Fred and Donanne Hunter were living in Nairobi, Kenya, his base for covering sub-Saharan Africa as a correspondent for The Christian Science Monitor when they decided to start a family. Donanne offers another of several accounts about having a baby in 1970s Kenya.
As I grew ready for the baby to arrive, I was glad that the small bedroom in our bungalow had been recently transformed into a very inviting nursery. I was in the habit of wandering into it several times a day imagining what it would be like to have it occupied. I was grateful for the gift of the how-to-function-gracefully-and-confidently-as-a-brand-new-family book, My First Three Hundred Babies, sent from California. I’d had a jolly time trying out many of its super and simple recipes in anticipation of days ahead when super+simple would become the method of choice. Some of these recipes were in our tiny freezer compartment right now for Fred’s delectation in my absence. And amazingly, this week the Kentucky Colonel opened its Nairobi franchise. So, with KFC, the Three Bells (our favorite curry restaurant) and frozen casseroles, Fred was all set for a week as a bachelor in case he was too busy filing stories to pour creative energy into his culinary specialties – broiled lamb chops and hamburgers.
I thought about my mom. Knowing that I was in excellent hands, she had written wisely that she and my dad would not come immediately but would visit in three months time, “when you are settled in your own family routine.” I had already made reservations for the safaris we three would take with them – down to tropical Malindi to walk on the beach, tenting beneath Mount Kilimanjaro at Amboseli to observe elephants, up to the arid Northern Frontier District to show off the long-necked gerenuks and reticulated giraffes. And as we carefully loaded the car for these expeditions my Dad would cheerily remark that we might as well put a trailer hook on the rear and attach the baby’s room to it. After a brief stint of babysitting Dad would proudly report the number of times the baby had turned over all by itself.
Although my mom wasn’t to be present for the big event, we both knew that any mothering I required would be available when needed. And it was so. Besides Fred’s TLC I felt sweet support on several levels: the confident prayers of our dear German friend Ursula, the Christian Science practitioner who came to the hospital, “changing guard” with Fred during the day, and arriving again at midnight, stayed through the night; Dr. Mary’s patience and gentle encouragement; the caring pragmatism of the African nurses; friends in East and South Africa. Friends back home in California had had a party in absentia, sending along pet names for the baby and a handmade mobile that fit tidily into an envelope.
During this final day of waiting Fred and I took occasional walks up and down the hospital’s long hallways. We’d pass the nursery with mostly African infants in various stages of sleep or wakefulness. After nightfall, the passageways were lined and perfumed with the bouquets from the rooms. The white-stalked chincherinchees were particularly intoxicating! One of the blossom-fragrant hallways continued out into a covered walk next to the garden where we watched rain fall and two anteaters forage for dinner.
By nine o’clock we decided the day was done and we ought to get some rest while we could. Fred went home to sleep on the couch next to the phone. I too turned in. Then at midnight, wakened by contractions coming at five minute intervals, I padded down the hall to the phone and called him. He in turn phoned Ursula. They arrived within twenty minutes of each other, Ursula coming all the way from Kabete in record time. (It helped that there were no speed limits!) They joined me at my bedside and after about an hour one of the nurses came to examine me, telling me not to push. At 1:45 I was wheeled into the delivery room. Dr. Mary came at 2:30 and told me now I could push.
This was hard work! And I was grateful that the nurses supported me on either side helping me into the most advantageous position to do the work. At about 4:00 I was told to push a little harder and suddenly I felt the baby slide quickly into the world. I heard the doctor say, “It’s a boy!” I heard myself exclaim, “Good heavens, it’s a boy!” And I heard the jubilant entry cry of Paul Robinson Hunter, named – in Kikuyu tradition – after his paternal grandfather.
Here’s Fred’s account of this event “Night Vigil” from his story collection Africa, Africa!
It was 3:30 in the morning. The night had grown cold. Derek had been reading, but now the cold distracted him, that and the crying from across the hall. The waiting room was small and close and poorly lit. Derek thought it smelled of Africa which meant, although he did not know it, that he felt far from home. He looked up from his book to find that the missionary sitting opposite him had stopped reading his Bible. They listened to a baby yowling across the hall.
“Life begins with a cry,” the missionary said.
