I knew straight up it was going to be one of those days. I don’t know how, but some days just have a weird vibe about them and I find myself feeling more flustered than I would normally, less able to focus, pulled in too many different directions. The day didn’t start out badly, quite the opposite – I had a lovely breakfast with my tiny friend from up the hill and then a nice long chat to my sister and then found the kids happily getting their work done when I joined them in the schoolroom.
I guess that’s what makes these days weird – the vibe can be off even when it’s all going well. So despite the good start, by the time I arrived at school I felt a little frazzled… pulled in too many directions… trying to multitask too many things… trying (yet again) to think too many thoughts and in desperate need of a little space to breathe. Tilly asked me to help with a question and told her to just give me a minute (while I sat cross legged on the concrete floor taking some deep breaths). Sounds ridiculous but sometimes even just a quick pause can help.
Feeling quite proud that I was at least conscious of my frazzledness and not taking it out on the kids, Sydney and I headed outside so I could listen to her (rather tragic) story she’d been working on. (It features a girl whose parents didn’t like her. They were so mean to her that they wouldn’t even let her come into their room and wake them up if she’d had a nightmare). Hmmm, reflecting on that, perhaps I need to dig deeper into that topic with her. Whoops, doing the overthinking multitasking thing again… back to the story.
After spending longer than I would have liked helping Jack make a miniature diorama of the Globe Theatre… (still not sure why? He said it was worth 1 mark. I told him the teachers were probably sitting around placing bets on which student would be silly enough to actually do the task) and with morning tea time approaching I was sitting at my desk when I received a phone call. It was my friend Mama M calling to tell me that her son’s wife was “in pain” which in this case was code for in labour. Mama M has 9 kids, 7 of them women, 6 of them of childbearing age and countless grandchildren. In all the time we’ve lived here, she has never asked me to give any of them a lift to the hospital to deliver a baby. I checked the details again… she wanted a lift, they were at her house, they needed me now. I told her I was on the way.
As I hung up the phone I looked up and saw Baba N standing outside the schoolroom wanting to chat to me. It was the third time that morning he’d tried to talk to me, each time I was busy. I hopped up to leave, told the kids they were on their own (not literally – there were 10 people doing different jobs at our house), but Cam was out and I was off to the hospital. I stepped out of the schoolroom / English to talk to Baba N / Ciyawo. He asked me if I could move the car back a bit. Cam had asked him and Baba T to wash it but it was parked on the steep part of the driveway and kept making noises and they were scared it was going to roll back and run them over. I said that was indeed scary and I could move it, but first I had to go to the hospital. He asked me whether I would take the car they were washing or the other car parked at Sally’s – code for, “Mama, we’re washing the car, you should take the other one parked at Sally’s” I said I was taking this one as the other one had a problem with its battery. Having sorted that out, I raced inside, went to the loo, grabbed a scarf for my head and some extra capulanas and headed out the door.
Mama M lives less than a kilometre away so in no time I had navigated the ever narrowing path, avoiding the tree stumps and as I approached her house, saw her and some of her daughters directing me to the “fixer upper” next to Mama’s house. The last time I had visited her pregnant daughter in law, she had been staying in a room out the back of Mama’s house so I was confused as to why they wanted me to park next to the house with no roof.
I parked in next to the house and jumped out to find Mama, four of her daughters, the pregnant daughter in law and some other lady I didn’t know all fussing around getting all of the supplies they needed for a trip to the hospital. The packing list looks quite different from the one I had when my kids were born. I bought myself a really pretty, new coffee mug and packed that. They packed their own bucket… I won’t explain to you why I think they need that, I don’t know for sure and some things are better left that way.
As Mama helped her daughter in law into the car, I was a little bit nervous hearing her directions to her to just sit there, not to push. With all five of us safely seated and not wanting to have the baby delivered in the car, I drove as fast as I dared (probably 5km/h) back down the little track and then onto the main road. As I pulled out on to the road, I put my mask on. “Oh no!” Mama said. They had remembered the bucket but forgotten to grab their masks. No worries – I now carry around spare, homemade, capulana masks for just that type of emergency. I gave some out and we continued on our way.
