It’s a tragedy when a child gives birth to a child. When the responsible man, a man now in his 20s, disappears into the woodwork and leaves her grasping at the hopeless straws of love. It’s tragic how small her mouth is and how that mouth twists into a grimace when you tell her, in a room alone, that what she’s feeling isn’t love, that it might feel like love but it isn’t love. That the man isn’t going to come back. He’s gone, you tell her. He’s living his life. ‘How do you know?’ She will croak in a whisper, avoiding your eyes, you don’t know him, how do you know he won’t come back?’ You will tell her that you are a man, that’s how you know. Forget everything he told you. He didn’t mean it. Nobody means half the things they say at 21, hell nobody knows half the things they say at 21. He’s gone. Start thinking about what you want to do, you say, what do you want to do now? With your life that is, now that you have a three-month-old baby? She pouts and refuses to answer you because you don’t understand. You are old and detached from love and besides, shouldn’t you be interviewing her, not trying to nose into her life? This isn’t The Oprah Show.
After silence overwhelms the room and she refuses to look at you, her gaze fixed out the window, you say, as closure, “Maybe you should think of going back to school. It will help your life.” She isn’t listening nor does she care. She just met you, you don’t know her or what she’s been through, you don’t even know that love endures and is patient and that boy, man, will re-emerge again soon, So stuff your counsel in a pipe and smoke it. She stares at her feet. The feet of a child, a child mother. The wall that is between you two is unscalable, built by bricks of suspicion, raging teenage hormones, and a generational gap. You say, OK, I wish you luck. She scrambles to her feet and flees the room.
Her baby was born with a Cleft Lip, and because she’s merely 17 she doesn’t know the first thing about breastfeeding let alone breastfeeding a baby with Cleft Lip. Babies with Cleft Lip can’t create the pressure needed to suck the nipple. This means they don’t grow as fast as normal kids, they lose weight and being underweight means they can’t undergo Cleft Lip surgery if he’s below the 5 kgs needed to perform surgery. She’s come to the nutrition clinic at Dreamland Mission Hospital in Kimilili, Bungoma.
The clinician in a white lab coat demonstrates how to help the baby suckle better. He wears rubber gloves to hold her left breast and using his thumb he shows her how to massage and squeeze the milk, which trickles into the baby’s mouth. The baby gasps it in through that complicated hole in his mouth. He’s a pretty but scrawny baby, born with the wrong deck of cards and on the wrong side of the tracks. He also looks hungry and irritated. He kicks about with his tiny legs to show his frustration, hoping to catch someone in the chin with his soft heels.
Her grandmother protectively stands next to her, watching, occasionally hissing an admonishment because she is frustrated at her daughter for abandoning her child with her and she’s frustrated that all this child thinks about is running off to Mombasa to get a white man and she doesn’t want any of that nonsense because she doesn’t want to raise another baby, at least not a great-grandchild. She’s done with that stuff. She wants to farm and do her thing with her chama friends and grow old in peace. “Am I going to take care of someone’s mistake at this age?” She will say when you sit with her in a room alone. She’s wry and hardened, the type who is ready to drop a gauntlet at your feet any day, anyhow. You won’t even need to ask her much other than, how did all this happen? She will rant and bicker for close to an hour and you will let her because maybe she prefers unloading to a stranger or maybe nobody has ever really asked her how she feels. She’s tough as old nails but even tough nails grow rust.
“Here, try it” the clinician tells her and she tries to feed the baby using that thumb-massage technique but she isn’t quite getting it. He’s patient, you have to be with these young mothers. Outside there are more of them waiting on wooden benches, most of them children themselves with babies with cleft lip. The clinic is free. Rather, Smile Train that performs Cleft Lip surgeries is paying for it, as well as the surgeries and the rehabilitations after. After the clinic they send the mothers with nutritious ground grains and advice to the mothers on what to feed the baby.
Around these areas, in the villages, mothers with Cleft Lip babies get a bad rap. They say it’s a curse. Or bad luck. They call them babies without mouths. Husbands abandon their wives and children. Sometimes there is violence. Tongues wag. Women leave their matrimonial homes with their babies strapped on their backs, feeling the stigma. Most just keep to themselves in their homes, shy to venture outside.
Enter Rose Soita, a nurse aide at Dreamland Mission Hospital. Apart from her normal nurse duties, her main job is to go into villages of Bungoma and beyond, and look for babies with cleft lip babies and convince their mothers to bring them to the hospital for free surgeries. She calls it mobilisation. She goes about this noble mission using a trusted motorbike, a Bajaj Boxer BM 150. Which makes her an outlier of sorts because you might see a few women riding bicycles in that village but you will hardly see many women riding a motorcycle in Bungoma. Motorbikes are a province of men. But there is Rose and her Bajaj Boxer (love that name), hurtling through dusty village paths, asking around if anyone knows someone whose baby has Cleft Lip. She carries with her a rolled poster which she uses as sensitization. Her strength, she says, is the art of conversation. She enjoys the challenge of talking to strangers, breaking ice, informing, and changing hearts. Many times she is directed to a boma where the real rhumba starts because there she has to meet the man of the boma and convince him that the baby in there is not a curse or evil and that it can all be corrected if only he lets her talk to the mother. “To get to talk to women, you have to first talk to men,” she says. And she knows the language of men, she’s learned it over time.
