Starry Night

We are the crazy Wazungu that bring disposable diapers and peanut butter. Diapers for the new baby and peanut butter for the mother. Peanut butter comes in a large tub resembling a bucket. It is the cheap stuff, with oil and wispy particles floating to the top, the bottom is stiff and compact. I switch to a knife as my attempts to mix it become more like stabs into a raw chunk of steak. All Momma wants to eat right now is bread, “but she needs the protein,” Lisa says, so I’m mixing cheap peanut butter over a board and bucket counter top. I think Lisa also wanted to get it because Robina likes it too. “Karanga! Karanga!” She says over and over again, impatience clear in her voice as I aggressively stab the peanut butter that in the United States, blond college graduates wearing LuluLemon will buy in dainty glass containers with expensive labels from health food stores. The separated mess of oil and groundnuts somehow made “designer” by the need to mix it together by hand, convenience is for those who cannot afford quality.

Mama and baby are both weak, her milk hasn’t come in yet and baby is hungry. The duka didn’t have size one diapers, just size two. So the fussy baby is laying in a diaper that swathes him like a kanga worn by an expecting mother, from his chest to his knees. Momma and big sister are eating  the peanut buttered bread and little brother is quietly squirming on Bibi Lisa’s knees. I good-naturedly argue with the Dadas that have come in full force to help. “Unamgeni,” they say, you are a guest. Each time I pick up a broom, reach for a pot handle, or fill a tray, “unamgeni!” So I sit on the sofa and pretend to look at my phone in this house with no electricity, where drinking water is collected from the rain storms, and cloth diapers dry on the line out front. These are the peaceful hours. These are the peaceful hours for the father who, moments after the birth told me to, “go home, the hard part is over.” These are the peaceful hours for the crazy Wazungu who brought disposable diapers and peanut butter. These are the peaceful hours for Dada Kubwa Robina, who is learning how to be careful and look after her new Kaka Dogo. These are the peaceful hours when we drink fresh chai from the garden, the kind that tastes like Fruit-loops when you add just the right amount of sugar and milk.

For this land, all of the hours have been peaceful. Last night, when I said, “piga simu taxi,” call the taxi,  the land said, “Don’t worry, you will be fine. You are not the first Mama whom we have ushered safely to the hospital.” When we, Mama, Baba, and Aunty Bena stumbled out of the house, with wash basin, kangas, a clean blade, birthing pad, and sterile gauze, the land was calm. As we pushed through rough corn fields, the stalks bent willingly, “you are not the first,” they said, “good luck.” As we stopped in the pitch dark and waited till Mama could walk again through the pain, the uneven dirt road led us around the potholes and mud puddles.

I remember looking up into a starry night in Big Bend years ago and thinking that it was the inspiration for the masterful piece of art bearing that name. Last night, it was as if we were wrapped in the stars. Electricity has not arrived here yet, and amidst the granite black vastness, each glittering jewel was close enough to touch, even to pick out of it’s burrowed nest. But like each night time traveler, we chose to let them glitter in their settings, fearing a future night without the stars. So they remain for another needy wanderer, may they too leave them as they are. For Mama, like her baby she now swaddles, she did not see the stars, or the ink black night, she didn’t see anything. She just kept walking, taking hold of a hand offered, stepping around the deep ruts that cut into the earth. But the sky, the cooling air, swaddled her in that blanket of glittering jewels. “Don’t worry,” it said, you don’t know what is coming next but to survive now, you don’t need to see. Just keep walking.

I placed the baby next to Mama on the bed, helping him find her nipple, praying the milk would come soon. At the touch of her newly arrived son she shuddered, having not forgotten his violent entrance into the world. Perhaps remembering also Robina’s birth. Remembering how the Doctor saw death in her eyes and left the room, baby still half inside of her. This tiny thing that needs her, reminding her only that she is now needed and there is no respite from that. A new baby does not mean that Robina is now independent, but instead that she must find from somewhere twice as much love, or at least energy.