We turned off the main road onto the dirt road into down – full of bumps and barely wide enough for two cars to pass. It was here that Mama asked who had the booklet (Mum’s get given a booklet to cover all their antenatal visits and are supposed to take it each time). Having discovered they’d left it at home on the table, a frantic phone call was made. “Tell your sister to go and get the booklet, it’s on the table in the bedroom. Then tell her to come and meet us on the road.” There was no way we were going back for it then, we continued on to the hospital!
When we arrived, the ambulance was parked right outside the entrance to maternity. I pulled in right next to them and copped a few dirty looks from the guys waiting inside the vehicle. I knew I was only going to be a moment and they didn’t look ready to leave so I ignored them, they could suck it up. The three women hopped out of the car and headed straight in and then Mama and I swung back around to go and get the booklet. Her daughter met us on the road back near home, hands covered in maize flour, and handed over the book. We turned around again.
As we drove back, I asked her where her son was (the pregnant lady’s husband). She said that he had stayed at his other wife’s house the previous night, but that she had spoken to him and he was on his way to the hospital along with his mother in law. Nirvana’s ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ played in the background. When we arrived at the hospital I just dropped Mama off, told her I would leave now and see her later on. She thanked me and headed in to assist.
I headed home alone… reminded myself that there was no pregnant lady in the car anymore and that I could slow right down. I arrived home, parked the car off the steep part of the driveway and put the handbrake on really tight and then headed inside to give Catarina (our cleaner) an update. I explained that the pregnant lady (probably in her late teens) had started feeling pains during the night but didn’t tell anyone until the morning. We lamented about how difficult having your first baby was and young this girl was.
I went back outside and found Baba N, already starting back on the car washing job. Realising that despite having spoken to him, I had been quite rude and not greeted him earlier – I asked him how he had woken. I then headed back up to the schoolroom to keep going with school. Not long after, Cam arrived home on his motorbike. He came up to the schoolroom. We heard the sirens of the ambulance going by. He wondered where it was off to. I told him I’d seen it earlier at the hospital, parked up outside maternity, ready to take someone to the hospital in Lichinga.
Sydney finished up school a bit early so we worked on potting some cuttings into old long life milk containers until lunch was ready. After lunch, I started on a few projects… plugged the sewing machine in and sat there wondering why the light wasn’t working for a good long while before remembering that the power had been out half the morning. I was halfway through another project that didn’t involve any power when I came inside and saw that I had missed a call from Mama. I called her back, expecting to hear the good news. She told me that the baby had been stillborn and asked whether I would be able to come back and pick them all up.
I went outside to find Sydney showing Baba N and Catarina all of the plants that we had been planting. I told them I was off to the hospital again. Catarina asked what the news was. I told her the baby had passed away. I hopped in the car without really thinking that I wasn’t just going to give them a lift… that there would also be a funeral later the same day. As I got to the end of the driveway, I saw one of Mama M’s other daughters getting water from the tank. I stopped and greeted her. She was all smiles and asked, “Have they called? What did they say?” I had to break the news to her that the baby had died.
I arrived at the hospital, reversed into the space where the ambulance had been, switched off the engine and sat for a bit, putting on the headscarf I had put in the car earlier in the day. Once properly dressed, I hopped out and found Mama’s older daughter sitting outside with three of her children and two of the nurses. We sat and greeted. I didn’t realise, until I heard the nurse asking Mama’s daughter if we were friends and had I come to get them, that they probably wondered why I’d just randomly rocked up and plonked down for a chat.
After a while, more women emerged – the grieving mother wrapped in a brand new, bright green and brown capulana followed by Mama… carrying a tiny bundle wrapped in a matching brand new, bright green and brown capulana. She climbed into the front seat. I helped some people climb into the back and then headed back along the road. We crossed paths with Mama’s other son on the way out of the hospital. He was on his bike so we said we’d meet him back at home. I’d had the sense to switch the stereo off (Nirvana really isn’t great funeral procession music) and we drove the whole way in utter silence.
