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 am publishing The Orphans here as a serial; one scene each Sunday.
The full list of scenes so far published is here
The Orphans. Chapter Nineteen, scene three: Nchimbis arrive.
It was quite humbling when the Nchimbis arrived with eight small children and one young man who looked to be in his late teens or early twenties. Kitwana and Makena were dressed in their best ceremonial clothing, reflecting the very finest of their region. Paul, Lindy and I met them at the research facility.
“Welcome, Makena, Kitwana,” I said. “We are honoured that you have chosen to arrive in formal, ceremonial dress.”
“This is an important occasion for us,” Makena replied. “Never before have we been treated as an equal partner in this business.”
“It is more than that,” Kitwana added. “This time, I feel that it is we who are calling the shots. Jaxsons have come to us asking for help, and we have decided to offer that help.”
“Yes,” said Makena, “every time before, we have merely been told to have a certain number of children ready for collection. Twana and I decided that if you were going to show us that much respect in this exchange, we should show you respect in the way we know best.”
“Who is the young man?” I asked.
“This is Khadija,” Makena answered. “He was diagnosed HIV-positive for the first time last week. He was clean when tested two months ago. You told us that the infants were needed because they were freshly infected, so we have brought a newly-infected adult, too. He is twenty years old; we have explained to him as much as we know, and he has freely agreed to come with us.”
“Makena, that’s marvellous,” I said, and greeted Khadija in Kiswahili as best I could.
Four of the research centre nurses came and collected the children, while the rest of us followed them into the nursery. Marcia had already arrived with Paul, and she joined us with a file folder under her arm. After checking with Paul, she approached Kitwana.
“Dr Nchimbi, I have the transfer papers for your approval, and a cheque representing our donation to your work.”
“I think I should probably read through the papers and sign them before taking the cheque,” he said with a broad grin.
“Doesn’t matter, the cheque is yours whether you sign or not,” Marcia explained.
Marcia sat down with him and explained the papers. The rest of us inspected the nursery facilities, and Makena questioned the Jaxson nurses closely about their procedures and practices.
Kitwana joined us and said, “I am happy with the papers and I have signed them. However,” he added, “although we are satisfied with the nursing provision, I shall not hand the papers over until after we have spoken with the doctors and scientists who will be working with our children; and of course, with our young man.”
Paul nodded and said, “Follow me, please.”
He led us into the conference room where Julie and Tom were waiting for us, as was a group of three physicians, a priest, and a suited gentleman whom I recognised as the man I had met at the Health Ministry in Dodoma the day I first encountered Paul. I nodded to him in recognition.
The man from the ministry, together with the priest and the physicians gave a good account of their parts in the affair, and reassured the Nchimbis that the children would be well cared for from a medical standpoint, and that the regulatory and inspection régime that had been put in place and was being carried out jointly by the priest, the man from the ministry and one of the physicians was better than adequate. The discussion then turned to the research.
“How is the research actually carried out,” Kitwana wanted to know, “specifically, what is done to the children?”
Tom answered first. “The mechanism to render the virus unable to spread is still in computer models and Petri dishes at present. We’re hoping to move to human trials soon, but these will be consenting adults, ideally those who are already using a cocktail of anti-retroviral drugs; it’s important that the test subjects get some relief, as what we are working on is unlikely to stop the virus in its tracks. We are also keeping watch on what others are doing; studies are suggesting that in some populations the virus is becoming less deadly. That’s actually a sensible thing for the virus to be doing. Killing its host is a bad tactic; if HIV can become like SIV – simian immunodeficiency virus – from which it originated, it could potentially become pandemic without being deadly. That makes sense for the virus. It can’t survive and reproduce without living hosts.”
Julie then picked up the conversation. “My group’s research is looking at the routes the virus follows to hide itself in its host’s DNA. We are beginning to understand more about the mechanisms it uses, but it’s a cunning thing; it constantly evolves and mutates. We need to try to catch it in something like its original form, and before it digs in too deeply. That’s why we need to test our therapies on newly-infected patients. We often can’t make a diagnosis before the virus is well established, by which time it is too well advanced. Children born to AIDS patients are most likely to inherit the condition and give us an ideal test pool. Having said that, the young man you have brought with you, if his infection is less than two months old as your tests suggest, will be of enormous value to us. Be assured we shall look after him every bit as carefully as we do the infants.
“As to the research methods: we are using a mix of therapies that includes low-level chemotherapy, gene therapy and medication. The children are given a thorough medical before and after every phase, and if there is any sign of distress, they are either rested, or taken out of the programme altogether. Those who are taken out of the programme receive enhanced palliative care for as long as they need it.”
Kitwana looked at his wife and said, “I think I’ve heard enough. How about you?”
“I think so, too,” she said.
He turned to me. “Based on what we’ve heard, we are happy for you to go ahead with the work with these children, Max. All we ask is that you give us progress reports on each of them – good or bad.”
“We’ll set that up,” Julie assured them.
“And the other orphanages?” I asked.
“We’ll draft something this evening, and let you see it before we leave tomorrow,” Kitwana said.
“You don’t have to leave tomorrow,” I said, “you can stay for a few days, if you wish; enjoy what the city has to offer.”
“That is tempting, Max,” Makena replied, “but we have many more children in our care than these eight. Now that we are happy that they will be treated well, we must go back and take care of the rest. There is no shortage of orphans needing our help in this land.”