Consider the intrigue of where babies are made. In old boring beds with interesting headboards, in the back of white cars, on patches of grass, against walls in corridors with dull paintwork, under dull orange lighting, and in unyielding darkness. Behind old churches. On the boss’s oak desk. Anybody with half an imagination can make a baby. So, no baby is ever at fault for the failings of adults. Having said that, I like babies. I like them more when they are not crying, when they are giggling and making gurgling baby sounds that sound like water pouring into an overheated radiator. I like them when they are still fascinated by moving objects, how they follow your moving finger with their mouths half open because that’s possibly the most interesting thing they have seen in their young lives. I like how they can wake up in the middle of the night and you can hear them play in darkness, talking to themselves like psychos. I like when they show off; how they can bring their feet to their mouths and suck on their toes. Baby yoga. I like it when they are teething and try to bite anything and how they leave their trail of drool on virtually everything they touch. I like baby shoes, small tiny things that you can hang from your car rear view mirror. Babies will never go out of fashion. And you can match them with anything. Most people just match them with another baby.
The only time I don’t like a baby is when they cry. You can tell when a baby is about to cry, it’s like a gathering storm. They turn into these diabolic things; angry-faced, irrational, and determined to disrupt everything around them. A crying baby is like a tripped car alarm; it pierces through everything like shrapnel. And because babies can’t just say, “I would like to take a nap,” or “I have crapped my pants” they will cry and hope you read their cry.
And so the scariest thing you can ever see is a woman carrying a baby on a long flight. Each time I have seen a woman with a baby at the boarding gate my first thought has never been, “Is there a chance that woman is stealing that baby?” It’s always been, “God, I know I owe you your many 10 per cents, but I hope you’re not seating me next to that woman.” There are far-scarier things that can happen to you during a long flight, but not many of them come close to sitting next to a woman with a baby.
So you can imagine my utter terror when I recently found myself seated next to this lady with her baby on my flight back from New York. I cursed under my breath. I murmured, ‘Oh shit, shit.’ I said a half-hearted hello as I threw my hand luggage up the overhead compartment. The baby was already making those uncomfortable sounds because it’s a baby. I settled in my seat, the window seat. Thankfully the seat between us was free and it acted like a buffer zone of sorts, a place where an exchange of prisoners would happen. On that seat were heaps of baby paraphernalia, one that looked like a parachute at first glance but turned out to be a baby carrier. I didn’t want to look the baby in the eye. It was a very small baby, a bundle. It was one of those babies with a neck they still can’t use, like a remote control without batteries. The baby’s head rotated on this neck.
This was the long haul flight; Kenya Airways’ direct flight from New York to Nairobi now celebrating their five years on this route. It’s a staggering 15 hours going and 13 and half hours back but with a baby next to you, that’s like 113 hours of flying. The long haul is especially punishing if you are someone like me, unable to stay still in one place for long enough. I had planned to get some sleep but now with this baby, that looked increasingly dicey. I resigned to my fate. I said, ‘Lord, whatever I did to offend you, I will take my punishment.’
As the flight attendants did the final checks the baby fell asleep. It had a tiny soft face and soft patches of hair. In the seat ahead, I later discovered, was the lady’s husband who was with another baby, a toddler. He occasionally turned back in his seat and they conferred in a language that I had heard before but I couldn’t place.
The flight from New York departs at 1:45 pm and around 2 pm we taxied on the JFK runway and then the enormous wheels of the Dreamliner left American soil and we were airborne. The Dreamliner 787 is something of a marvel. It’s enormous but doesn’t make too much noise considering its size. It’s like a giant that tiptoes barefoot. You can feel its presence, how it commands the air, how it nudges through winds and storms and rain. It lurches occasionally slightly, otherwise, it’s a furious force in the sky, quite majestic. If you are lucky enough to be invited to see the cockpit, you will marvel at the technology; all these knobs and buttons, all light blue or red, the cockpit curved like a womb. The captain and first or second officer, touching things with the tip of their fingers, like one would a nipple, murmuring to each other in their secret language, their faces lit by the glow of the cockpit, the tip of this magnificent bullet. That this monster, which carries over 200 humans, remains elevated at 40,000 ft. above ground for 13 hours, crossing timelines and hundreds of borders, is something of sorcery. Outside the sky is infinite, you fly right below God’s floor.
Once the seatbelt lights went off, I opened my Kindle and re-acquainted myself with my book, ‘Happy-Go-Lucky’ by David Sedaris.
No sooner had we settled in the flight than the baby woke up and started making those whiny sounds, a forecast of a cry. The mother rocked him and turned him to the other arm but the little fellow was not having it. He was getting squirmish and irritable. Maybe it was the altitude, maybe the pressure in their heads which they are unable to regulate by swallowing or yawning. Maybe it was the cold or heat or the alien space. From the corner of my eye, I saw the mother start breastfeeding the baby and it started making those low appreciative sounds babies make when they are breastfeeding to express their approval of not only the taste but the temperature of the milk.
