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Notes for Adda

Published onOct 26, 2023
Notes for Adda

The static is always there, and it puzzles you because other calls don’t have the same problem. But Papa’s grousing still comes through. “Les choses sont difficiles,” he says, and you roll your eyes. It seems that the harder you work to send money, the greater the complaints.

“It’s just for now,” you say, impatience leaching into your tone. You miss your family, but not the area you’d lived in for much of your life, with its uncertainties and irascibilities. You eventually escaped without looking back—ample fodder for your guilt when it descends. You miss your family, but you fear, after years apart, that it’s a sentiment made of memories alone, dressed up in much nostalgia and little substance.

“How is Musa?” you ask, because you’re fond of your little brother, but also to wrest control of the conversation.

“He is in high spirits, even though the school has been shut down for weeks because of the floods. Your mother does what she can to keep him busy. He always talks about joining you,” he adds.

“Insha’Allah,” you murmur.

“I have told him he must make sure he works hard.”

It is hard work, yes. Hard work had fueled your determination to get out of your hometown, which had now become part of the Schisto Settlements. It had been rigorous: the repeated applications, the money saved—and blown—for the necessary tests and evaluations that had been, in the end, your deliverance. But it’s worth even the loneliness you experience in The City, a thing you would never breathe a word of to another soul.

Money from your earnings is taxed into a common fund, which will one day make the Settlements a thing of the past. You don’t dare question the process, which gave you your privilege, but you’re puzzled by the snail’s pace of things. When your father complains of worsening difficulties, like now, you’ve come to conclude that the man is exaggerating.

The World Health Organization had targeted 2030 for the elimination of Neglected Tropical Diseases, of which schistosomiasis is one. The strategy to control and eliminate the disease included preventive chemotherapy for at-risk groups, access to improved drinking water, improved sanitation, hygiene education, environmental management, as well as control and possible eradication of the snails which are the intermediate host of the schistosome worms.

The goal appeared feasible during the latter half of the 20s, as reported infections were mostly sparse. But in the years that followed, as interventions were neglected and information falsified by local authorities, the number of schistosome eggs excreted in faeces and urine increased, and infections climbed back to heavy intensities with no sign of abating.

Rainfall had increased, heavier and more extended showers, resulting in worsening floods, especially in slum areas like Arafat and Grand Medine. The disease had been more prevalent there, and in other municipalities with poor housing facilities where homes were built on a whim, erected willy-nilly with little regard for design or spacing. People fortunate enough to live in duplexes moved their belongings upstairs as the water encroached, destroying floors, furniture, paintwork, and electrical connections. They waded out to go for errands, to worship, to work or dates, trouser cuffs folded and bright outfits soaked to dullness, fashion sacrificed on the altar of daily necessity. Canoes were brought out from storage; rides to main streets brought small fortunes to those who owned them.

With the increased incidence of schistosome infection, more people suffered from bloody urine, anaemia, micronutrient deficiencies, chronic pain, fatigue, and lesions due to the schistosome eggs being present in the genital tract, leading to infertility in many. The less obvious side effects were just as dangerous: severe allergic reactions to egg antigens; intestinal damage and pathological changes to the liver, kidneys, and bladder, resulting in cancer formation; stunted growth; impaired cognitive development; and greater susceptibility to other diseases, leading to irreversible pathology in adulthood.

The City was divided into low-risk and high-risk sections—the wealthy cordoned off from the poor—so the affluent were protected from those “most likely to contract the disease.” Still, though, the rich needed the services of skilled workers: cleaners, security personnel, farm workers, construction workers, staff for hospitals and stores and the like. These laborers were selected from a pool of applicants who submitted themselves, at their own expense, to a battery of rigorous testing. If their results came out clean, they were transported to living quarters designated for the working class. They were now neither at the bottom rung—feet sinking into mudholes at the doorstep of a modest home, damp inhaled with every breath, plagued by the cercariae which burrowed into bodies and, as their tails fell off, domiciled in organs as schistosomula—nor at the top, far out of reach of both worm and gastropod intermediary, where policies and laws were created. This urban working class hovered between heaven and hell—serving but unable to actually inhabit one, prohibited from visiting loved ones trapped in the other.

