Popular youth presenter Maria ‘MJ’ Jeremano took her seat. This is usually where my guests sit, she thought, shifting uncomfortably in the armchair. I must be out of my mind.
“MJ, are you ok?” asked Mphatso ‘Mpha’ Bandawe, MJ’s co-host and, today, her interviewer.
“It’s just weird sitting here,” replied MJ in a small voice. “I’m usually where you’re sitting right now. But I’m ok, I can do this.”
Mpha gave her friend a sympathetic smile. She couldn’t say she knew what MJ was going through but she could tell that her friend was lost and uncomfortable. She wanted to help but there was little she could do to make the interview easier except to get through it as fast as possible. They’d even forgone their usual live broadcasting in favor of a prerecording just to make it easier on her.
“Alright, MJ, let’s start with the basics,” said Mpha, speaking to MJ the way she usually spoke with uneasy, first time interviewees. “Introduce yourself.”
“Alright. My name’s Maria Jeremano, but everyone knows me as MJ, presenter of the TV show Survived.”
“And what’s Survived all about?”
“Well, Survived is a show that I came up with to give the nation a chance to know kids that have been through horrible experiences in life and have found a way to survive them. Usually I’m the one doing the job you’re doing right now.”
MJ’s attempt at a joke fell flat between them. Mpha quickly glossed over it, knowing they had to get to the full issue.
“Now, MJ, you sitting in that chair means you have gone through a horrible experience in your life,” said Mpha, “not many people can know that about you just by looking at you. Everyone who’s met you knows you as this carefree, bubbly person who doesn’t seem to have a care in the world.”
“What people don’t really consider is that people who seem to have it all going on have problems, too.”
“You want to explain on that?”
MJ took a deep breath. This was why she was here, to tell people her story, yet somehow she couldn’t bring herself to speak. How could she begin to explain what her life had been like until only a few weeks ago? I have to do this, she thought, sitting upright in her seat and pretending that she was alone in the room.
It started when she was much younger. She was just old enough to remember vague details. Her father was a dark, looming silhouette that appeared suddenly in the middle of the night and could never seem to walk properly. He stumbled constantly, always knocking into objects and accusing them of being in the way. He was a figure that rarely appeared and when he did, he didn’t seem to notice her. Her mother was a bit clearer but MJ couldn’t remember her properly either because she too was rarely there. She often forgot MJ at home and left her in the house for hours at a time with little food and no water.
Their tiny house was dark and dirty, and always smelled of dank air. If MJ met either of her parents in the street now, she’d never recognize them and neither would she want to. They weren’t nice people, proven by how easily they surrendered her to Chimwemwe Botolo, a young child rights activist, when he heard about the conditions in which they were raising her from a concerned neighbor.
“Chimwemwe Botolo is the same Minister of Gender, Children and Community Development that was arrested three weeks ago for his active participation in a child trafficking and sex slavery operation, right?” Mpha asked, interrupting MJ’s narration.
“Yes,” murmured MJ, lowering her gaze from Mpha’s.
MJ could sense her other colleagues present in the studio who didn’t already know her story tensing up. They knew very well what that meant. She continued…
Coming from the same village, Chimwemwe developed a fondness for the scruffy little girl he’d rescued from severe poverty and neglect. As time went by, she turned out to be a bright and curious child. Even with his meager salary, he decided to adopt and raise her. As his self-founded child rights organization made a name for itself, the girl he renamed Maria grew into a beautiful young woman; surprisingly beautiful, in fact. He himself was too busy to be attracted to her but his friends often admired her.
MJ often believed that it was misfortunate that the time his friends were admiring her beauty coincided with the collapse of the outreach program that Chimwemwe had founded. When the recession hit the country, the donors pulled out and the company fell apart. The two of them fell into desperate times. Chimwemwe couldn’t get a job with all the enemies he’d made of some of the major names in government with his campaigns and MJ was still too young to look for one. Days went where they didn’t eat. MJ outgrew most of her clothes and started wearing his. Things were getting out of hand and Chimwemwe, usually so optimistic and innovative, was out of ideas. Till his well-to-do friend brought him one.
“I’ll fund your new project, if you want,” he said casually, “for Maria.”
Naturally Chimwemwe resisted but his friend established the entire project for him anyway. Soon Chimwemwe was regaining his old fame and even more money than ever before. The two of them were set again; living comfortably in luxury. Eventually MJ didn’t seem like a huge cost to pay for his success, fame and undeniable fortune. Chimwemwe turned a blind eye to what his colleagues were doing to MJ in return for their assistance. He didn’t even blink when they asked him to find another girl. One more girl became two more girls. Two more girls became ten more and a boy or two. Before long, Chimwemwe found himself as a Member of Parliament with high hopes for Minister, and also a big player in the child trafficking and sex slavery trade.
He did great things for his community and everyone loved him- except MJ.
Eventually Chimwemwe decided that not only would MJ act as payment to his sponsors but she would also be the face of all his youth campaigns. The Minister’s adoptive daughter was the natural and perfect choice; more publicity for him. What he didn’t expect was that after years of suffering in silence and pretending that she didn’t have a care in the world, the youth campaign she was the face of would empower her as well.
“So I reported him and his partners to the authorities,” MJ concluded. “I have HIV/AIDS but at least I’ve protected other children from them. Life, now, really is good.”
There wasn’t a dry eye in the room when MJ concluded her sad story. Mpha reached across and hugged her again even though she’d heard the story while MJ was pitching it to their Executive Director. It was a sad story, one no one would have expected from the perkiest girl in the country, but it was hers and she’d had something to say. They’d just helped her say it.