As we arrived back at Mama’s house, we parked up again next to the house with no roof. It was only then that it began to sink in, this was where Mama’s son and his 9 month pregnant wife had been living. We went “inside”. A few people scattered to get flour sacks, sewn together to form a makeshift carpet to lay on the floor so we could sit. I was directed to sit on an old, plastic jerry can which I soon discarded when the sacks needed rearranging. At first Mama sat with me, along with a few other women, but before long, they scattered to make arrangements.
The house with no roof is about 8m long and 3m wide. It’s broken up into three small sections – the end to the East houses a bed, mosquito net, blankets and a small table and is blocked off by a light brown, velour curtain. The middle room was empty. The end to the west contained some cooking supplies, two hoe ends (no handles), a small bundle of sticks next to a campfire and a pair of old, rubber, blue men’s shoes.
The grieving mother had been placed in the middle room where I was seated – she was lying on her side, curled up in the foetal position, covered from head to toe with her brand new, bright green and brown capulana. Behind the velour curtain, Mama had carefully placed the baby on the bead and covered him with the matching brand new, bright green and brown capulana. I was sitting in the corner, right by the curtain and each time a gust of wind blew through the open house, I caught another glimpse of the little, bright green bundle.
For a while, it thought it was just the three of us – Me, the grieving mum, the baby boy but after a while, the curtain blew open again and I realised there was another lady sitting around the corner – keeping watch over the precious package. I was relieved. I had been feeling a little overwhelmed… what if all of a sudden she started to haemorrhage? Should I just scream? I vaguely remembered watching some medical show (let’s be honest, it was probably Grey’s Anatomy) about rubbing the stomach? Was that it? I really had no idea. I just prayed… that somehow in the midst of all of the heartache, God would send us all peace.
It was the first chance I’d had to sit still and breathe all day. I sat there and looked around at my surroundings. For the first time, it dawned on me that this poor lady, girl really, who was lying beside me had spent the night alone in this house with no roof. Cold, dark, away from her own family, her husband spending the night at his other wife’s house, in pain and too afraid to get someone to help her. My heart broke. I thought about all the times I’d thought about making a mosquito net frame for outside so I could sleep under the stars… it didn’t seem such a fun idea anymore.
Slowly, women started trickling back in and sitting. I was glad for the extra company. I sat looking at our legs and feet… one lady had a prickle in the bottom of her foot. I don’t think she’d even noticed. This time of year is really cold, really dry and water is hard to come by. People don’t bathe all that often and moisturiser is a luxury. That morning I had shaved my legs, moisturised and my toe nail polish I’d put on at the lake was still looking pretty sweet… I was struck that even my boring legs scream rich, white lady. I don’t think I’ll ever come to terms with crawling into a nice warm bed at night in my super, comfortable house with my ensuite bathroom with hot running water knowing others are struggling so badly.
After a while, my friend Mama C arrived. She’s the funeral organiser – a cheeky old lady full of crazy stories who has an incredible knack for making me feel like part of the furniture. It’s always a joy to see her face pop up. She came in sat down, we all greeted her and then she set to work. Mama M told her what had happened and then she went in to see the baby. They laid him out on a mat on the floor and then sent some women off to heat water to wash his little body, some men off to dig the grave and rearranged where the women were sitting so that everything would run smoothly.
The rest of the afternoon was pretty typical of any other funeral here. You sit on a verandah, as people arrive they will likely shake your hand. If they sit within a few metres of you, you greet them. You sit and wait, no-one really speaks much. At the funeral of a tiny baby, you’re not really supposed to cry. But we did. Not loudly, but there were tears and some quiet sobbing.
The air had been thick with smoke all day and throughout the morning, I’d been anticipating an amazing sunset. I had no idea I’d be watching it with almost 100 women, sitting in the backyard of my friend’s house, waiting for the men to be ready to pray. Just as the sun went down, we were called out to the front of the house. We sat on the dirt there and prayed with the men who were 100 or so metres away. As the prayers finished, some of the men picked up the tiny little bundle, still wrapped in the brand new, bright green and brown capulana and led the procession past the group of women and off to the cemetery.