“I don’t want a child who looks like that.” That’s what he told Rose when he first saw their infant baby, born with a cleft lip. He had come to visit the new mother and baby after all the generic messages of ‘baby and mother are fine’ had been sent and visitors bearing fruits and prayers had come to coo at the baby. The only seat in the room expectantly awaited him, but he ignored it. He had loomed over them, the baby sleeping silently in the crook of her left arm, and said nothing. He had just walked in yet it looked like he was about to leave. A pit-stop. He was carrying a folded newspaper. After staring hard at their baby he asked, “Why is her mouth like that? Was she born like that?”
She wanted to tell him, No, the doctors and I just decided to disfigure her little face a little, you know, for a little fun. Instead she said, “She’s called Hope.” She had named her after the character in Days of Our Lives. She liked the name Hope and now, even with her cleft lip, she looked like she would not be anything but a Hope. It fit her like a glove. He glared at her, accusatory, as if she knew the baby had a cleft lip before she was born and she chose not to tell him. He seemed to wonder, why name a child with a mouth like that Hope? His eyes fell on the cards standing on the bedside stool, next to the bottle of mineral water and a two-day-old bouquet of rose flowers. “So what happens now?” He asked. She let that question fill with its own water of silence then, while looking at Hope’s pale pink cheeks, said, “now we raise her and we love her.”
He sighed heavily.
He wanted a perfect baby who could have a perfect smile. A baby who wouldn’t embarrass him with her cleft lip. This, a baby with a mouth like that, wasn’t going to fit in his life. “I don’t want a child who looks like that,” he told Rose. Rose inhaled the poisonous fumes of those cruel words and felt her chest grow with, not anger or disappointment, but love. It was very clear to her at that moment that she would spend her whole life fighting for this baby and it was unfortunate that the first fight was going to be with her father. But it was also the shortest fight, as it turned out because when Rose told him, “‘If you don’t want this baby, then you don’t want me,” he shrugged his heavy squared shoulders, turned on his heel and, without another word, left. He left the windowless room, left the hospital with its flat roof, atop which perched big predatory birds that looked like old men basking, and left her life and the life of this new baby who had the wrong mouth and the right name. For good.
Hope grew up into a bubbly and confident child. She seemed unconcerned and unaware of her mouth. She brought joy with that mouth as she kicked her legs excitedly in her cot when Rose came to pick her up. She liked the bathing hour, splashing water with her chubby little hands. When she woke up she would stare at light streaming into the window like it was a painting, without seeming to blink. She almost seemed to understand that her name, and she by extension, represented the light. She burped loudly and the sound made her giggle. She was determined to walk faster than most babies would, a dogged determination you would say. As if she couldn’t wait to explore what awaited her outside. Hope was happy when she was a baby, when she was still within the confines of their home where she was accepted and loved immeasurably for who she was. Outside the walls, outside the gate, the world was filled with cruelty, of people who would not see past her cleft mouth. Past the smile that hid behind there. So Rose held her longer, closer, breathed in the scent of her hair more, kissed her cheeks longer, filled her with as much love as she could in the belief that all that abundance of love would act as armour in the outside world.
Hope liked everything girls liked as she grew older. When she could sit, she sat on the bed as her mom dressed to go to work, watching her closely as she moved about the room. When she could patter around, she helped the mother pick the shoes she would wear to work—Rose was a teacher at St David’s Junior School in Ruai. When she was steadier on her feet, Hope liked to walk about the house in her mother’s shoes as soon as she kicked them off from work. And when she could talk, she talked incessantly. And sang, mostly offkey but a sound that would stick on the walls, on the sheets, on the utensils and in their hearts like a beautiful stain of love. She was inquisitive, the type of kid who would ask grownups, “But where does the moon go every morning?” One day Rose heard about the doctors in Kijabe Mission hospital that gave children like Hope a smile. She was overjoyed. She started taking time off to go all the way to Kijabe to see the doctors. She took several matatus to make the appointments with the doctors. She waited for hours in the benches of the hospital with other mothers with their babies on their laps. Eventually, Hope had surgery and then Hope had a smile and when Hope smiled, she smiled like she had not just been given a smile but she had been smiling all along, only nobody possessed the vision to see it. Hers was a special kind of smile.
