Stories From Afrika

The Child Mother

Tuketi owns no rights to this photo.

She sat near the window at the maternity ward at the Kenyatta National Hospital, admiring the other mothers breastfeed and sing sweet rhythms to their wailing bundles of joy, and reminiscing on the downs and downs she had been through. Life was sweet to them, but not to the 13-year-old Mary, who despite having a normal delivery, had negligible motherhood knowledge. At first, she had thought it to be a normal stomach disorder, then she had blamed her lack of appetite to the morning sickness, her belly had started swelling and she panicked, followed the advice from her friends to take the slip, whose positive result had shaken her to the bone. She never knew what people did in such situations, whether to run or stay, her heart had threatened to stop, she had struggled with it until it decided to keep pumping. Rejection kicked in, her friends had left at their pleasure, one after the other, like a stream leaving the sea. She had hated herself, a burning hatred that had more than once threatened to force her into suicide, but then she had fought her demons and won, a victory she loved to hate.

Nine months of patience had ended in a bouncing baby daughter for Mary, though unlike all other baby daughters, this to her was not the blessing all the other women in the maternity ward thought. Seven days had dragged on since she was blessed with what she regarded a burden, or in her own thoughts a bad gift in good wrappings.

Being a street girl, she knew her baby’s father, but she also knew he would never take responsibility. Nobody ever visited her in the wards, not even him whose child she cuddled. Visiting hours were always her worst, as some of the women invited her over to smile and say hi to their visitors, and she hated the fake smile she had to put for their own sake. She knew there was no way she was surviving another day in the wards, each passing day meant an increase in debt. Though she loved the food and security here, she preferred the streets with those of her kind, the streets where 50 shillings was not so hard to come by on the cold nights. She had however broken their code, they were never to get pregnant since the streets liked someone who could run from the council askaris. His charm had swept her off the feet, with her gullible enough to believe his sweet promises, all the bliss, and blossom he drew in her dazzled eyes. She had given in to the pressure and watched as he, with a broad grin, planted the seed that would change her life forever. The pleasure had blinded her, and she had only cared for that which he whispered to her ears. Then he had read the signs, and started vanishing, back into the vastness he had come from, and this drove her into an emptiness whose only way out was procuring an abortion but something in her dying conscience had warned her not to go ahead with it, and that was it, she always listened to the inner voice, as much as she hated how it kept winning, they had always been loyal, and that had helped her survive the streets from the moment she could walk.

For the first few months Mary had hidden her bump, but as days went by, it started telling tales and all her customers deserted her, and the 50 shillings became a thing of the past. She had done all sorts of dirty jobs in the slums to fend for herself and the little baby growing in her, till the day her body was too frail to do anything but just sit and hope for handouts.

Her daydream was halted by a sharp tug on the shoulder. It was the visiting hour, an hour she had hated for the past whole week, but on this day it would be a different one, an hour she had waited for all morning. It was the day she would leave the imprisoning walls of the hospital, the day she would get back her freedom.

“Here is the kitenge I had promised” whispered the nurse.

There stood Josephine, smartly dressed in the nurse’s veil as Mary knew her. She was short with a lovely round elderly face, which was home to an always beaming smile, which hid away the wrinkles that were starting to form around her lips. Her veil was always pressed to precision, and her rubber feminine loafers always with a shine. Her smile beamed even more as she handed Mary a well folded and pressed kitenge dress.

“I hope you know your way around, the security guards will not let you out with your baby, so I will meet you at the car park”

Mary was speechless, but the warm smile as she crouched at the green kitenge told of her gratitude. The nurses had seen her plight and decided to let her go, though it was against their work ethics, they all knew the young girl would never clear her bill, knowing nobody had bothered to visit her in the past few weeks.

