Family.

Like arrows in the hands of a warrior are the sons born in ones youth. Mzee Mameti had seven such arrows and three lasses among them. His humble home in the village of Mbande felt like a small school with no recess. The spaces in between the walls were constantly filled with good natured banter; sometimes so loud it was hard to focus on anything else.

Theirs was not like present times, where we live in our quaint apartments and fight for ‘personal space.’ A house with ten children, plus a few relatives in transition, did not thrive on personal space. First, all chores were distributed equally regardless of gender; food was sourced from the farm where they spent time chasing squirrels, climbing trees and hiding amongst plants. Bath time was a spectacle. Buckets of water were placed in the sun to gain heat and everyone bathed communally beneath the sky; and dried in the sun too. On the flip side, they never lacked for friends or allies; it was a home of sharing and solidarity.

When the kids were young, Mameti and his wife Namalwa, were agile enough to manage the flock together. But as they advanced in age, the older siblings took to caring for the younger ones. Fofo especially held the medal. He was the second born and had an easy way about him. In the evenings after chores were done, he would gather his siblings in the veranda and dance to pop music from his small transistor radio. He would hold it above his shoulder and move to the beat until the batteries died. His siblings would giggle into the night while the youngest girl would fall over herself with exaggerated glee as she watched him try to mimic Michael Jackson’s impossible moves.

Not only was he the Mameti family entertainer, he was the gift that kept on giving. Whenever he left home, he rarely came back empty handed. Dishing out treats and sweets to the young ones; their favourite being the coriander spiced drop scones that everyone anticipated. In every home, there is that child that brings people together and becomes the stem from which other branches grow. Fofo was that child. He was the glue. They were the branches.

It did not come as a surprise then, that he chose to pursue a career in civil engineering. His penchant for bringing people together was transferred to his work. He loved to create, arrange and align materials and build something from the ground up. Even if most of his work entailed drawings and supervision, he never stood back during construction and preferred instead to put brick upon brick under the glare of the sun. And in his quest to keep giving he designed one of his sisters houses and supervised its construction from start to end.

When he came of age, he called his dad aside. “Dad I would like you to see the piece of land where I intend to build and settle soon.” They walked side by side, his dad beaming with pride at how his boy was so much like him. Disciplined and dependable to a fault. As they journeyed together to see this place, Mameti felt a certain closeness to his son that he had not felt before; probably the camaraderie between men. Later, he will look back on this day with many unanswered questions.

For now, Fofo remained excited. He had met a girl and wanted to make an honest woman out of her. He was busy with work, with caring for his siblings and with the anticipation of new things to come that he didn’t notice the pimple that appeared on his left leg just above his ankle. No one who is busy and optimistic about things to come, spends time observing areas around the body that are mostly covered. So he didn’t. Yet it persisted there like an animal hunting its prey. It lay there silently, moving beneath the surface, making no sound, ready to pounce.

And pounce it did.

The pimple — maybe after a scrape — formed a scab and if you looked closely, it had a wound right at the base. At the hospital, the doctor said it looked suspicious like a husband who leaves a room when he receives a call late in the night. So they took a biopsy of it to further examine it. No one in the family fussed over it, I mean the thing was the size of an eraser at the back of a pencil. Until the results came.

It is often weird how the diagnosis of cancer usually precedes its symptoms. Before it, you are bouncing healthily along the journey of life completely unaware that a group of cells in your body have gone rogue. When the word is thrown at you, the switch is instant. Symptoms begin to appear one after the other. Fofo is lucky he didn’t hear it first hand though. His dad did and it nearly killed him.

Mzee Mameti sensed somewhere in his gut that a storm was coming so he asked to be told the results first. He wasn’t ready for the truck that hit him, reversed and went over him, crushing his bones. “Your son has malignant melanoma and has two years to live.” For the first time in his life, he lost his balance. He was rendered speechless. His mind took him back to the day he had walked with his son, side by side to see his piece of land; with the promise of the future before them. How that scene ended up in this one, he couldn’t fathom. And he wept.

