; the other was dressed in a European suit. Both were middle aged.
'We are not sick, doctor' said the stranger in the suit 'we came to talk to you about the child.'
'The child?' repeated Martha. 'Which one, is he in one of the wards?'
The man wearing the blanket laughed, 'He was sick,' he said, 'but he is alright now. It is Masapo, the little boy we speak of.
'Masapo?' repeated Martha again in astonishment. 'But what do you want with him?' she glanced at the door and said in some confusion, 'you had better follow me to the office.'
The men followed her in silence. Martha felt strangely worried and unhappy. She sat down heavily in the chair behind her desk, 'And now, what can I do for you?' she asked.
The man in the blanket answered her, 'It is like this,' he said, 'about two years ago I brought you a little boy from the mountains. He was very ill, and the Fathers told me to bring him to the hospital. Now this man,' he pointed to his companion 'wants him back. He is the father and has come back from the mines to stay here for good.'
Martha sat stiffly in her chair. Yes, she remembered the man now. He was the same highlander who had brought the dying child in from the snow. She said nothing but sat still and waited. She felt empty and devoid of any feeling. She just stared at the two men and waited'
The man in the suit smiled at her. 'Yes, I want him back. I have come home to stay, and the child will be useful to me. He is my only son, although I may soon have some more,' he proudly declared, 'I have a new wife and she is already big with a baby.'
A glimmer of hope came to Martha. She smiled at Masapo's father, 'It is good that you have married again and will have more children. Masapo is still a very delicate child, he was very ill and nearly died, but he will fully recover with proper care and attention. He is happy here, please let him stay with me.'
The man shook his head. 'No,' he said, 'I want him back. I will look after him well.'
Martha felt fear grip her heart but she gave no outward sign of her emotion. She said casually, 'How unwise you are. Here he gets everything free of charge, I even teach him some things myself, and soon I will send him to school and pay for his education. You may see him whenever you wish, I won't mind. I assumed when I took him in that he had lost all his family, but if you say you are his father, I am glad for his sake. But treat him kindly. The child does not know you and he is happy with me. Come back again and we can talk more about it.'
The man was angry and shouted, 'I want the child. You have no right to keep him. He is mine and I don't want him to grow up to be a little baboon. He is African and must stay where he belongs. You people want everything your way.'
Martha's blue eyes darkened with anger. 'But if it had not been for me your child would have been dead long ago,' she said. 'Is this how you show your gratitude?'
Masapo's father smiled shrewdly, 'I will say tanki (thank you) when I get my child,' he answered.
Martha felt like crying but she controlled herself and said indifferently, 'You cannot take him now, it is late and the nights are chilly. The child is delicate and not used to the life he led before. Don't you understand? He may fall ill again and this time he won't have the same chance of recovery.'
The man appeared to be convinced and smiled to Martha, 'Tomorrow then. See you tomorrow.'
Martha nodded absently, and the strangers left. She sat in her office with her face hidden in her hands and tried to control her sobs. 'Masapo,' she whispered, 'Masapo.' Finally she went back to her room. The child was asleep on the chair cuddling her mascot. Martha looked at him for a long time, as if she wanted to engrave every single feature of his innocent, little face on her mind forever. Finally, without waking him, she tucked a few blankets around him and sat down beside him. She felt, she could not wake him and face his sweet, trusting eyes on her. She had to think first. She kept her vigil throughout the night, and when dawn came, her plan was made.
As the sun rose she slipped out of the hospital and saddled up the ponies. Then she woke up Masapo, who was delighted to get up so early to go for a visit with his Mama.
They left the hospital compound quietly and rode away. The nearest mission was three miles away and Martha headed there to consult the Father of the mission on how to fight Masapo's father decision to take the child away.
They arrived and the Sisters welcomed them both warmly. Martha left Masapo with them and went to search for the priest. She knew him well and trusted his judgment. He was a wise, practical man who knew the Basotho people well as he had lived amongst them for forty years. Martha unburdened herself to him, and begged him for help and advice.
The priest's old, wrinkled face showed concern. 'You have quite a problem on your hands,' he admitted, 'which I am afraid is not going to be easy to solve. The child's father wants him back and although we could probably postpone his decision, I am afraid it won't be easy for you to keep Masapo. We could demand evidence of the father's claim to parentage, but once this claim is established, the magistrate is bound to agree to his return and there is nothing that you can do about it.'
'But Father,' Martha cried, 'how can I give the child back to him now? For the last two years he has had a good home, love, care, good food, toys to play with, and even his own pony. Oh, so many, many things! Now to be taken back to a cold hut in the mountains, amongst strangers, to suffer hunger, and to be dressed in rags, this will kill him Father, I know it.'
The priest smiled sadly, 'The native children are tough little things' he said, 'he will get used to it and adapt himself as easily as he adapted himself to life with you. And who knows, maybe it will be better for him in the long run to be brought up in his own surroundings and amongst his own people, even if it is in a hut in the mountains. If you bring this child up, he will never be one of them again. He will remain a stranger to his own people, one who speaks the same language but who thinks and reacts quite differently. He may be successful, he may be rich and influential, he may be brilliant and respected, but he will never be happy. Remember, he will also never be able to belong totally to your world, even in your own country where there is no racial discrimination. The fact remains that he is different from you. He will be lonely amongst your own people.'