As soon as visitors started streaming into the ward, Mary went for the door, to the changing rooms and put on the kitenge dress, which fitted her to perfection. She looked at her breasts, which had grown bigger and she loved how the dress held them firmly in place. Her slim figure had transformed drastically, and she now looked more of a woman than the girl she was before childbirth. For a moment she stood staring at the mirror, savoring the moment, and surprised how the dress brought out her beauty, the beauty which the father of her daughter had constantly praised in his quest to ruin her. For an instant she loathed her beauty, and wished to have been more undesirable, then she would not be here, John would have never noticed the smile he always bragged to his boys in their den, maybe she would have maintained her dignity and never went to the streets in the twilight and instead would have done those chores she and her clique called ‘dirty’. The new dress promised her that all was not lost, her star had not burnt out but had changed face. She was now a woman and that’s how she would live, for herself and her baby. The first step would be freedom, for herself and her child, it had to be that way and she had to face her guts and take the risk of being caught by the hospital security in her quest.

Picking her hospital robe, she absentmindedly carefully folded it, and placed it in the locker named ‘Mary’ and walked out, back into the ward where her angel was sleeping peacefully. All the other mothers were busy chatting with their visitors, none of them noticed her bend over her daughter and kiss her gently on the forehead and whisper, “I will be waiting for you”. She walked out past the nurses who were busy creating a schedule for their ward rounds and winked at the nurse who had given her the Kitenge, who shone out a bright smile in approval.

A part of her was scared, she knew there was a chance she would get caught, which would be tragic, but she had to take the chance. Faking confidence she walked through the hallway, past the main stairway, until she found the secure stairway labeled ‘Nurses only’.

“Our stairway only has one guard, who won’t even notice you walk by.” She remembered the nurse’s words.

Taking caution not to look suspicious, Mary carried her head with an air of confidence, taking two steps a time. Finally, she took the final flight, quite hurriedly in the urge to feel the freedom the morning had promised, freedom which had been taken from her for a whole week and which promised many more weeks to come. In a few minutes, she had left the stairway, paused for a moment, and enjoyed some fresh air, one with no remains of morphine and other pharmaceutical remains, a calmness not broken by constant wailing of infants and mothers as they were coached through labor. She let the moment take her away, and enjoy that which she had yearned for each day and night beside her ward window, where she always sat admiring the vastness of freedom outside the hospital.

As she was about to make the final turn to the visitor car park, a familiar face sprang in front of her, and she silently cursed.

“Where to Mary?” It was the doctor in charge of her ward.

“Am headed to the finance office to settle my bills…” she struggled to keep her voice steady.

“Who is paying your bills?” The doctor inquired, making her silently curse more.

As much as she had promised herself to hold on to the newly found confidence, she was not quite sure how long it would last.

“Eeh.. my uncle came over, am headed to meet him at the finance office” Her confidence surprised her.

“Then you are going the wrong way, the finance office is right there,” the doctor said, pointing to a window labeled ‘cashier’ “And take care of your young girl”

The relief in her face was easily visible, as she hurriedly thanked the doctor with a nod, and watched him vanish into the main building before she went on her way to the car park, where the nurse was expected to meet her with the young jewel.

The sun was beginning it’s ascend, and so she picked a spot in the opposite side of a broken-down ambulance to avoid the hot rays, and as advised by the nurse,  waited, fidgeting and fondling her small necklace in her tiny sweaty palms.

‘What if she fails to come?’ her thoughts started on their tormenting. Each passing minute was like a handful addition of the hot coal she was sitting on, as the minutes came with a new wave of agony and distress.

‘She has to, she promised.’ The sane part of her was trying on it’s comforting.

Thoughts of taking off crossed her mind and without a second thought got up, wiped the dust from her kitenge dress, and headed for the main gate. She had decided to fight off her conscience which was already yelling at her not to leave, and do what she wanted, today it had to let her win. She walked hastily past the main gate, past the clueless gatemen, and sat at the bus stop point, looking like a possessed woman.

Tears were welling up, as she watched two buses pass by.