What can Rose tell us about being a single parent? Being a teacher, with a baby. Living alone, taking care of her baby, going to school to teach and inspire and then back home to love and guide and then going to bed with the heavy thoughts single mothers take to their beds: will my child be okay? What happens if I fall and die, which one of my siblings will take my child, and will they love her like I do? I hope I don’t fall and die now. I hope I live longer, I hope I get to see my baby grown, doing things she loves, doing brave things I couldn’t do, like maybe skydiving, or travelling alone, just her and her passport, going through strange airports in strange cities and calling me from strange hotels where the little lady in the lifts says, ‘going up,’ in a strange language and when she asks, ‘Hope what language is that?’ She says Macedonian, mum. She thinks about her own love life, how she has left it to wilt in the jar of love, never watering it and now it resembles more of a dried weed than a flower. She sighs at how little energy she has for love even though sometimes she’s able to distinctly distinguish between the solitude of her heart and loneliness. She dreams of days she can rest her feet from running around in school, from talking to students, just a whole day when she can lock her door, remove her bra and sleep the whole day without anyone knocking on her door and screaming, “MOM, I CAN’T FIND MY DOLL!” She thinks it is hard to make rent and take the child to school and cloth and feed herself and her baby and have some pennies left to take her to the mall on some Sundays because she likes how big, bright and shiny the mall is. She thinks of ways she can earn money to supplement her income that, like a mirage, never seems to stay in her account for even a day from the moment it checks in at the end of the month. Sometimes when she sleeps and she’s deep into an innocuous dream, she can always seem to hear the sound of the prepaid electricity metre warning her of darkness.
So she did what any single mother does; she got a side hustle.
“I started selling clothes to my fellow teachers,” Rose told me over the phone recently. It was a Sunday and we were doing a phone interview because she lives out of town. She’d travel to Kampala on a night bus full of traders in their puffed jackets and headgear for the cold, get there in the morning and spend the whole day shopping for clothes in Kampala’s bustling downtown, get on the night bus and haul ass back to Nairobi, sell stuff, follow on payments, after a couple of months selling off the stock, head back to Kampala. “It’s not easy, all the travelling but you have to do it to stay afloat.”
Last year she took a week off work and went to Kampala for her usual hustle. Five days in hectic downtown Kampala, looking at hundreds of shoes and dresses and blouses, listening to Ugandans call clothes clodhez and not feeling anything, realising she has grown as a human. On her way back she stopped to spend the night at her cousin’s who lived in Maseno University. At 7am she got into an EasyCoach and by 6pm they were pulling into the station in Nairobi. She was bone tired. She had left Hope with her mom who lived in Mitaboni, Machakos, so she got into a Nissan at about 7pm. She sat on the seat right behind the conductor. Her phone battery was at 23% and Hope was busting her phone constantly.. Mom, where are you now? Mom, how far are you? Mom, did you get me clothes? Mom, what clothes did you get me? Mom, did you also buy me snacks? Mom, you said you bought me how many shoes? Mom, where are you? Mom, are you almost near?
She arrived in darkness, at about 8:30pm. Her mother’s house loomed against the pale sky. Their house has two gates; the upper and lower gates. Her 14-year-old nephew came to open the lower gate. They hugged. At the door she placed her bag on the floor and removed her shoes. Her feet sighed. The TV was on, the blue light from it dancing on the orange wall. She could see her mom in the kitchen from the doorway. She was standing over the stove, she turned to say hello as her niece ran into her for a hug. She looked around and asked her where Hope was and she said she might be in the bedroom. Earlier she had been hiding behind the seats to be the first person to surprise the mom as soon as she walked in. She was excited, constantly jumping at any sound outside thinking that her mom had finally arrived. Rose called out her name again. ‘”Mom, where is Hope?” She asked her mom and she said she must be somewhere in the house.