Fofo remained still as a coffin. His state of mind was hard to read and he handled this the way he did most things, with a smile. The plan was to refer him to the city for further management. As they planned for this, one day while in a matatu, the pimple just started to bleed — unprovoked. It wasn’t the kind of bleeding that occurs when you burst a pimple, it was more of a continuous downpour that alarmed him enough to go back to hospital. The family felt they needed a second opinion. Fofo had never been sick a day in his life. Let alone Fofo. No one in their home was sickly. Which cancer was this — the size of a pea- that was ravaging their golden child?What had brought it about? So Fofo and one of the sisters traveled to the city in search for hope.

They didn’t find any. In the consultation room when Fofo was asked to take off his shirt, his sister gasped. His back looked like there were knuckles beneath his skin. Spread all over. After looking at his test results the doctor did not mince his words, “This is stage 4 disease. You have a maximum of six months to live.”

There it was again. His life reduced to a timer. How did two years become six months in a few weeks. How do you live with the clock of death ticking above your head? Do you try to finish the things you started or do you leave them as is? Do you start to say goodbye or live your life recklessly because you know it is ending anyway? Do you love more or less to reduce the pain?

They traveled back home.

For palliative care. He was admitted at the local hospital because in no time, his lungs began to fill with fluid. Until now Fofo had maintained his witty nature. He was still jovial and didn’t give room for gloom to grow in his heart. But in this admission the fluid filled lungs pushed away his laughter, his joy, his smile. Before they were ready to release him, he left, held in his mothers arms on a warm sunny Sunday afternoon in January.

When Fofo died, Mametis home became silent for the first time in many years. Somehow it felt like everyone had died. Because he was so many things to all of them. The young ones would sit by the gate hoping he would turn the corner with the dropscones but he never came. It was inconceivable that in just six months, what started as a small pimple had ended with irreversible result.

In time, the fog cleared, conversation became possible and they started to say ‘I love you’ more often. Family meetings became a thing and to date the ones in the city still meet and the ones back at home still congregate. They have become more deliberate on living and loving because no one knows when a an arrow will be plucked from the quiver. On 9th of January every year, they excavate their memories of him, air them and rejoice in them; and realise that his death didn’t tear them apart. It brought them closer together. He was still the glue.

In loving memory of Charles Mufwoyongo Mameti

As told to me by Dr Lilian Mameti

Melanoma is a serious form of skin cancer.

It can occur anywhere on the skin, e.g. the back, the skin lining the mouth, nose, genitals and other hidden areas.

When it is not treated, melanoma can spread to organs inside the body.

Melanoma can run in families.

Symptoms: Melanoma often looks like a brown or black mole or birthmark. People can remember the abnormal features of melanoma by thinking of the letters A, B, C, D, and E

Asymmetry — One half can look different than the other half.

Border — It can have a jagged or uneven edge.

Color — It can have different colors.

Diameter — It is larger than the eraser on the end of a pencil.

Evolution — Its size, color, or shape can change over time.

Skin affected by melanoma can also bleed or become swollen, red, or crusty.

**Many moles and birthmarks are normal and are not melanoma. But if you have a mole or birthmark that you think might be abnormal, show it to your doctor or nurse.

Tests: A biopsy during which, a doctor will usually remove the whole abnormal area.

Staging: Staging is a way in which doctors find out how deep in the skin and how far inside the body the melanoma has spread.

The right treatment for you will depend a lot on the stage of your melanoma, age and presence of other medical problems.

Treatment: Can be: Surgical, Chemoradiation and immunotherapy

Can melanoma be prevented? — You can prevent melanoma by protecting your skin from the sun’s rays. Sun exposure and sunburn are a big cause of melanoma. To reduce the chance of getting melanoma, you can:

●Stay out of the sun in the middle of the day (from 10 AM to 4 PM).

●Wear sunscreen and reapply it often.

●Wear a wide-brimmed hat, long-sleeved shirt, or long pants.