In the early afternoon he had brought a Kamba woman to the hospital; she had taken the third place in the four-bed “labor ward” in which Derek and his wife had spent most of the day. This birth would be the Kamba woman’s eighth. She was the wife of a catechist who worked for the missionary. He had explained that to Derek during their sharing of the waiting room. Because the couple had so many children the husband had not come in from his catechizing safari.
Derek’s wife was having their first baby. She was at this moment in the delivery room at the end of the hall. Because Derek had heard his wife crying out in pain, the wailing of the babies unnerved him. He half-envied the absent catechist and yet he could not imagine being away from his wife at this time although he would not be allowed in the delivery room. Seeing that the missionary wanted to talk, he looked quickly back at his book. Derek’s profession required him to be interested in all kinds of people. But just now he was not inclined to chat with a person he would never see again, especially not this missionary. The man possessed the happy, morbid blandness that came, so Derek thought, to one certain that Providence had chosen him, but not necessarily others.
“Life begins with pain,” the missionary said. “And often ends with it.”
“Cold tonight,” Derek said. He did not want the missionary to declare, not just now, that at least the process of making children brought couples joy.
Suddenly the crying ceased; the last flutterings of breath muted into silence. The two men looked at one another, almost startled. A half-smile tilted on the missionary’s mouth. They listened to the nearby soundlessness. But the consciousness of the other crying he had heard made Derek cold. He stood. He wondered what was happening at the end of the long corridor behind them.
“Not worried, are you?” asked the missionary. “Once the little ones arrive, women forget the pain.” He added, “And the child starts to feel it – when we put our fingerprints all over the poor kid.” He grinned, shrugged.
“I’m not worried,” Derek said. “I’m freezing.”
Derek checked the window that he had closed an hour earlier, shortly after they had heard the doctor, her heels clicking competently on the tiling, pass the waiting room, turn and proceed down the hall.
One of the babies started yowling again; the others quickly joined in.
Derek left the waiting room. He stood in the hall he had walked with Dee again and again in the late afternoon and early evening. He peered down its length, through the tunnel of darkness to the brightly-lit white doors at its end. Dee was behind those doors.
He moved forward uncertainly, passing through that darkness. He entered into the labor ward, seeking the sweater left on the chair beside Dee’s bed. He heard the Kamba woman sleeping fitfully behind flower-patterned curtains in the bed beside his wife’s. Across the room stood the bed of a young Asian woman; Dee had made friends with her. They had paced together along the terrace while Derek was at dinner. The Asian’s woman’s husband was with her now, sitting in the darkness behind drawn curtains. Derek saw his feet below the bed and took Dee’s sweater.
In the hall he put the sweater around his neck and shoulders like a muffler. He went to the white-lit end of the corridor and stood outside the door. “Relax your legs now,” he heard the doctor counsel. “Relax your legs.” Behind the door he heard his wife weeping against the pain, her voice like a cry to him. “Push now!” the doctor instructed. “Push!” Derek heard his wife’s voice whimpering in exertion, emitting a sound of hurt that he had never heard from her before.
The sound immobilized him. He stood, feeling powerless, irrelevant. He wished he could help her: bear her pain or share it. Suddenly his head swam. He felt faint; he recognized the beginnings of fear. What could he do to make the pain go away?
But there was nothing he could do.
Earlier, around 1:00 a.m., when Dee was suffering with every contraction, the nurse had told her not to push against them, not till the doctor arrived. Derek had felt something should be done. He had spoken sharply to the nurse, a young Kikuyu woman who struck him as being busy, not doing her job, but playing a role: Miss East African Efficiency. He had told her, “Could you do something here? My wife’s getting ready to deliver.” The nurse had taken offense.
In fact, she had complained to a supervisor, claiming that Dee was rude to her. This charge infuriated Derek. Dee was a saint. She was never rude. By contrast, he practically always was. Nursie should put the blame where it belonged. He had started to tell her: “Hey! we’ve never done this before. You do it every day. Give us some help here!” But he realized they needed the nurse as an ally. So he smiled at her in tacit apology and held his tongue.
Nurses came and went through the delivery room door. He wanted to ask if everything were all right, but the earlier exchange had chastised him. Now he knew he must do nothing but express confidence in the hospital and its staff.
Derek had prayed earlier in the day. Now as he moved back along the hall through the tunnel of darkness, past the roses and carnations and chrysanthemums which the old Kikuyu women took each evening from the rooms of the new mothers, he prayed again. He invited God not to forget them. Once again he heard a nurse leave the room where Dee was. He turned. He saw into the delivery room, heard the doctor encouraging with distant crispness, “That’s it. Now harder!” Then the delivery room door closed and he heard only the crying of the newborns.