“The hard part is over now,” her husband had said, which for her meant that her struggle now, in the peaceful moments, was hers alone to bear. Baba is overjoyed at the birth of his baby boy, he has fulfilled his duties and pressures. He is now peacefully, through no fault of his own, more of a man, with approval from his father and men of this village, and he has given his wife the blessing of a son. And Mama cannot stand over the choo alone. She must forgo dignity in order to keep upright. The hard part is over now. Her body still retaining her pregnant shape, the pads still have blood, reminding her of the tearing, then the stitching. And always her son is sucking. Searching for the milk she doesn’t know how to find. The hard part is over now. She hears that as the pain seizes her stomach when she shifts to her other side, an echo that will not let her forget the pain of her husband’s gift. The hard part is over now. And she remembers the first conversation she ever had with Aunty Bena and Bibi Lisa, about ways to keep from having children. Baba didn’t want her to take the pills. Maybe now that he has his son he will not care as much.

In a lighter moment, when baby has fallen asleep, she lets her tired show for Bibi Lisa. There is joking, she smiles once, and maybe the hard part is over. Then the unknowing comment, “you should wait at least six months the way you are healing.” Ah yes, she remembered again how this worked. The hard part is over. Baba is a good husband, not afraid of cooking, willing to help out while she is weak, overjoyed by his new son. But the hard part is over now. She recalled Robina as a baby, and saying no to Baba. He is a good husband, but still there is an edge, he is kind as long as she lets him make the decisions, as long as she does not put her needs before his. She recalled before then, Robina the not-yet-named peanut growing in her belly that ushered in a discreet union. A passion they couldn’t wait for in the beginning she now dreaded. She told him it still hurt. He never saw her weak naked body in the choo, ready to faint, changing the bloody pads in her underwear. Each cramp reminded her again that her life was not worth as much as that Doctor’s good name. Baba didn’t known these things, but she couldn’t ask him to help. Not for his sake but her own, some things she didn’t want him to see. She needed him to see her only as strong, capable. Some things were too personal, too sacred for him. So the hard part is over. He told her once that birth-control would make her fat. Now that the hard part is over, her belly remained swollen, though empty on the inside. She smiled, he couldn’t get everything he wanted. She was ashamed that she found pleasure in this. And she was ashamed of the other thing she couldn’t tell him, that she was not yet ready to be happy, that with every suck on her dry nipple, it felt like the tiny infant was leaching away at her soul. Her body convulsed again, forgetting that the baby had already been born. Refusing to let her forget how afraid she was, she is.

It is the third day of her being a mother of two. She can finally walk to the other room on her own. Her milk has come in, and the baby cries less, poops more, eats all the time. The more she gains strength, she knows the Dadas will go back to their own homes, that Baba will begin to grow impatient, that he will want the Wazungu to leave. She visits with Aunty Bena late in the evening, hoping she will fall asleep by her side. Her Mother in Law, Mamkubwa, is here too, lurking close by, offering feminine advice. The same advice her husbands family gave her. It was not advice for healing, but how to conceal pain, how to swallow fear, how to return to her duties as servant and mother as soon as possible. She cannot be sure, but in the rough touches, in the quick words of Mamkubwa she feels resentment, like she too is remembering her scars, that when she had given birth and wanted warmth and rest she received only rough touches and quick words.

So she gives Mamkubwa as many errands as she will take, and Aunty Bena sits with her instead. She wants to be swaddled, wants feminine hands to bather her in warm water, to feed her from a milky breast, to sleep by her side under the glittering sky. Her husband prays in the evening with all of the visitors gathered round, thanking Baba Wetu, Our Father, for this blessing of a child, especially a son. She knows Robina is also loved, but she is loved even more so because she now has a brother, as if her father was reserving love for his whole family until he had the thing that would make him the most proud and give him the most respect. Robina would never be that for him. So while he and his Father God rejoice that the hard part is over, her secret prayer is to a different God.

God who feels my pain

God who sees my scars

God who weeps because I cannot

Because the hard part is over,


Love me

Swaddle me

Give me the jewels of the sky

Nurse me with your breast

Stop my blood

Heal the wounds within my head.


God who feels my pain

Feel it on the nights long after

The hard part is over

When I still feel the stitches

When again I remember that the doctor left

When the pains come even though the baby is out


God who sees my scars

May Robina never know her Father’s love

Is conditionally linked to her brother

May she never have these scars.


God who weeps because I cannot

Weep for my Husband who prays to a false God

May he know you one day

And by knowing you

May the hard part not be over

May it never be over so that one day

The hard part will be over.


2 thoughts on “Starry Night

  1. Incredibly moving as to the experience of the birth and the mother’s situation. Also, the realization of the cultural differences experienced by the husband as opposed to the mother/wife is striking.

    Liked by 1 person

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