RIP – Neka Anissa
I meet 4-year-old Neka Anissa as her mother totes her on her back, wrapped by a kanga-like shawl. They are among at least 5,000 people gathered in a village about an hour’s drive from Manakara, where CAI is currently constructing a handsome school for about 500 girls so they, too, have an opportunity for quality education. Mother and child are awaiting their turn for a bag of rice donated by CAI donors, enough to feed them for about a couple of weeks. This is in March 2022, when cyclones Batsirai and Emnati destroyed the homes and crops of thousands of poor villagers.
The first glance at Neka makes me quickly look away in repulsion, horror, and pity, for her right eye bulges out of the eye socket, giving her a frightening appearance. But I force myself to look and keep on looking. Neka is oblivious to the stares she gets from others around her but the mother has a frown of worry etched in the middle of her eyebrows. She catches me looking at her and my heart twitches with the pain I see in them. I know, with certainty, that Allah is giving me a wonderful opportunity to serve one of His creations, marred by the quirks of nature. I turn to Ferrid Haniphe, my host, for help. We learn that Neka is an orphan and was born with this eye ailment; the mother cannot afford the costs and treks to see a qualified medical doctor miles away from her village.
Ferrid immediately arranges for Neka and her mum to be brought to Tananarive, the capital city, and have Neka checked by an eye doctor. I request Ferrid to leave no stone unturned for the treatment of this little child, that I will make the funds somehow available for her treatment. I leave Madagascar but am in constant contact with Ferrid about the fate of little Neka. She is operated on and the errant eye is removed by surgery. But the doctor finds cancer in the eye. Even so, he is cautiously optimistic and little Neha is put through the horrors of chemotherapy.
Neka and her mother stay at the wonderful facility of Centre Rassoul Akram, where they are taken good care of. Neha gets medical care and for the first time in her life, is accepted as a peer among other children and adults. Ferrid sends me regular videos about her playing with toys, her swinging at the playground with friends, and, for the first time since I’ve met her, I see her smile. It’s a wonderful, warm feeling.
On the morning of June 8, 2022, Ferrid leaves me a WA message with the devastating news that little Neka has passed away in her sleep this morning. It’s a painful, wrenching feeling, the loss of a child I’m so fiercely bonded to for less than three months. Neka is no blood kin of mine, yes, except for Allah’s offer for me to love and care for the remaining short, sad span of her life in the world.
RIP, Neka, I am certain you are in a much better place.
A few photos of Neka.
Click here for a video of Neka.
The Errant Housemaid
Zeenatbai’s day is ruined; her long-serving domestic worker, or Dada, or Hadeeja, the choori, is sick and will not come to work today.
Saambrocho, you hear me? She berates her sleeping husband, Kassamali, tossing in bed. The Dada has called in sick. Again! Saali, ghadheeri. These people, I tell you. They are either sick or bereaved every other day. She says she has a terrible headache today. I have a terrible headache every day, yet I have to cook food. I still have to go to the mehfil, I still have to go and visit your mother and make sure she’s okay. Someone dies in their family every other day, yet Kariakoo is still full of them.
Dada, as she is called at her employer’s home, has been a domestic worker at the house for over twenty-five years. She has made possible a life of ease and comfort for the family all these years through hard work, sweat, and honesty. Washing clothes, ironing them, dusting, sweeping, and mopping the house, going to the nearby streetside Ilala market to purchase vegetables or meat, dicing vegetables, cleaning fat off the meat so that the mistress can cook them into curries and other Indian dishes. She has helped bring up the three children Zeenatbai and Kassamalibhai had until they moved away through marriage or to pursue a college education overseas. Fed them, washed their bums, lullabied them, wiped away their tears, took pride in their successes, and felt hurt at their disappointments, like children of her own.
Kassamalibhai yawns wide, lets out a lingering fart, changes his sleeping position, and closes his eyes. He has his own problem with his chooras at the shop so he is not too keen on listening to his wife’s belly aching. He still has thirty minutes before he has to wake up, bathe, change, and eat two hot chapattis his wife will roast for him before he leaves for his shop at ten, six days a week. He wishes his wife will stop whining about the errant maid.
But he pays the price of ignorance when he wakes up. There is no water for bathing. It is the maid who climbs up to the roof and checks the water levels first thing in the morning. So, it is Kassamali’s turn to grumble now. The couple have an argument, one which Kassamali rarely wins. No thought is given to either one of them walking up the twenty steps to the roof and turning on the pump. It’ll take about ten minutes for enough water to pour into the tank. The Dada must do that. It is beyond Zeenatbai’s or Kassamalibhai’s dignity for this menial task. Perhaps?
Since it is Dada that kneads the dough for chapatti that Zeenatbai roasts, Kassamalibhai must contend with ones ordered from Blue Room Tea House today. He does not like them; they are not as thin, soft, and fluffy as his wife’s. He goes off to his hardware shop all grumpy.
Zeenatbai has a dreadful day. It does not occur to her to clean or cook, perhaps go and buy some foodstuff herself for once. She calls up her daughter as soon as it’s sunup in Toronto and whines about Dada’s absence for thirty minutes. This is repeated to her aging mother, who is not too sympathetic to her daughter. The mother used to do ten times more work than Zeenatbai, so she is not interested. Zeenatbai then calls her friend Gullubai, looking for a like-minded shoulder to cry on. Gullubai is more supportive.
Fire her, Zeenat, says Gullubai. Get someone else. These Dada’s and Kaka’s we keep for years become bigheaded. Should I recommend someone my Dada knows?
Zeenatbai likes the idea initially but has second thoughts a few hours later. Hadeeja came to work for her as a mere teenager, some 25 years ago. The maid is totally honest. She now knows everything about their household, their moods, and the family’s routine. To train a new person from scratch, to keep an eye on her all day, to hide money and jewelry otherwise left out in the open… That would be too much trouble and require energy and patience, something Zeenatbai has little of in her advancing age. No, Hadeeja will have to do, even if she did skip a day or two a month. But what if the woman is too ill and takes another day off tomorrow as well? Or more days?
Panic sets in and Zeenatbai begins to feel claustrophobic in her air-conditioned living room. All thoughts of preparing and cooking food for the day go vanishing from her mind. Sekeela chicken from Mambo’s nearby will have to do today.
Ya Hazrat Abbas (a), she prays earnestly. Please make the Dada well. Soon? She keeps a mannat to pray 2-rakat salaat if Hadeeja is better and returns to work tomorrow.
*** Although I have used a fair bit of imagination to make this story an interesting read, the core events are facts, related to me by Hadeeja, the maid, sometime in late January 2022. All names used are aliases, naturally.