“Suddenly I felt my skin grow very cold and my skin got these goosebumps,” she says. “It was very strange, a feeling I had never experienced before in my life. I just became so cold. Then I screamed.” She started running around the house, looking for Hope. She went straight to the bedroom she shared with her and looked around, Hope wasn’t there. She looked under the bed in case she was playing a prank and she saw their dog Tiny Dog, who they just call TD, whimpering under the bed. He was trembling. She went to the four bedrooms, opening doors, shouting Hope’s name, opening closets, the bathroom, the toilet.
She screamed when she realised her daughter wasn’t in the house. Her mother had switched off the gas cooker and was trying to calm her down. She was breathing hard, her eyes frantic. She picked a torch on her way out the door and stepped into the darkness. Her first stop was the toilet at the back. She walked fast, barefoot, barely feeling the pebbles and sticks under her sole. She opened the toilet door and threw a beam of light in there. Nothing. She checked the outside bathroom behind, no sign of Hope.
“Suddenly I heard a voice.” She says. “I know this sounds strange but I heard the voice tell me to run to the other gate. I wasn’t scared of this voice. I just trusted it. So I ran towards the other gate. Suddenly my path was illuminated by this light, like a straight light, like it was showing me the path because it was very dark. I followed it to the gate. When I approached it I saw my baby. She was asleep, lying facing down. I stopped and called her name, again and again, Hope, Hope, Hope…she wasn’t moving. My first thought was, my baby has been bitten by a snake. I ran to her and turned her on her back. She was heavy, I remember. Abnormally heavy. I remember thinking, why is she so heavy? When she turned on her back she had no face. I started screaming.”
Hope’s skin had been ripped from her face, her scalp torn off. She had no hair. Her ears were mauled off. Her eyes gouged out. Her head was like a red ball. She was unrecognisable. She wasn’t Hope, just a redhead with Hope’s clothes. “When I lifted her, her head slumped on the side like she didn’t possess a neck.” Her neck was broken. She had two neat red holes on the side of her neck. “I sat down on the ground with her, holding her in my arms like I did the day she was born. I was screaming now like a mad woman, like really screaming and crying. I looked up and saw against the fence a set of eyes looking back at me, very bright eyes, like bright torches.”
Probably a mother and cubs. Probably.
Her memory fades here. She vaguely remembers her mom showing up in the darkness, her own torch in her hand, and upon seeing Hope, screaming and then the torch falling from her hand. She remembers lying down on the ground while holding her baby, like they were sleeping together, and screaming her name to wake up. She remembers neighbours showing up, many of them, a small crowd, and then seeing her and her baby and stepping back in fright. She remembers their screams. She remembers the pain in her heart, unimaginable pain, an abnormal pain. She must have been lying there for thirty minutes as everybody stood immobilised by shock. They knew Hope but that girl wearing Hope’s clothes, that girl without a face wasn’t Hope. Surely, it wasn’t her. She remembers her mother forcing her up at some point and holding her and Hope as they made their way back to the house. They were both crying uncontrollably, calling out Hope’s name.
She placed Hope carefully on their bed, on her side. People gathered outside the bedroom window to witness the unimaginable. There were droplets of blood on Hope’s blouse. She wore jeans. She lay next to her, her legs folded. Her mom stood over the bed, crying. She remembers blood coming out of her mother’s nose. She remembers thinking, why is blood coming out of my mom’s nose? [Turns out her blood pressure spiked during that event]. She prayed as she lay down next to Hope, rubbing her hands against her spindly arms. “I thought that maybe if I prayed for her she would wake up. Maybe if I prayed for her, she would be all fine because aren’t we told to constantly pray for our children? Doesn’t prayer protect our children from harm? Isn’t God supposed to protect my baby?”
