The Orphans is mostly set in the rural Tanzania I remember from the early 1980s, but some of the technologies used are much more recent. To that extent, it is anachronistic. Don’t forget, though; it is fictional, made up, lies. All of it.
Max Matham is a self-employed freelance forensic accountant living in a quiet village in Buckinghamshire. Della Jont is a hard-nosed businesswoman who presses Max into working for her, investigating alleged financial irregularities at an orphanage in East Africa. Max soon finds that some disturbing things are going on at the orphanage, and becomes involved in a set of intriguing events involving orphans, government agencies, witch-doctors, an old university chum and a multinational pharmaceutical company.
Beginning on 10 January 2016, I shall publish The Orphans here as a serial; one scene each Sunday.
The full list of scenes so far published is here
The Orphans. Chapter Twelve, scene two: At the orphanage, part 1.
We arrived at the orphanage, having called Makena earlier to let her know that both we and the volunteers would be arriving in our own transport. I gathered from the tenor of her reply that Makena was not displeased at that; in fact I thought I sensed a note of relief in her voice. She must have seen us arriving, because the door opened as we approached, and a young girl with albinism let us in. She looked to be in her early teens. I wasn’t aware that there were any albino children in the orphanage although, in fairness, I hadn’t spent any time with the children on my previous visits. The girl, who introduced herself as Grace, showed me to Makena’s office – I already knew the way but didn’t want to give her the impression that I didn’t value her work – and led Sadie and Pauline to their quarters. As they walked away, I heard Grace saying that they would be allowed to rest after their journey, and introduced to the children the following morning.
Makena greeted me like an old friend. “Twana is very excited about your visit,” she said, “as am I. We have not had any requests for children since your last visit and we are keen to know what is happening.”
“We are indeed,” came the voice of Kitwana as his door opened and he stood in the entrance to his office, “won’t you come in? Both of you, of course. You too, Ke-ke.”
It was the first time I had heard his pet name for Makena, and I believed myself honoured that he felt sufficiently comfortable with me to use it. I introduced Kanene to them, and took a bit of a back seat whilst the three of them traded news and histories in their native Swahili. I kept half an ear open, in case anything that I should know about was said, but didn’t try to keep up completely. After a short period, Kitwana spoke.
“We have heard nothing since your last visit, Max. What’s happening?” he asked.
“First thing is, I’m not here as an emissary from Della Jont,” I explained, “I no longer work for Jont Capital. I don’t know if you were aware, but the outfit that has been paying you for the orphans was a local company jointly owned by Jont and Jaxson Pharmaceutical. It is researching a therapy that they hope will stop HIV in its tracks. The orphans are… were used as test subjects for these therapies. They were well looked after, but they should never have been traded like that.
“The last instruction I had from Della was to sell her stake in that business. I am now running an investment company in Dar-es-Salaam. We are planning to buy Della’s stake in Jaxsons Tanzania. Nothing is settled yet, so it mustn’t leave this office, but if it does come off, my aim is to examine closely how the business is carried on. Jaxsons’ owner will still run the research, of course; I know nothing about pharmaceuticals; I plan to control the business end.”
“Wow,” Makena exclaimed, “but how does that leave us for funding, if Della is pulling out?”
“She is only pulling out of the pharmaceutical company,” I explained. “Because of the way her father set up this orphanage and linked it with his company, Jont Capital is obliged to continue to fund this orphanage fully, as long as this orphanage exists.”
Both of the Nchimbis beamed at that news. They were financially secure for the long term. How many institutions like this had that assurance?
“My purpose in coming here now,” I continued, “is to get a handle on two things: on a professional basis, the situation locally in relation to HIV – and I fully approve of what your nurses are doing, by the way, and I think Della will, now there isn’t money to be made from the HIV-positive kids – and on a personal basis, conditions here for people with albinism.”
Kitwana Nchimbi updated me on the frighteningly high and growing number of HIV-positive people in the villages in the orphanage’s catchment area, as well as on the impact being made on these numbers by the testing and education programme his nurses were pursuing. The number of HIV-positive orphans was still growing, and I couldn’t help wondering how well Sadie and Pauline would cope with this aspect of their volunteering.
Turning to albinism, he said, “It is not as prevalent as in some parts of the country, but it is a situation that needs careful handling. Traditional beliefs point to albinism being a curse, and it has been considered normal and appropriate for sufferers to be ostracised and ejected from their communities as being conduits of evil. Paradoxically,” he added, “a relatively new and worrying development is the growing belief, among traditional healers, that body parts from people with albinism can add to the efficacy of good luck charms and spells. It is even believed that weaving strands of hair from one of these unfortunate people into existing fishing nets would result in improved catches of fish.”
“From what I have learned,” I said, “this is worse in the north of the country than in the south.”
“You are right, Max,” he confirmed, “but these things spread. Now that we have managed to give the villages limited access to the internet, their traditional healers can communicate with others in other parts of Tanzania. The world must remain in balance. There is always a down-side to every new advance.”
He got up from his seat and retrieved a file from his filing cabinet. Opening it, he said, “Today, we know about thirty albinos in this area, five of whom live with us here; you met Grace when you arrived. Grace is a very bright girl and we are fortunate to have her here. But we believe there are about twenty-five we haven’t found yet. I haven’t heard of any killings or mutilations, but we’re always expecting to learn that this evil practice has spread to us.”