“I have combed this whole area of Bungoma and brought in every baby with Cleft Lip for surgery,” she said. “ Then I widened the net going further and further away from Bungoma to Pokot and Kisii, Kapenguria, places that take her hours and hours to ride. Places with different languages, a different culture.” Language and culture don’t mean much to her because people are just people and most just want their children to grow up healthy.
I asked her if I could accompany her to one of her rounds on her (pause) Bajaj Boxer which was parked under a shade. I sat behind her and got comfortable. She looked back and asked, “Have you ridden on a motorbike before?” Of course, yes. Who hasn’t? But I can’t ride, I declared beforehand. “Have you had a female rider carry you before??” I said she was my first. She gunned the beast and it coughed and sputtered to life. “Hold tight,” she said and eased outside the hospital compound. There were men milling outside, mostly bodaboda guys shooting the breeze. They watched us ride by with both amusement and what I chose to believe was envy. I wish I could say the wind was in my hair but I don’t have hair. However, the wind whispered things in my ear. The weather was fantastic, the sky was the kind of blue that reminded one of Brad Pitt’s eyes in Fight Club.
“Who taught you how to ride a motorbike?” I asked her. She turned her head and shouted, “What?” I shouted back, leaning in, “Who taught you how to ride a motorbike?” She shouted back that she learned on her own, when she was working at Kenya Women Finance Trust. Her male counterparts weren’t too keen to teach her but she would stand and watch whenever they rode into villages to mobilise women to form groups in order to qualify for loans. “Just like that?” I shouted, “by watching?”
“Sio ngumu!” She shouted back. When your ride on a bike your conversation is generally marked by shouting at each other.
We went down a road called Khwiroro Kaptola Road, which is a red-soiled road framed by trees on each side and surrounded by small parcels of farmland. We zipped past men standing watch over cows and some goats who grazed by the roadside, children carrying jerricans or baskets, lone men in old coats, and women standing by the roadside chatting. Sometimes she waved with one hand and said hello. We went past a river called Kibinge River, past Tema Temba market, and through quiet villages with fluffy cotton clouds hanging over them. We went past Kamacho, past Kapsokuony. Occasionally someone would turn and stare at us, otherwise, nobody bothered with us. I bounced behind her, as the road rose and fell under my bum.
I occasionally shouted questions like “What do village men think of you riding a motorcycle?” They are shocked, she shouted back giggling. They can’t believe a woman can ride a motorcycle. They have a name for her, they call her Mwanamke Bomba. She loves that name. I love that name too. Most respect her. “You have to earn the respect of these men” she said. I asked how, and she said, “By being yourself..” Yeah, be yourself. Does your husband ride as well? I asked. “Sina bwana!” She shouted.
“Oh, ako wapi?” I shouted. This was turning out to be the longest I have shouted at another person.
“Alikula kona!” She said.
“Ali kula kona?” She repeated in the whistling wind.
“Pole sana!” I shouted assuming that he died, only to discover later that ku “kula kona” means to divorce. Maybe it’s a Bungoma colloquial, who the hell knows, I just worked there. She has kids though, 17 and 10 years old. The men in the village, though, find her a novelty of sorts. They are fascinated by her. “They see me as one of them. So whenever my bike breaks down, they will always stop to assist. Also, nobody can steal this bike because they see it as a bike that helps the community.”
The Bajaj Boxer.
We stop next to two women. One has a baby strapped around her. “Oriena?” She greets them After niceties she tells them where she works, at the mission hospital in Kimilili. She tells them about children with Cleft Lip and how it happens that some babies are just born like that. She rolls the poster and they move closer to look. Her community dance has started. I wander off to go pee in the bush. When I come back I find a gentleman has joined the group and is listening keenly to the story of cleft lips. He has two black chickens with him, feet tied and hanging upside down. The chickens are calm given their position and are also listening to her talk about cleft lip. It’s quite possible that those chickens, if still alive, have more information about Cleft Lip than most people. At some point I start feeling sorry for these chickens; hanging upside down like that, they must suffer from a very bad headrush with all that blood accumulating in their small heads.
Later when they have finished asking their questions I tap the guy on the shoulder and pull him aside and ask him where he’s taking the kukus? He says the market. He’s selling them; 450 a pop. I offer to buy them for Rose. The women don’t know of any Cleft babies in the village, I hear them say. “Well, if you hear of any, ask them to come to the mission hospital in Kimilili, they will get free surgery.”
I get on the bike with our two black protesting companions but as soon as we are on our way, they calm down. Amazing how fast a chicken’s life changes; one moment you are headed north to the market, hanging upside down, and the next you are headed south on a motorbike ridden by a woman.
“You bought chicken?” Rose shouts, amused, I tell her it’s my gift to her, for not breaking my neck on this bike. The wind carries her laughter to the trees.
We make two more stops. She talks to more villagers about Cleft Lip. She explains to them that this is not evil. This is a condition and it can be corrected. For free. The free part is very important, she tells me. After an hour we head back. I ask her what can make her job more comfortable but she’s shy to tell me what she needs, but I gather that she needs raincoats because often she rides in the rain for long distances in order to get to her destination or to get back to her children. I have never been on a motorbike when it rains but I don’t imagine it’s a walk on the beach. She needs umbrellas. She constantly needs a full tank of fuel. Most importantly she needs helmets. Her last one broke. Maybe even a sexy pink one with the initials MB on it, Mwanamke Bomba.