‘I can’t, she is a part of me…’ her conscience had won the battle, as it had the day she had walked up to a clinic to try procure an abortion. She hated how the conscience kept her from happiness, while still knowing that without her child there would never be happiness or peace, she would always be on the run.

She let her legs carry her back to the hospital compound, back to the same spot next to the old ambulance, sat on the dirt and letting her mind wander around with no specific item of concern, hoped the nurse had not come and missed her. She would have to go back to the ward and take her girl if that’s what it took.

The nurse’s office was a beehive of activities, visiting hours were always busy hours for the three nurses on shift. Josephine hurried into the office and met the others waiting to be updated on Mary’s issue. She felt no guilt on what she was doing, helping a patient run from the hospital, and knew if she got caught all the other nurses would come to her defense.

“The dress fits her perfectly, I don’t know what you were worried about, that girl is exactly my daughter’s size.” She started. “She is waiting at the car park, I hope she managed to go past the security”

“Nobody should know about this, we are doing it for her good, and it might ruin our jobs.” Their supervisor advised, and they all nodded in agreement.

“It seems somebody finally decided to settle Mary’s bills” Announced the doctor in charge of the ward as he walked in, ready for his ward rounds. “I met her outside the hospital and she looked quite lost looking for her uncle at the finance office.”

The nurses looked at each other and then at Josephine, who they liked for her situation saving creativity.

“Yes, she told us about it, apparently one of her relatives is thinking straight.” Josephine jumped in. “The young girl was becoming a wreck in here, I will just give her daughter some injections and take her downstairs to the reception to her mother”

Josphine then walked out to Mary’s ward, leaving the other nurses relieved. She reached for the infant from the cot, gave her a bath and put her into a clean set of clothes and packed two more pairs in Mary’s bag, and a few spare napkins. Her head was made upon helping Mary, and she knew that the young girl’s disappearance would be noticed in no time, and all she had to do was avoid any suspicion that would lead the whole unprofessionalism back to her. Having worked at the hospital for 15 years, she knew better than try to ruin her job, which was a second home for her, but she was a mother who had seen Mary’s plight and decided to put it to an end.

She waited for the top of the visiting hour, and as everyone flocked the corridors leaving the wards, she took off her cloak, and slinging the bag on her left shoulder and gently tucking the baby on her right, she joined the visitors, and at the end of the hallway, avoided the nurses’ stairway and stuck to the crowd. Having been around for so long, almost all the employees in the large hospital knew her, and the last thing she wanted was somebody claiming they had seen her with the child on the day Mary went missing. The mammoth leaving the hospital gave her the perfect cover, even the head of security who was her good friend did not notice her walk hurriedly past the main entrance.

After thirty minutes of her mind wandering her tiny universe, she felt a soft tug on her shoulder, and she reeled back feeling scared and excited at the same time. She saw the nurse towering over her, with the sunshine behind her giving her a silhouette outline look. On her arms was a wriggling bundle of napkins, which made Mary’s eyes glow. She hurriedly got up, almost losing her balance but holding onto the side mirror of the ambulance, and peered into the napkins.

“You look good in that Mary!” The nurse complimented. “We had doubts whether it would fit you”

“Thank you, it’s beautiful..” She replied, not caring to look up to the nurse.

The nurse looked at the young girl and just smiled, knowing the excitement that was rushing through the young mind.

“Where will you go from here Mary?” she inquired.

That question caught Mary by surprise, she had nowhere to go, she had planned on how to run out of the hospital, but never planned on where to go. John, the father of her child would never take her, and she had no intention of going to him, and her aunt in Mathare at whose makeshift food point she had worked would be the least welcoming to a young mother and her kid. All she knew was anywhere away from the hospital would be ideal.

“I have an aunt in Ngara”, she lied. “it’s been long since I saw her but I know where she lives, and I can go settle there before I get back to my feet.”

The nurse looked convinced. She handed the baby to Mary, and reached for her coat pocket and pulled out a 100 shilling note.

“This should take you to Ngara and still have some for lunch.” She said.