But being issued clearance to The City’s working quarters didn’t guarantee a job, so there were always desperate applicants-in-waiting sitting attentively before their communication slides, waiting for a termination of employment, an accident, a death, any slot to open up, while receiving the barest minimum each month via their labor subsidy payment. The clock was ticking: the unemployed, no matter how desirable, couldn’t remain in The City indefinitely. No one really knew the length of the grace period; it was rumoured to be a year, eighteen months maybe, but the masked men in uniform had been known to descend at any time, with little or no warning, sending hopefuls back to the Settlements to again undergo the necessary rigours of clawing their way back into The City.

Every day when you report for work, you strip to your underwear and pass through a chemical bath similar to a car wash. You’re dried off and issued a uniform, mask, and gloves before boarding transit to your place of employment.

A temporary microchip in your wrist stores your personal information, medical reports, and place of work. It serves as a tracking device, records when you clock in and out, limits access to your workplace to scheduled shifts. This in addition to the social IDs that everyone, in The City and beyond, has implanted in their shoulders providing family information, current address, date of birth, blood group, and genotype. At the end of every month, you take the tests again. So far these extra precautions have worked; none of the rich have contracted schistosomiasis. Or so you hear.

In the eventuality of rainwater levels rising in the next couple of decades, finally threatening The City, flood-resistant buildings have been designed, with materials resilient to water saturation, drainage pathways, and ventilation to remove pollution and damp. Slowly the regular, albeit opulent, homes are being phased out. The City looks like snapshots from real-estate reality shows on TV: a place for everything and everything in its place. So different from where you grew up, which is probably the point.

You’re lucky to have found work as an assistant in one of The City’s major superstores, taking orders from the head employee, Jean-Paul, a plum-cheeked man who bustles about pompously. While your commute and neighborhood teem with women, there are few other male workers—not just in the store, but everywhere.

Adda, please go to Room 38. Adda, please go to Room 38.

You are stacking bottles and vials of beauty products when the announcement comes over the intercom. You glance around in surprise. You’ve never been singled out, and hope it isn’t a complaint or query. You’ve only been late to work once in the last year. Okay, twice.

Your coworker Tien, also arranging new stock beside you, notices your puzzlement. Her lips move in a small smile. “Probably just routine.” Holding out a pack of tissues, she points at the barcode. You bend to look and see a note taped to the bottom. It reads: Ne parlez pas. Refuse the offer.

Eyes widening slightly, you nod, pointing at the box as if responding to her query. In a daze your feet lead you automatically on, up the escalator to the higher floors. There are security personnel present. You hover your wrist over the scanner and a buzz admits you. The halls are quiet, cool, removed from the cacophony downstairs of à acheter et à vendre. Room 38 is decorated in monochromatic hues, clean lines. The screen at the centre overlooks a table with a lone chair behind it. It blinks to life as you enter, and you hesitate in surprise: the smooth-faced middle-aged person smiling benignly somehow resembles Maman.

“Good afternoon, Mr. Adda.”

“Bon après—midi.”

No, not an actual person. An AI. Programmed to set you at ease with its maternal familiarity and soothing tones.

“Asseyez—vous, s’il vous plait.”

You comply, gingerly.

“We are pleased to inform you that your test results at your last evaluation were excellent. You are in the top tier of the optimum human specimen. Because of the consistency of your evaluations over time, we are pleased to offer you more lucrative employment.”

Your heart leaps. This is the opportunity you’ve been working towards the past three years: a chance to grow, to escape the unending cycle which is your life.

“Might that interest you?” Mama AI asks.

