When a child is not ready …

It was my mother who predicted it one day. She looked at my feet which were swollen beyond recognition and watched my shallow breathing. Then with a strange look in her eyes, she stated,

“There’s more than one child in that belly of yours.”

I didn’t want to believe her because life was hard for us farmers. The thought of just one new child was difficult. Still, I collected a few extra items from the second-hand market as a precaution. I also tore two pieces from my best kitenge as if unconsciously preparing for two babies. Contrary to the saying, “A poor man’s cow never bears calves”, I came back from the birthing place with not two but three babies. Their father with a mixture of fear and pride in his eyes named them by the order that they arrived;

Kulwa the one that came first, Doto the second surprise guest, and Doi who was least expected.

Kulwa’s birth was similar to his character. He arrived with a strong, lustful cry and hungry mouth. His limbs kicking as if he couldn’t wait to take his place in the world. Doto seemed mild. He announced his arrival with a sharp cry and then contented himself with peacefully sucking his fingers. It almost felt like he wanted to prove that he can make a sound and once was enough evidence. Doi arrived oblivious of the surprise and wonder that accompanied his birth. He arrived quiet and small compared to his brothers. The midwife moved and poked at him to make sure he was alive. He was very much so but didn’t announce his presence. He came as a quiet, little bundle with a heartbeat.

It was my mother again who carried each of her grandsons and proclaimed,

“The youngest wasn’t ready, Mwana.”

And I remember my throat contracting as I waited for her to explain. This is the story she told me:

I am not sure where children come from, Mwana. The priest man said a Holy Man who is also the father of Yesu gives them to us. My Bibi told me they come from those who left this world and are now walking another. Maybe they are all right. Maybe the holy man lives there too. The point is, the essence of life sometimes chooses to come and be with us again. So when a woman is ready and welcoming, she will carry the essence and give it form. After nine months of growing, the child is born to continue the circle of life. But you see, Mwana, some essence may get to a woman when it’s not ready. If the essence realizes this quickly, that’s when a woman loses a child before it takes form. Sometimes it waits too long and will be born, but maybe lifeless upon birth or with deformity. Because the unsure spirit was too restless to form all that it needs for this life.

I then pointed out that Doi did not seem to have any evident disability, she just shook her head and said,

“There were three of them in your womb, Mwana. He just wasn’t ready but had to travel with his brothers.”

Mama meant well but that story haunted my entire motherhood. I raised the boys with a gnawing worry as they claimed their spots on earth. Kulwa always the leader with a thirst for knowledge and power. He studied far and held important jobs. Always ambitious and authoritative. It is Kulwa who build this envious house for his father and me. It is thanks to him that we do not have to break our backs on the farm anymore.

Doto grew up without his brother’s evident aspirations but he learned well and was easily contented. He has a good modest life and raises polite, well-dressed children with a sweet wife. He is just enough and happy with being in a nearby town.

Doi remained quiet and dreamy with a smile of a small child. He struggled to fit in and just understand basic life components. He made few friends because when other boys played with the nylon ball in the dirt, he sat for hours by the anthill watching the ants crawl. Then he would come to me and tell me all about the ants collecting crumbs. While his brothers built families, found jobs, and ventured out, Doi was telling me how the sugarcane in the neighbor’s farm would not be as sweet because the soil was unhappy.

I spent a lot of time worrying about Doi as only a mother could. I pushed, shoved, nudged him towards his own path but he seemed content just to be. And now my strength is gone, just like their father. I live in this big house and spend my days daydreaming of the past and looking forward to meeting those that left us. My back won’t stretch anymore and I tire from a simple conversation.

On a few occasions, all three of my boys come to me. I see Kulwa, still thirsty and in a hurry. He listens to me with effort as if my words come out too slow. He sits in front of me but his heart is dreaming of new conquests. I see Doto, content with doing exactly what he wants because no one is watching. He looks lost between a scream and a sigh. Like he’s not sure which best expresses him. And then I see Doi, still with a childlike smile. Doi who always seems to know when my legs are too tired to hold my weight. It’s Doi who walks towards me with water before I get the words out to call for it. Doi who knows the exact time for me to sit outside when the sun is sweet to my skin.

I look at the three boys with a ripe, aged eye. And from this perspective, a part of me is now unsure. A part of me wonders if I have spent my motherhood worried for the wrong child.