Mary took the note with her trembling hands. She was in need now, but if there was one thing the streets had taught her was to never expect handouts, and here she was, reality greatly contradicting the lesson that the streets had taught her many times before. For the millionth time in the same morning, Mary shed tears, all the help the nurse was giving her made her feel like she deserved none of it.

“I have to get back to work, take care of young girl.” The nurse said as she gave out a light hug to the speechless Mary.

“God bless you Josie..” Mary managed to whisper, to which the nurse smiled and walked off. She loved how Mary called her Josie, and made her feel young.

She walked out of the gate, this time feeling confident, and though she was on the run, there was an air of self-respect in her. She settled at the bus stop, and this time boarded the next bus on the line, and let it take her to freedom, a freedom she had started fearing the moment Josphine had asked where she intended to go. For the first time she felt homeless, she wanted to try the streets but feared for her baby, who was now sleeping peacefully, not knowing how harsh life was scratching her young mother.

It was some hours past noon, and her tummy was already biting, she had missed breakfast and lunch, the excitement had forced out any trace of appetite, but now she was free, and all the childish excitement was gone the moment she walked out of the hospital gate. Looking around the bus, she admired how everybody looked comfortable, they all seemed to curse the traffic that was beginning to crop up at the Ngong road junction. Her heart wished for the traffic to stop and never move an inch, so she would stay on the bus and not have to go look for a home elsewhere. It felt like a good enough home for her and the child, better than what awaited her in her unknown destination. She held tighter to the sleeping girl and wished to change places, to have somebody worry about her more than them as she slept undeterred. After paying her bus fare, her wealth was reduced to 80 shillings, which she tucked into her bag, it was her wealth she had no intention of losing. Her mind raced, trying to figure out her next stop, and on weighing her options, she decided her aunt in mathare would chase her away if she dared show up with a child. It is a threat she had given some time back, and Mary knew some threats are best not tested out. She would go to ngara, at least she was sure that her child would never sleep hungry, since some of her friends sold foodstuffs around the area. All she had to do was go look for them and maybe fate would deal her some fair cards and they would let her help them on their work in exchange for food. The traffic started loosening, and she watched as trees flew past her, as they drove away from the comfortable leafy suburbs into the noisy streets of the capital. She was running from one prison to the other, though the latter had much freedom,  a freedom that had now bound her.

She alighted the bus at Kencom, and for once realized how small she looked, with a child, a large bag and a confused expression. The streets stared at her, their discouraging way of welcoming her back to her old life, a life she had sworn to leave behind. The harsh streets which had welcomed her to urban life, but that time was better, she only had one mouth to fend for. Now there were two, she had her child to take care of, a challenge she had promised herself to undertake with a smile, and a promise she was starting to doubt. Everyone on the streets seemed to stare at her like her troubles were all over her face, nobody seemed to notice how well her new dress fit her frail body, all they saw was the hidden torment her heart was going through. She hated herself and her life. She struggled through the crowds, and let her instincts take her wherever they wanted for whatever awaited her and her little angel. Her tummy resumed its biting, and she increased her pace, not to look for food, but knowing her little girl would wake any minute, she had been patient with her young mother, maybe her way of solidarity for the problems they were going through. Any time she would soil herself, or wake up starving, an occurrence Mary would hate coming to be in the Business district.

She stood at the Ngara bus terminus, hoping one of her Ngara friends from her past life would pass by and save her from the confusion, but none showed up, everyone seemed strange, she was like a lonely sheep in a cave manned by wolves.

Settling at a food tent in the busy terminus, she ordered tea and a bun, the seemingly cheapest form of food being served. Halfway through the excessively sweetened tea, the baby started wriggling and in no time was wailing uncontrollably. The helpless Mary set aside her cup and checked her baby, whose dry lips told of the empty stomach.

“You should feed that child…” the lady serving food advised, pointing her cooking stick at the crying baby.

