But my view of the room changed when I was invited further into the dark, square hut to the bedroom where my thoughts of furnishings, imports, and an otherwise clean and sterile world were interrupted by a World War I trench smell. Old cheese and dying.
The small bedroom, not even big enough to hold my own queen size bed was already filled with visitors. Kubondo and Laban, another man named Job who earlier the men joked about, Joel and the rest of the crew.
She was the thinnest woman I have seen. I stole looks at her through the cracks in the door, inhaled the smell, prayed. My first encounter with someone bedridden and dying of AIDS. What do you say and where do you look; what does a smile really communicate?
Joel asked a few of the set questions and when the others left, there were three of us Mzungos – white foreigners – left in her room. Joel, Steve, and myself. The smell was stronger inside the room. The smell of sickness, old sex in the corner, and lurking, patient death.
Steve held the camera awkwardly as she looked at him and weakly gestured with her head, slowly removed the thick wool blanket covering her chest to show us her breast.
The woman whose name I never learned, wanted us to see how the disease had ravaged her body. Her left breast spread up to her shoulder and was separated into two parts. The middle of the breast was a dark mass of a tumor like a black hole stealing light from the room. It looked textured and charred in the middle like a burnt piece of firewood.
The gesture was matter-of-fact, calculated, but vulnerable. She watched us silently as we looked at her, looked us in the eyes. Perhaps the last three people to ever see her alive, perhaps the only ever Mzungos to bear witness to the tragedy of her life.