“Yes,” you say immediately. Then Tien’s scribbled words flash across your mind: Refuse the offer. “Ce la pourrait,” you amend, and the smile on Mama dims. “If I could hear more?”

There is the barest pause, a hint of impatience, and then: “We are working towards raising the next generation of people whose genetics will have an edge. That means children better armed against diseases that have plagued us until now: superior immunity, prime physical, mental, and intellectual capacity.

“For two years, you will be housed in a top-flight facility, all expenses paid, groomed by the sharpest minds, fed with the best and most balanced diets, trained with cutting-edge routines.”

You nod, waiting for the ball to drop.

“Your spermatozoa will be harvested, tested for viability with the aim that at the end of the two years, they will be of prime quality. The best spermatozoa in the world, so to speak.”

“The best spermatozoa in the world…” You’re struggling to understand.

“You will be paid handsomely, of course, and at the end of the two years, you will be given the chance to renew your contract. If you decide to remain enrolled in the program for five years—with increased privileges such as visitation rights from selected, screened family members—besides the competitive payment, you will also have the option to be chosen as a mate for one of many eligible women among the elite—a choice that could change the trajectory of your life.”

You’re incredulous. “Like a fattening room?”

Besides reading of the age-old practice where young women were housed with the aim of being groomed for marriage, you’d heard the stories of how they were fed fattening foods, their skin pampered so as to become lighter, all with the goal that the girls be plump and eligible for marriage; plumpness implied increased chances for conception. They were gearing this towards men now?

“D’une manière,” Mama AI says with a hint of surprise. “But an improved version. It’s a holistic approach where the intellect is also fed. There will be mental as well as physical exercise. The goal isn’t fat, but fitness, and—”

“And fertility?”

“Well, that too.”

“Puis—je y penser?”

“Don’t take too long. You have a month to decide, after which this offer will expire. Pour toujours.”

“That month is to apply more pressure. It goes by like this.” Tien snaps her fingers. “You feel you might never get another opportunity to better your life, to earn as much—to land a rich wife.”

“What is up with that?” you grouse, sipping your daiquiri. You’re yelling in Tien’s ear to be heard in this bar, Gyrations, which you’ve never visited before. The heat generated by the press of bodies weaving and undulating on the dance floor, the bass vying with the babble of voices, the l’anonymat, somehow all serve to make you feel safer and freer than you have for the last three years.

Tien laughs. “It’s a goal for many. That’s the lure. We suspect it’s all a cover for their future plans, genetic engineering using algorithms and biotech. Once you submit yourself to being in that facility, you lose control of what they can or cannot take from you. Who’s going to be supervising if what they say they’re doing—the tests and harvesting of spermatozoa, et cetera—is really all they’re doing?”

“We?”

Tien scribbles on her napkin, tucks it into your shirt pocket. “This is an encrypted website. Log on and you’ll get all the information you need.”

You glance around, but nobody’s interested in two young people wrapped around bar stools. Tien taps your knee.

“See, they claim the Schisto camps are being run efficiently, that vaccines and medication are being distributed according to World Health standards. They have all those videos showing their progress, tests done on the mollusks, advertising how by the time they are done, everyone will be reintegrated, bla-bla-bla.”

You watch Tien’s lips in fascination.

“Tout est un mensonge. All doctored videos. Their end goal is to build more cities where they control everything and everyone, while those communities affected by Schisto keep degenerating until they disappear altogether.”

You think about Papa and Maman, about little Musa. “So, que pouvons—nous faire à ce sujet?”

“Everything.”

Cocooned in your room, it’s midnight when you tap out Tien’s scribbles from the napkin to your communication slide. The girl on the encrypted connection making an impassioned plea is probably younger than you are. The image is grainy, but her words are clear: “You think your money goes to the common fund every year? News flash: there is no common fund. It goes right back to your employers, the few elite families who run this City, this…system. You are, in effect, paying them for employing you.