Mary just nodded and let her girl suckle away most of the energy the tea and bun had brought to her body. Mary watched as her daughter suckled on undisturbed, how much peace she had, and felt a cold shiver, knowing they had no place to spend the night, and nightfall was fast approaching.

After feeding the baby, Mary changed the girl’s soiled napkins into clean ones, and gently wrapped her in the woolen shawl Josephine had allowed her to leave the hospital with and set the infant on her lap.

She slowly sipped on the cup of tea, ordered another bun and watched the sun kiss the ground, and gracefully fade out, like the closing of the curtains from a thrilling play. In her innocent eyes, even the sun looked luckier than her, since it had a place to call home, a place to go lay it’s troubles something which was just a fantasy for her and the little angel on her lap. As the sun’s rays sunk into the ground at the horizon, she had a deep urge to follow it, fall into a deep slumber from which to never wake, she would never miss the morning, in the land of the sun her life would be bright, and darkness and life’s upsets would be a thing of the past. That land where the sun always overcame the storm. She wanted to go before the sun vanished, but then her daughter flinched, and she remembered she would always have a link in the land of the living, she would have to leave her girl in the cruel land where darkness and light shared the day, the land where the light always lost the battle earlier, and came up late. Even if she left, her soul would be restless. She had to stay for as long as it took. She had to be strong for her daughter, if not for both of them.

Picking up the bag and baby, the troubled teenage girl stumbled out of the foodshed, to wherever her legs wanted her. Darkness had taken over by now, and the street lighting was struggling to give the deserted station a scattered glimpse of life. Almost everyone had left for the night, those still around were rolling up their ware, and she felt alone making her curse her life.

‘I wish I had taken a chance with my aunt at Mathare…’ She lamented. It was now too late to make the long trek to the slum, not with the child strapped on her back, and the Nissans would be charging an inflated amount. Her feet ached, and she needed to find a place to lay them down, and pray that morning came fast.

She estimated it to be a few minutes past 8 O’clock, and the lively bus park looked completely deserted and haunted, with the silence of a damned graveyard.  Everyone had set off for home, except for some two drunkards staggering from their drinking dens, yelling incoherent at each other.

“You are so useless..” the first one ranted.

“You know I will beat you again and again..” the second threatened, and then reached out to his mate, wishing to beat some sense into him. The attempt was quite desperate, as he hit a failing street light, with an impact that helped the light go off for good.

“Stupid lights” he cursed under his breath.

The impact from the hit sent him reeling down, and his victim, forgetting that the lamp had saved his life, reached out to his assailant to help put him back onto his feet. They both had had too much to drink, a fact the victim learned too late, as he went stumbling on top of his assailant. That was the end of their struggle, the brew had won the battle, as they slept there in a pile beneath the now dead street lamp.

She sadly admired their sorry state, at least they were already asleep, and the booze made them forget all their worries, at least for the time being.

“Are you alright young girl?” she was startled by a deep voice from behind her.

She was scared stiff and struggled hard not to scream. Ready to defend her baby and herself, she reeled back sharply.

The stranger was an elderly but surprisingly well-built man, who wore a few bands of scarfs around his neck, a black raincoat, reaching down to his knees. On his head was a woolen hat, which gave him a humorously childish look. On his huge arm was a gigantic flashlight, and Mary’s young brain worked one plus one and decided he was the station’s night guard.

She felt relief creep back to her. “yes am fine…” she lied.

“You know it’s too late to be out here…” The man started. Mary peered into the man’s face, and noticed this ugly scar on the man’s forehead, and she was confused about whether to fear him or run.

“I know, but I have nowhere to go.” She decided to trust him, and narrated to him of her highly eventful day, which sent a rage of concern onto the old man.

“I will let you spend the night at my office, but you can’t spend another night out here, tomorrow you will have to look for a better place, these nights are not the best and you never know which demons decide to pay us a visit.” He joked, forcing a smirk which displayed a perfect set of nicotine-stained teeth.