The room filled with people, debating, asking her to let them take Hope away. But she was holding Hope in bed. Nobody was going to take away her Hope. She was going mad in her head, screaming. Her mother was crying uncontrollably. Everybody seems to be either crying or covering their mouths in horror. People jostled outside the window to witness her macabre, her greatest heartbreak, her very death. Someone broke the bedroom window.
Their pastor showed up. This man of God. This bastion of strength and hope. When he saw Hope, he crumpled to the floor like a long trench coat falling from a hanger. He held his knees and wept silently in his hands. He no longer had scripture to lean on, a verse to utter, all prayer dried on his lips and suddenly he was just human; shocked, pained, fearful. He had never seen anything like this before. ‘I don’t know how long I was laying there with Hope.” Hope says. “I lost track of time or even of life. It was like I was in a dream, a dream that wasn’t even mine. A nightmare that I would wake up from but I wasn’t waking up.”
At about 11pm or so, uniforms showed up. The law. The Government Of Kenya; cops and KWS rangers. They had guns. They had hats on. They pushed their way through the people in the room and stood over the bed. They were men accustomed to seeing death, handling dead bodies, but they were also fathers and mothers and humans and they stood their speechless for a moment before the stronger of them said politely to Rose’s mother that they had to take Hope away. They said now Hope was in the government’s hands. “ I started fighting them,” Rose says. “Hope didn’t belong to the government, she belonged to me. I didn’t want them to hold her with the same hands they hold guns with. Hands that they hold criminals and animals with. This was my baby and she was precious.” She was hanging onto Hope and they were trying to get her to let her go politely. They were politely urging her that this wasn’t healthy. “Mama, tafadhali…tupe mtoto, tafadhali. Mama, tafadhali.” They gently pried Hope off her. “I followed Hope to where they were taking her. She was still my baby.”
She followed Hope to the morgue. It was dark. The darkest night there ever will be because Hope had gone with all the light in the world. “I’m being told how I was behaving now, but I don’t remember. I’m told that I was removing my clothes, walking naked. That I was pulling my hair out. But what I remember while at the morgue was that I was peeing on myself. I couldn’t stop. Every so often I would feel hot urine pass down my leg. My therapist told me that it was fear, or shock. I also lost all memory of people, I couldn’t remember faces or names. I had lost myself. My mind. Lost everything that mattered. I wasn’t eating. I wasn’t showering. I was crying constantly. People from the hospital would come and try to give me the drip…I didn’t want a drip, I wanted Hope and if I couldn’t get Hope back then I wanted to die….[long pause]…Can we stop now?…Please?”
I said of course. I asked if there was someone I could talk to and she called her cousin Virginia who came to the phone. Virginia fills the gaps for me with more clarity. Gaps Rose doesn’t remember. Her voice shakes a few times, contorted by grief. She tells me of Rose beating herself with sticks. Stuffing Hope’s clothes in her bra. “She would lie on the spot she found Hope in, just crying, or sleeping. In the middle of the night she would start screaming and run to that spot and just lie there on the ground, in the cold of the night. Nobody could calm her down. Nobody. Not even the mother. She would be calm for a moment and then start screaming, asking her mom and her little nephews and nieces what they were doing when Hope was being killed. Where were you? WHERE WERE YOU?”
Men of God came to visit her, to pray for her. She stared at them blankly. She wasn’t there. She wore the same clothes for days. She arranged Hope’s photos on the bed. All of them. She would put Hope’s doll on the bed and cover it with a shawl like it was a living thing. She would talk to the doll. She would scream that she needed the KWS guys to bring that leopard to her when they found it and she would kill it with her bare hands. She would rip off its head. With her hands.