I forgot to mention that behind me was a lone lady with two restless and destructive children, a boy and a girl of about, what three years? They kept bickering as siblings often do, causing a riot right behind me. A rock and a hard place I had found myself.
Before we departed, one of them, the girl, was kicking the back of my seat with the soles of her tiny foot. Strong little bugger, my chair cocked with each kick; thud thud thud. It was irritating of course, but I ignored it because, come on, these are children, they are sometimes used by the devil to test you. Now, as I read, the little girl was at it again only this time it was relentless. Of course, I wanted to turn around and tell her, “If you don’t cut that shit out, I will eat your tiny leg!” But we are required to be civilised people so I turned around in my seat and looked at her with a fake polite smile. The mother said something halfhearted to her in Somali but the little girl ignored her and kept kicking the chair. The mother was this very tiny, sallow-faced woman with sharp tiny eyes not unlike a fox’s. She looked tired and resigned. You would be too if you had two small children. She shot me a look of what-can-I-do. She looked ready to give away the children in exchange for a bag of dates and two kilograms of flour. I wouldn’t give her a palmful of groundnuts for both of those children. Especially that little girl; she was a real troublemaker.
Soon, my seatmate and the baby were asleep. The baby had nodded off while breastfeeding. The mother slept while still holding the breast in her hand. She looked unconscious, that’s the kind of sleep she was in. For the first time, I had a chance to take a good look at her; she was a beautiful lady but you could tell that her beauty was temporarily buried under the rubble of motherhood. Her braids were old, their roots frayed like the roots of a tree coming out of the soil. Even in sleep her face looked worn. Her T-shirt was rumbled and had a stain. She looked like she had been through it.
She slept deeply, her baby hanging from her arm. She probably couldn’t recall when she last had an uninterrupted night’s sleep. Maybe her back hurt. Maybe her nipples were sore and sometimes cracked. Maybe she constantly smelled milk on herself. I wondered what she did for a living. If she remembered who she was before her two babies. I wondered what made her happy now outside of raising children. What she yearned for.
I wondered if she missed spraying perfume on her wrists and neck. Wearing a black dress and high heels and sitting in a restaurant, taking time to study the menu, wondering whether she was in the mood for a cocktail or a wine. I started feeling sorry for her, seeing her lying there, her head in an impossible posture, snatching up gulps of sleep when she could. Then I started feeling guilty. I thought, how selfish was I that the first thought I’d had when I saw this woman was that she was a nuisance. How she would inconvenience my flight. Oh, poor me, the cries of a baby, a living thing, will completely disrupt my precious life. Why didn’t someone check in this lady and her baby, together with all the suitcases below the plane? Why did they let her sit with everybody else?
I felt lousy that I didn’t stop to wonder how much tougher this flight must be for her. To hold a baby for 13 hours! I only had my bloody Kindle to hold, and I wasn’t even holding it all the time. I thought, ‘Oh Biko, you horrible, selfish human.’
Food came, something with chicken. At that altitude food generally tastes like a pillow because your taste buds are altered. But you eat because what else can you do, go for a walk? I finished eating and I told her, “hey, I can hold the baby while you eat.”
She was surprised. “Are you sure?”
“Yeah, of course,” I said. “ Is he a boy or girl?”
“A boy,” she said, handing over the baby.
I was a little worried about his neck. You know how their necks just wobble around when you don’t support them? The last time I held a baby with a wobbly neck was Kim, and that was almost ten years ago. It was strange holding such a tiny, brittle human being. I held him in the crook of my left arm. His eyes were open and he was looking at me questioningly like, “who the hell are you, and why do you have such a forehead?”
He made some noise and squirmed a bit and I smiled at him to reassure him that I was SDA.
I could feel his weight in my arm, baby weight. I wondered if that’s the weight of angels. He was wearing a burgundy baby romper with two bears on it with the words “Happy in the forest” written across his chest. He was a gorgeous boy, his beauty was the kind of beauty that hasn’t been assigned gender yet. He had a small nose and a perfect mouth. He smelled of milk, baby powder, and sleep. I wanted to plant my nose in his neck, in those little folds, and smell him but that would have been creepy. Soon, maybe upon realising that I was indeed SDA, he drifted off to sleep and I felt like that was a personal win. That I made it happen. I made him sleep. A baby whisperer.
“You are good with babies.” The lady commented. She had severed the bun in half and was applying some butter to it.
I wanted to say, “Yeah, babies dig me,” but sometimes you have to choose modesty, especially when you are ahead. I shrugged and said, “he’s a good baby,” because one should never take the glory from a baby. The arm might have been mine, but the sleep was his.