He went back to the waiting room. The missionary was standing, doing deep knee-bends. He stopped when Derek appeared. “Any news?” he asked.
Derek shook his head. Then supposing he should say something, he heard words he hardly recognized emerging from his mouth. “My mother claims,” he said, “that if men and women both had babies, the men would insist the women go first. Masculine politeness. And no family would have more than three kids.”
The missionary nodded. “The night our first one was born,” he observed, “I spent a long time wondering why in human life pain has to accompany birth.”
“I decided that only in this way could nature purify human love. It takes selflessness to raise a kid.”
“Maybe to a journalist that sounds pretty namby-pamby.”
Derek shrugged. He acknowledged to himself that this notion might be true although there were plenty of bad parents, but it was not the sort of thing he would ever admit to another person, not even to Dee.
“I guess you see the worst of the world,” the missionary said. “Even go looking for it.”
“I’m just looking to keep warm right now,” Derek said. “Guess I’ll walk.”
He paced to the farthest end of the hospital corridors. He stood looking out the window seeing nothing, thinking of how the day had started: in darkness, strange sounds penetrating his sleep. Waking he had found Dee emitting mystified squeals. She gave him a look that was full of joy – and full of apprehension. “My water broke,” she said. They stared at one another, knowing they were crossing into territory where neither one of them had ever been.
Derek wondered how the day would end. Returning to the hospital after midnight he saw something that he had never seen before in Nairobi: army trucks in the streets. What were they doing? Was a coup about to be sprung? Out of superstition, out of fear of spreading alarm, he had told no one about the trucks. Except God. The trucks were one of the reasons he prayed.
The wife of a friend of Derek’s had gone to the hospital to have her first baby the afternoon the Luo politician Tom Mboya was assassinated. There had been riots in Nairobi and she had called her husband, instructing him, “Bring the dogs and get me home.” That baby had waited another full week to arrive. But that could not happen to Dee; her water had already broken.
After a while Derek left the window. He returned the way he had come, past the closed pharmacy, through the darkened lobby, past the waiting room where the missionary was reading his Bible again. Derek walked until he could see the white doors. They were still closed.
Returning through the hospital this time Derek wandered out under the covered walkway leading to the nurses’ quarters. The sky was overcast, the air cold and smelling of rain. Faintly he heard a vehicle slowing for the roundabout at the corner. He listened. Was it a car or an army truck?
There had been rain on and off all day. Derek and Dee watched it as they waited in the labor ward, wondering if the baby were merely teasing them or truly intended to come. All afternoon they studied clouds, monitored birds hunting insects on the fragrant, new-mown lawn, observed black and white heavy-bodied kites soaring from the tops of flame trees that blossomed orange-red. At nightfall a pair of aardvarks came to graze with their long, extensible tongues and the rain fell on with steady timelessness. Derek had gotten dinner at an Indian place where he and Dee often went. He had returned home at 9:30 and made a bed on the living room couch, only an arm’s reach from the telephone. Dee had called at midnight.
Derek started back into the building, walking slowly. He wondered if it had rained the day he was born. What kind of sky had stretched over his grandparents’ apartment on Mariposa Avenue in Los Angeles? He wondered if his father had gazed at that sky, uncertain then – as he was now – of what was happening and what the outcome would be. What kind of smells wafted through that apartment? It was the day before Thanksgiving. Was someone making cranberry sauce or stuffing in the kitchen? He wondered what his parents were like then; he felt close to them in a way he never previously had. A whole set of indistinctions about them began to clothe themselves in definition.
Derek thought of his father. Certainly his first encounter with childbirth had come as a surprise. He went to church the morning following the event and at an appropriate time in the service stood to tell the entire congregation that he had received early that Thanksgiving morning the blessing of twin sons. Derek smiled at a mental picture of his father, more than ten years younger than Derek himself was now, standing in that church service. And receiving congratulations afterward as Derek, the unexpected second to arrive, slept soundly in a laundry basket hastily converted into a bassinet.
Derek realized that he had not thought about his own birth since his childhood. Musing about it gave him a warm sense of linkage with his own family so far away. Especially with his father. For the first time, Derek realized, he would be related to his father, not only as a son, but as one father to another.
