Dark. African night. The only light outside is from the half-moon directly overhead, and from the bright star right next to it, over the place where the child was. Inside the mud and thatch hovel. Her name is Mimi. She is lying inside on a mat, in the light of a small kerosene lamp, on a mat. Behind the hut a man is digging an oblong hole. Just over a metre long. Mimi is lying on her back, with her head tilted sideways, her eyes closed. In the corner of one eye a little drop of moisture has gathered, from her lower nostril trails a tiny smear, and just above her lip there is what seems to be a cold sore. Gerrit is sitting beside me on a rough bench; Titia is on her knees, stroking Mimi’s compact curls; across from me a semicircle of men and boys. It was the will of God, one says. The others make the singsong eeeh which indicates agreement in Adja. We pray, thanking God for the life of Mimi, for how she danced and sang, for good things which the extended family could give her, and for the knowledge that she was now with Jesus, dancing and singing and no longer suffering from the ravages of AIDS.
Outside someone begins to cry. Also a child, it seems. She is brought in by one of the women, and at the sight of her little sister her cry becomes a heartrending wail. Something something Mimi, is all I can make of her words. Titia takes her in her arms, and we follow them outside, where they sit down on a wooden bench in the light of the half-moon and the bright star next to it. Titia holds her tight and croons a song; Celestine settles down, sobbing Mimi, Mimi.
Mimi had just turned 9; Celestine is 12. Both their parents are long since dead from AIDS, and Mimi was all Celestine had left. Mimi had been hanging on to life for some time, intermittently being provided with the medication she needed, living with her grandmother in Semanouhoué. The end had come quickly, unexpectedly.
We were on our way back from Cotonou when we got the call. Mobiles are everywhere in Africa, even in the remotest village. Nicolas, de facto elder in Semanouhoué , had broken the news of Mimi’s death. Around five that afternoon. We had ¾ of an hour to go to reach Dogbo. Gerrit and Titia were visibly shaken. She had been such a joyful child, despite the situation. Not so long before, after a short stay in the hospital, she had been sitting on the veranda here and had said tot Titia: I want to stay here with you… Impossible. But what did she have at home?
After unloading in Dogbo, we drove out to the village. Night driving is not recommended in Benin. People walking in the darkness on the road’s edge, vehicles in various states of disrepair, lights blindingly askew or not working at all, visibility through dusty windscreens minimal. Once we got off the main road at Gohomey that danger receded; but the track to Gohomey grew steadily less passable. Deep ruts, maize and cassava crowding in, and also here travellers on foot unexpectedly appearing in the headlights. The village was in darkness; power had gone out some time before. But the moon gave enough light to find our way to grandmother’s house.
Goats, children, cooking fires, low mud and thatch huts. I thought to myself that this was probably what, for instance, Bethlehem would have been like 2000 years ago. Where the Child was born, under a star which promised blessing and life renewed. Also for Mimi. And Celestine.