“There is nothing being done about the Settlements. In a few years, everyone there will die off—it’s a subtle but certain sifting to create their own super-citizens. We cannot continue to be complacent, because eventually we will all die. Vous pouvez penser que vous êtes en sécurité maintenant, but soon it will be your turn. The rainfall continues and The City won’t be spared from the floods. Let’s do something not just for our fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters, but our own selves 10, 15 years from now.

“The extent of the rot within the system calls for action drastique. Away from The City, we’re collaborating with Médecins Sans Frontières, Greenpeace, and other groups known to work for the actual good of the people, et ne leche-cul du government. We’re fixing what has been neglected over the years—providing clean water to prevent the spread from contaminated wells, large-scale administration of caustic lime and calcium cyanamide to kill the eggs, cercariae, and snails, plus the use of other molluscicides. We’re reintroducing crevettes, the schisto snails’ only predator, into the ecosystem via enclosures, and although the scientists report the unfortunate limitation of the prawns feeding on each other, we’re importing more from neighboring countries and breeding them in-house.

“We’re dealing with the root of our problems, not just the symptoms. We’re making funds available to retrofit existing buildings and construct new structurally sound ones, similar to what obtains in The City already. More importantly, though, we have our own people working on cheaper quartiers d’habitation, made of easily accessible materials like bamboo, which can be moved as the floods dictate.”

One after another, in riveting, near-dizzying montage style, flash different, varied faces in sombre visage, delivering similar messages:

If more of us get involved, then we cannot fail.

Wake up.

Collectively we can do something.

This bubble is not real.

The floods are coming.

If we ignore this, we will not be spared.

You join up. You attend meetings, physically when possible, but mostly in cloaked rooms online. You halt on the streets one day when helicopters rain down what seems to be confetti on the unsuspecting public. They’re like gospel tracts, floating over The City in a cloud of white, pink, green. People stop in their tracks, startled from their zombie existence. You snag one as it flits past, smiling as you read the message, imagining similar pamphlets raining down on Papa and Maman, on not-so-little Musa, smiling because you are a part of this:

Nous sommes tous connectés.

Tien looks at you askance when you accept Mama AI’s offer one week before it expires. “Isn’t this extreme?” she says. “We’re already making progress in a dozen more communities than we were, say…a month ago. More and more we’re receiving positive reports about the people’s responses and their willingness to put in the work.”

You consider her words. She was right: it seemed you were needlessly putting yourself at risk. And yet… “The other men who were selected.”

“Oh yes.” She rolls her eyes. “Taken from the ‘top tier of the optimum human specimen.’”

“They’re probably a microcosm of the whole country, people from all of the places we’re trying to reach. If just a few could see the light, and if people understand that they gave up a spot in the facility, imagine…”

Understanding begins to dawn in Tien’s eyes. “It could spread like electricity.”

There is a period of intense “training” before the programme will kick in proper. Over days of indoctrination, you and the other inductees are lauded for seizing this opportunity to contribute to future specimens of a higher kind of human. Your egos are stoked: you are the genetic crème de la crème, the favoured few, pioneers in cutting-edge science.

These are also the days you get to know your fellow inmates better, and you begin to steer their attention from your shared desirability as specimens to your potential power as change agents. Instead of spending two years being plumped up as breeding stallions, you all could be effecting change in your country where it really matters, starting with your families and hometowns, bridging the ever-widening gap that living in The City fosters, so that everyone is carried along, working towards the common goal of escaping the floods and eventually conquering schistosomiasis.

You figure high IQs and good health should be redirected for the greater good. Working from the inside for a time, you might glean information which could prove helpful to the cause. You are cautious in your approach; you don’t want to be kicked out too quickly. Someone who prizes this exploitation disguised as elevation will eventually give you guys up, report the hushed conversations and shifty gestures. You’re not sure how much time you have; your eviction might be inevitable. Hopefully, though, if it happens you won’t be leaving alone.

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