In the waiting room the missionary had fallen asleep. Derek did not go into the room, but waited outside. He remembered that when he was small, he had had frequent dreams about fleeing from something across a dark, barren plain. Those dreams had made him cry. He would wake up in bed, and his father would tiptoe into the room. He would hold and comfort Derek and chase the dream away.
He remembered, too, that at one point his Dad had a daughter in boarding school and two sons away at college. His father, who was an excellent ballroom dancer, had paid tuition bills with the same grace he brought to a waltz. When he was in college, Derek had supposed that one act was as effortless as the other. He was not much of a dancer. But he hoped his children would think the same thing.
Derek thought now of his brother, his identical twin, his best friend, the first-born who had been given his father’s name. Derek and his brother wrote long letters to one another two or three times a month. The brother had opinions about everything and he would have had one about what the baby should be named. “Just don’t call him Scott! It’s too trendy.” That was the advice this brother had given their sister – without knowing that she had already chosen that name for her son. Undoubtedly he would have much to say about this event.
Derek and Dee had agreed that she would name the baby if it were a girl; he would name it if it were a boy. If the naming fell to him, he would give the child the name of his father and his brother.
At the end of the corridor the white doors of the delivery room opened. A Kikuyu nurse hurried along the hall, grinning. “You have a son,” she announced. Very soon the nurse Derek had offended came along, walking efficiently from the delivery room. She was carrying the baby lightly on her arm and she and Derek exchanged a smile. The baby wore a plastic identity bracelet on his ankle and his head was sticking out of coarse white swaddling. His eyes were open. He looked at his father and Derek found him to be clear-featured, finely formed and alert.
The nurse warned Derek not to follow her and disappeared through a door. She flicked on the light in the nursery and left Derek trying to peek through a window and around the edge of the drawn curtain. Finally she placed the baby, wrapped and very small, in a waist-high crib. She pulled back the curtain and wheeled the crib beside the window.
Derek and his son regarded one another, making their introductions. The baby was small and sober, uncrying and coolly observant of the world. He was not at all wrinkled, not at all red or prune-faced. He gazed at Derek with dark blue-gray eyes and a detached seriousness and Derek thought of old snapshots he had seen of his father, a sober little boy in Redlands, California. Although Derek would not have acknowledged what he felt to any of his colleagues – he would soon be swapping stories about how the baby yowled at night – he perceived his son as terribly, terribly sweet.
Gazing at him, Derek understood that the child was not, as the missionary had said, a blank page on which his parents would leave their fingerprints. This child seemed complete, already himself, already aware of his identity. In his time he would show himself to Derek; he would make visible to his parents the identity which existed within him even now. Derek, of course, would never breathe any of this to his colleagues.
He heard the doctor’s footsteps coming along the corridor. When he turned to her, she smiled at him. “Thanks for all you’ve done,” he said. “How is she?”
“Fine. She worked hard, you know. She was splendid, though.”
“Can I see her?”
As the doctor started down the hall, Derek called after her, “Be careful, Doctor.” She turned and looked at him quizzically. “There are Army trucks in the streets,” he warned her. “I don’t know why.” He shrugged, aware that his apprehensions showed. “Will they be all right if there’s trouble?”
“It’s Madaraka Day,” the doctor said. “Did you forget?”
“I don’t even know what that is.”
“A national holiday. There’s a military parade. She’ll be all right.” The doctor smiled reassuringly and continued down the hall.
Derek gazed back at his son. Am I turning into a worrier? he asked the child without speaking. Or just a family man? The child was examining the side of his crib. Derek smiled at his intentness. He stepped back from the window, parted from his son for the first time and hurried down the hall to see his wife.
In the delivery room he bent beside the table and embraced her as best he could. “He’s beautiful,” Derek said. He leaned down and gave his wife a kiss.
“What does he look like?” she asked. “I hardly saw him.”
“He’s perfect,” he told his wife. “And terrific. And so are you.”
Derek did not go directly home. He drove past the main post office and the Parliament Building and out toward the President’s house just to satisfy himself that the Army trucks really had left their motor pools for a parade.
At home Derek stood at the living room window in the first light of dawn. He thought about becoming a father. He and his journalist colleagues sometimes jokingly referred to themselves as The World Press. They reported, dissected and analyzed the events of a continent. That gave those events significance, bestowed importance on them. Now Derek knew a secret. Those events meant nothing compared to the birth of his son.