'But Father,' Martha cried, 'Don't you understand how much I love him. He is my only joy. How can you talk so dispassionately about a future which is so far away?'
The priest nodded wisely, 'I know it, but in what we do today, we plan and build the future. Be sensible my girl. You cannot prevent him from taking away his own son. You cannot adopt him because he has a father, and in any case I don't think it would be practical. You cannot kidnap him because this country would never let you take him out, and you cannot keep him with you while his father still wants him. But I tell you what I will do. Send his father to me; perhaps I may be able to persuade him to part with his son. Perhaps an offer of money may make him change his mind. But remember one more thing. The more you show that you want Masapo, the more obstinate he will be. All Basotho people are the same. As soon as they see you want something from them, the more reluctant they are to part with it. This is not a question of money only; there is something else which I don't really understand myself.'
Leaving Masapo with the Sisters, Martha left the mission and rode home.
The man was already there waiting for her and when he saw her ride in alone he looked angry.
'You have taken my child and hidden him,' he shouted, 'you want to keep your little toy, a little baboon? Well, I want him back and unless you return him, I shall go to the police.'
Martha eyed him coldly, 'Go to the Mission and talk to the father there,' she said. 'And as for your stupid talk, I will only say this. I wanted to give your son a chance in life, to give him something bigger and better than you could ever give him. He is not a toy to me. He is a small, lovable child who is eager to learn and eager to love, but you will never be able to understand this. You want him because you need somebody to herd your goats, collect the wood, and bring your beer from the village. You want him so badly only because you see I want him too. Now, please go!'
But neither Father's persuasions nor Martha's threats made any impression on him. He remained determined to take back his son and when the case came up before the local court, he won it. He was the child's father and he had every right to have him. Martha caused quite a sensation in the court. After the case was closed, Masapo was taken to his father. He kicked, struggled and screamed in a heartbreaking voice, 'Mama, Mama.' He tried to run to Martha and she saw his enormous tragic eyes appealing to her for help. Through the mist of her tears she fled from the court building feeling bitter against everybody, bitter against the whole Basotho nation. They had taken from her the only happiness that she had even known, her little boy Masapo.
Martha gave in her resignation to the mission authorities soon after the court case. She felt she had lost her faith in the people, and had lost interest in her work. She would go back to Europe and try to forget. But the mission could not find anyone to replace her. The job was badly paid and the hospital being so cut off from the world put off any likely candidates. Martha stormed every month that she was leaving, but her sense of duty was too strong for her to leave.
Another winter passed and still Martha was there. The spring that year was early and warmer than she had ever known it. She woke one morning with the sun shining on her face and smiled to herself. She had a strange dream. In her dream she had seen Masapo who had smiled sweetly at her, and seemed very happy. Martha looked around her room and glanced at the couch, but it was of course empty. It was only a dream.
That morning, as she worked busily in the ward, a nurse ran up to her in a great state of agitation, half laughing, half crying. 'Doctor,' she called out 'There is somebody outside to see you. Please come at once.'
Martha walked outside and saw a crowd of people surrounding a man holding a child by the hand. They were both in rags and she did not recognize either of them, until she saw the child's big, brown eyes looking at her with reproach. Only then she whispered, 'Masapo, is it really you Masapo?'
The people watched in amazement as the lady doctor ran to him and embraced him wildly. The boy trembled and repeated the same word again and again, 'Mama.'
Martha saw at once that Masapo was ill again. His father was humble; he had no money and said that he must return once more to work on the mines. He asked Martha if she would take his son back and assured her that she could keep him for good. He was always ailing, and nothing but a burden and a worry to him.
Masapo was back in Martha's room, but this time he was suffering from an incurable disease, leukemia. It would be a matter of time before he went, and this time forever. There was so little time left, a few months, possibly a year, but no longer. Martha knew it well, but she hid the knowledge from both him and everyone in the hospital. She was determined to give the child all the happiness and care possible.
She applied for a long overdue holiday and found a locum to take her place. She bought a car and hired a caravan, and took Masapo to all the places they wanted to see together. People wondered at the sight of the two of them together. Some resented it, some even insulted her, but the ones who saw their love for each other or guessed at their short lived happiness, cried for them.
Then Masapo became worse and weaker, he started fretting for the mountains and home, so one warm autumn morning they returned to the hospital, and he was put in bed, again in Martha's room.
The sun streamed in through the window and he lay on the couch as if asleep. But Martha knew better. She watched over him the whole of that night for she felt the end was near. It was still an early morning when Masapo opened his big brown eyes and with effort he smiled at the woman kneeling next to him. Then he whispered very quietly 'Letsatsi Mama'. He was gone so suddenly that Martha could not even register his last moment. Masapo, little bag of bones had left her, but Letsatsi (the Sun) was left in her heart for ever.
Martha smiled at the little boy lovingly. She touched his eyes gently and closed his lids. She did not need to see his eyes to remind her of his love. She had it in her heart, and she would always remember him as long as the Sun shone.
More by : Ola de Sas