“Do you ever want babies?”
“I have two already,” I said. She looked at me and said, “really!?” in a way that I didn’t appreciate; as if I didn’t look responsible enough to have babies.
“Yeah. My daughter is 15,” I said, “and my son is turning 10 in a few days.”
“No way!” She said.
She had her spoon in her hand and a half-mauled bun in the other. “You can’t possibly have a 15 year old.”
“I do,” I said.
“How old are you?”
“Turned 46 last month.”
“You don’t look 46 at all!” She said laughing, “I could say you are 35.”
I thought to myself, if this lady is saying these nice things because I’m carrying her baby then I will carry this baby the whole way to Nairobi. I will change his diapers. Hell, I would breastfeed him if I had a breast.
“I’m Biko, by the way,” I said.
“And what’s his name?”
“He’s called Gaba,” she said looking at the sleeping baby like she already missed him.
“What does Gaba mean?”
“It means, Giving.”
“Interesting, where are you all from?” I asked.
“We are from Rwanda. We live in Texas but we are moving back home briefly.”
Lucy, a cabin crew member, carrying a silver kettle, stopped by our seats and admired the baby sleeping in my arms. It was a sight to behold, a sleeping baby in the arms of a villain. “You have a steady hand,” Lucy said with a smile. Did you hear that? I have a steady hand. I grinned like a fool. I wanted to say, “Oh stop, Lucy.” When Grace finished eating and wanted to take the baby, I told her that I didn’t mind carrying him some more. I was getting cocky, I will admit. “Why don’t you stretch, walk around.”
At this point, her husband stood up to stretch. Tall Rwandese fellow. He smiled and said, “thanks for helping out.” Grace introduced us. His name was Fikiri. “Like fikiria, in Kiswahili,” he said. He played basketball. They both did. Their other son was called Gisa. He worked for the federal government or something. They were moving back home temporarily so that their sons would get “the right grounding”, Grace informed me later. “They need to know who they are.” It’s hard to know who you are when you’ve never been to your land if it’s just a shape in the atlas. This was very important for Grace and Fikiri: for their sons to grow up in Rwanda, they were going to get rooted because otherwise, they would merely be boys with unique African names, twisting about like leaves in the wind.
I got so confident with that baby that I started reading my Kindle. So baby in one arm, Kindle on the other. The height of multi-tasking. “Hi Biko, tell us, how do you balance the great task of being a mother and a reader?”
“Oh, there isn’t a balance with these sorts of things, you just do what you have to do when you have to do it.”
I got so comfortable with Gaba asleep in my arms that I ordered some red wine. (Motherhood is tough). “Give her a double vodka,” I told Nampa, the flight attendant serving drinks, indicating to Grace, “she needs it more than I do.” Grace laughed it off.
Outside, the wings of the Dreamliner had burned orange from the setting sun and darkness had quickly gathered outside the windows. (Fun fact; the Dreamliner has the largest windows of all commercial jets). I propped the Kindle up, occasionally reaching for my wine as Gaba slept soundly in the other arm. Little Gaba would occasionally twitch in his sleep. Or suddenly jerk his tiny legs. Other times he would reach out with his hands, midsleep. He was most likely dreaming. Maybe he was dreaming that he was swimming in a bathtub full of milk. Or that he was a horse wearing burgundy shoes that matched his romper. Or he was walking around with a duck perched on his right shoulder and he met someone who asked him, ‘Gaba, why is there a duck on your shoulder’ and he said, ‘this is a goose, don’t you adults know anything?’
I’d be damned if I knew what babies dream of. I had the pleasure of carrying Gaba a few more times, as she went for a bathroom break or she needed to catch up on some sleep. I held him against my chest and walked up and down the semi-darkened aisle when the plane was asleep and we were just clearing the Atlantic and entering Africa from the north of Senegal. I felt like we were the only two people awake in the whole world. He was well-behaved and silent as a lamb. I felt his small heartbeat against my chest. It wasn’t any louder than a DikDik’s heartbeat.
Thirteen and a half hours later, and what truly is forever, the big bird touched the ground. I said a small prayer because a million things can happen to you midair yet they don’t, not because you are special but because of God’s grace. Little Gaba was awake with that look babies have whenever they wake up and always wonder where they are.
As we prepared to deplane we said our goodbyes. The couple was grateful, and I was grateful. I don’t know why I sat with that baby. Maybe to be taught a lesson in compassion for mothers travelling with babies. Maybe Gaba was an angel who slipped a message in my heart. Maybe it was nothing, maybe it was just a baby with a romper with bears on it. But I suspect that the answer was in his name; Giving. He must have given me something and maybe I will only discover this one day.
Our masterclass is fully booked. See you in the next one!