Bless me, Father, for I have sinned.

I could have stopped a horrible thing from happening to someone but I didn’t try hard enough. I let my prejudice get in the way and I may have to live with the guilt for a very long time.

I had a neighbour, a friend named Joe, when I lived in my former apartment, who had a (gay) friend aged about 19 at the time I first got acquainted with him.  His name was Henry, and he spent a lot of time in our compound visiting with my friend. I found him really smart and all, and I also got to know that he came from a really poor family and as such, he had to drop out of school and fended for himself most of the time. It appeared also that he slept around a bit to survive, and for this, I judged him then. I was kind of insensitive to his struggles.

There was a time I heard from Joe that he was involved in an orgy somewhere in town. Apparently he had gone to see a friend for a hookup and there were other guys there who took turns with him. I wasn’t sure it was a rape situation; it appeared he gave consent, but I was very worried when I heard it, and I knew I had to teach him about safe sex and STIs. I did try when I finally caught up with him, but he wasn’t very interested in what I had to say. I got angry because of his dismissiveness and ended our talk. I felt like: Well, if you want to sleep around, be ready for the consequences.

I should have tried harder; I really should have tried harder.

Another day came when Joe called me and asked for a prescription to treat gonorrhea. I asked who the drugs were for and he said it was for his classmate. I told him to call me from a pharmacy so that I would speak to the attendant on what they should buy. I briefly entertained the thought that the drugs may be for Henry, but later discarded it. When Joe called again, I told the attendant what to give him, and then I moved on to other things, completely oblivious to what may have happened.

Fast forward to last week, I was returning from a trip and came upon that kind of traffic that makes you wonder who you offended in your village to be caught up in it; certainly not in this Buhari economy of 145-naira-a-liter business. Fortunately for me I was close to my former place, so I decided to take a detour and chill there till like 9pm when the roads would ease up a bit rather than waste (precious) petrol stuck in the holdup. I popped into the compound, and fortunately, Joe was at home. I dropped into his flat and collapsed on the couch, relieved not to be sitting in traffic.

He had a friend visiting and the three of us chatted about generic stuff while catching up with the times we’d missed in each other’s lives.

Then I remembered Henry, who’d be twenty-three now, and I asked about him. An uneasy quiet descended in the room. Joe looked down at the floor for a few seconds before raising his head and finally saying that Henry was currently lying in the morgue at the Port Harcourt teaching hospital.

My head started spinning, my mouth became salty; I kept screaming, “No, No, NO!” He was too young to die, I could not believe it. When I asked what killed him, one person said pneumonia while the other guy said Hepatitis, both of them uncoordinated responses that told me they were lying and that something worse had happened and they were hiding it.

Long story short, the young man had picked up HIV and was not aware of it. When he started showing signs of illness, the family made matters worse by taking him to a prayer house where he spent a few months and severely deteriorated. When it became too bad, they finally got him to the teaching hospital, but it had become too late. He died a few days after admission.

As I listened to this story, my heart kept breaking into a million pieces and guilt threatened to smother me. Even on the ride back home, the guilt hung in the car with me like a dark cloud. I kept thinking that if only I had pressed hard enough, if only I had pushed him to listen, if only I had put away my bias and taught him, maybe he could have learnt about safe sex and not come down with HIV. Our resident shrink Sensei tried to console me but I really could not put away my guilt; I could have tried harder and harder until he listened to me. This was a poor kid from an impoverished background needing guidance. Men preyed on him in exchange for a little cash which he needed to survive. And this was the end.

So forgive me, Father, for I have sinned. I did not try hard enough, for if I had tried, maybe I would have been able to save this young man from himself.

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