She visited the morgue daily. She carried Hope’s clothes to the morgue and demanded for her to dress her up. She carried her favourite dresses. Her shoes. She carried a comb for Hope’s hair even though she had none after the ghastly attack. She kissed her whole body until the morgue attendant stepped in and said, “Please, you can’t, mama. She has been treated. It’s harmful to you.” She put her baby’s stiff hands around her, as if in a hug. She talked to her; mumbling things. Telling her she’s sorry she didn’t get home fast enough to save her. “I’m sorry, my baby, I’m so sorry mama wasn’t there.” At night she would insist on going to the morgue because Hope was all alone, with nobody to sleep with her. “We can’t be here in this warm house and Hope is alone in darkness. Let’s go get her. She needs a blanket.”
There is nothing like a small coffin.
A baby’s coffin.
It’s like trying to fit a lot of love in a small box that doesn’t fit. The smaller the coffin, it seems, the greater pain it bears. Babies don’t belong in coffins. Hope was buried last year in a small coffin at only eight years of age. She’d be turning nine this year. She’d have blown candles on a cake. Her family would have sung for her. She would have smiled that beautiful smile of hers. As the pastor prayed during the burial session, Rose— shaved bald now, breathless and ruined with loss – raised one weak and desperate hand and begged. “Please, don’t bury my baby. She will wake up again. Don’t bury my baby.” Poor beloved Hope, buried without a face.
Virginia says that for days after Hope was buried, Rose would sit by the grave, head bent, mouth moving. Sometimes, on the rare occasion that she ate, she had her meals by the grave. She picked wildflowers and placed them on graves everyday. At night she kept the window to her bedroom open because, “Hope might wake up and when she does, I want to be able to see her walk to me. We shouldn’t lock her out.”
The days after the burial were nothing short of gutting. She was in real and unimaginable pain, the kind of pain you’d feel vibrating like an energy when you stood next to her. She tried harming herself with a knife, Virginia says. “One time she poured insecticides in a glass but then she was so weak she slept before she could drink it. When she woke up she said she had dreamt that Hope had told her not to harm herself.” She had moments of great meltdown. She slept a lot and looked disappointed when she woke up to find that she was without her only child. Her mother held her. Prayed constantly.
When I got off the phone with Rose and Virginia, I felt my soul had suddenly shrunk. I felt pain. I felt fear. I thought of my son Kim, the same age as Hope, and I couldn’t imagine horror like that befalling him. I wondered how Rose was still waking up, where she could even get that strength. I sat on the balcony feeling numb and exhausted and scared. I wondered how I could even start writing Hope’s storm, without seeming to exploit the macabreness of the story. I thought of backing out of it, to avoid immortalising the brutality of this little girl’s death. How do you honour a little girl who dies in that gruesome way? I thought of Bradley, the boy I wrote about who was run over by a school bus in Nyayo estate. I felt old inside.
I was holding it together just fine until Rose WhatsApped me photos and videos of Hope. I wept. I held my head in my hands and really wept. The only other person I have ever wept for like this is my late mom. This is easily the worst story I have written, the very worst. And I’m done writing about dead children. I’m done.
Rose hasn’t gone back to teaching. To teach other people’s children, to hear them laugh and unpack the snacks packed by their mothers. She quit her job. She didn’t know how to reintroduce herself back into society without her baby. A functioning society where people wake up and have plans for the day, where people choose shoes to wear, where people laugh and add sugar in their tea. She hasn’t been able to fathom how life is moving on without Hope. No second passes without her thinking about her. She misses her so much it’s unimaginable. “I will always be her mother. I pray for her daily. I pray that God blesses me again with a girl who looks exactly like Hope. I will never stop loving Hope. My best friend, my only child.”
Pray for little Hope to find peace as she rests and for Rose to find strength and healing.
Also, the family is still waiting for compensation from KWS. If anybody who is in power and has any influence is reading this and can help, it will go a long way.