The office was not what Mary expected, though it had all the attributes, making it fit the office description, with a wooden chair and a matching old table. On the table was a huge old register book, and a halfway chewed BIC pen which was tethered onto the table peeping from the book’s side. The office itself was an abandoned kiosk, with some of the shelves still loosely sticking out of the old walls. The cobwebs and dust on the shelves were proof that it had spent most of its recent past life as a night guard’s office than a kiosk. Where a bulb was supposed to be was a couple of naked wires hanging, probably live wires, but the flashlight lit up every corner of the office. A badly torn curtain dangling from the window frame made the final piece of décor of the office.

“I have no mattress but you can have the blanket” the man offered “Seems I won’t have so much of sleep tonight”

To some degree the old man’s sense of humor, though forced, helped Mary feel safe on a night she expected to spend like an antelope in the company of hungry lions.

The blanket was in a sorry state, severely torn and smelling of roasting bedbugs. She didn’t mind the smell and the tatters, at least she would not spend the night with her back on the concrete and risk a severe attack of pneumonia for her and the daughter. The night guard placed the flashlight on the table and left the room to go puff a cloud of smoke and take another sweep around his area of jurisdiction. 

Placing her daughter gently on the table beside the flashlight, Mary laid the old blanket across the floor, wrapped up her daughter in the extra napkins from the hospital, lay her on the side, and covered both of them with Josephine’s woolen shawl. The bag, acting as a pillow, was the final nail to her make-shift bed. For the first few minutes, the smell of dust and bedbugs chocked her, but her lungs slowly got used to the confusion, and some degree of comfort crawled into her. The night was going to be long for the two, but she braced herself, this was her only choice, or at least, it was the safest option she had. Two hours into the night she was still fidgeting on the discomfort with sleep a far cry. 

Realizing sleep was not coming any time soon, she let her mind drift off, reminding her of the comfort she has forsaken in the hospital, how despite the choking smell of morphine the beds were good and the blankets warmer than this one, the food too, though not the best, was better than taking a cup of sweetened tea and two buns for supper. The morphine too didn’t matter now, at least it was healthier to choke on the medical substance than a mixture of dust and smell of bedbugs.

‘It was my choice…’ she tried feeding onto some self-assurance.

She could hear the soft breathing from her daughter, who was peacefully exploring the paradise in her infant dreams, with her innocent conscience careless enough to care about the vulnerability that faced her mother and her. She was full and warm, that was all she needed to drift off in peace into slumberland. Mary smiled, not because she was happy, but because beside her was a gift strong enough to stop her from feeling sad.

The smell of cigarettes filled Mary’s lungs, as the watchman stormed into the office, decided not to disturb the sleeping family, and gently took the bright flashlight away, and vanished back into the darkness, carefully locking the door from outside. The room was now dark, and the watchman’s words haunted her ‘… you never know what demons might visit…’ she hated the thoughts of ghosts, though now a woman, there had not been enough time for girlish fears to leave her. Inside of her was an innocent girl wishing for some love and comforting assurance. The demons thought made her hold on tight to her sleeping daughter, at least if they were to come for her daughter she would go too. They would have to go through her.

That night Mary prayed, not really sure what she was doing, but knowing that she really needed to do it. She needed to talk to somebody, her daughter was fast asleep, the watchman was out there risking his life, and talking to herself would be a let down to the little self-respect she still had on. She needed more help than just a hundred shillings hand out, half of which was gone, more than just a creaky office with a tattered blanket as a place to sleep. She made sure to remember almost all she wanted in the short prayer. It had been years since she had asked for help from above since she believed to have been managing just fine, though then she was all alone, now with Hope, she had chosen Hope as her angel’s name, things were going to change, and they did. After the confused prayer, Mary drifted off, and let the dark of night swallow her and take her far away, far beyond where the sun-kisses the ground, far in the unknown land of dreamers, to go and join her daughter in their night fairy tale.

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