Baby Joseph. Speaking of him creates a whirlwind of emotion to bubble up inside of me. His parents, Nathan and Janet, worked with me at Hamomi, the school I volunteered with in Nairobi. Part of me is so honored, as I remember being chosen to name this child, a rite which I still don’t feel was deserved. I also feel helpless and guilty that I couldn’t/didn’t do more to help his Janet and her beautiful, and now motherless, family. I just remember talking with Teacher Nathan about how “maisha ni maisha, pesa ni pesa tu” (life is life, money is just money) when discussing how important it was to focus on his wife’s health and spare no cost to get her back. The thought of losing her made him quiet for a second, and then he looked at me and said “Mimi, sijui kupika” (I do not know how to cook). While I understand that part of this reaction was based in shock, his response also opened my eyes to the fact that especially in a poor family like theirs, there is no time to compartmentalize the mourning. Personal pain and the actual logistics of the loss are experienced hand in hand, as both their companionship and contributions to daily life are gone in an instant. Communities with safety nets can assist in lessening this shock to the family unit, but where baby Joseph now lives in Kangemi, there are none. Nathan needed to shift into being the full caretaker of a family of now 3 children even before burying his devoted wife.
These personal emotions about my role and relationship with the entire family come first, but then I get an overwhelming sensation that surprises me. I start to ache for the whole situation. I hurt for those who stood like me in dirty hospitals where doctors are swamped to the point of not even looking up when a patient across the room yells to them in severe pain and throws up their latest attempt at a meal. I arrived the morning I went to visit Janet and the baby a week after her cesarean section to a sight of her hobbling down the outside corridor getting the thick socks encasing her swollen legs wet as she went. She was armed with a basin, a tiny handful of blue Ohmo detergent, and a pair of underwear. Despite my protests, she continued to the small room used as a bathroom consisting of two units with short cement walls on the sides as partitions, and a water spigot, which you needed to wade through puddles of dirty water to get to. She then proceeded to scrub her panties as vigorously as her weakened arms would allow, with crisp, sharp motions that have been part of her daily routine for probably as long as she could remember. This is a task that as much as I tried to replicate, I was always laughed at for my “soft” technique. She performed the routine as though on auto pilot, doing what she knew needed to be done, even though she was in incredible pain and could easily have just stayed in bed and let the laundry pile up, waiting for someone else to do it for her. When I feel sick, tired, or even just lazy, I am quick to neglect chores (especially washing). Watching her perform this task made me see that sickness is a big part of life in Kenya, and life would not continue to move on if you stopped or put off your duties during those times. Many are living right on the brink of homelessness and starvation. A brief respite could lead to the collapse of even the small measures of stability that had been painstakingly erected.
After she finished the laundry, I took it outside to hang on the lines that were set up right outside the rooms. The vivid colors of Africa stick out to most who visit, and its always interesting that they seem to be at their brightest amidst the most suffering. Like a coping mechanism adopted by an entire region. Here in this desolate hospital, the clothes lines were aglow with bright pinks, blues, purples, and reds. It’s a constant reminder that death and life are intertwined, and that joy and sadness can both arise from the same circumstance.
Next it was time for us to go to the nursery to visit baby Joseph. I walked Janet towards the nursery and we went in and got him out of the incubator. Only mothers are typically allowed inside, but because I’m white and was helping a visibly weak Janet, I was permitted to enter. Any premature baby is going to look excessively tiny, but I was happy to be in a room of babies that were all in similar situations to put Joseph’s size into perspective. He looked healthier than many, and had been steadily gaining weight, which was a great sign. The saddest part of my day was while I sat on the floor holding him while his mother painstakingly squeezed milk out of her shriveled breasts into a cup so that we could feed him. She began the process in obvious pain, and continued laboriously so that her child would get enough nutrients to survive. It was as if she was emptying herself so that he might survive. Motherhood is an incredible thing.
In the midst of a day of helplessness, I do feel proud to have learned enough Swahili to hear the nurses conferring about how sad it was that fathers could not go visit their children in the nursery. After asking why this was, and pointing out Nathan as he waved from outside the door, the head nurse came over and explained that when the babies are sick, the fathers can definitely come in and see how their child is doing. There had been a miscommunication and the other nurses had been turning the fathers away. Nathan, even in the midst of such crisis in his family, was too respectful to argue this point, and had not even seen his child for the first week of its life. I then guided him into the nursery and introduced him to his new baby. I was asked to take a photo of the three of them, and am realizing that this was most likely the last photo of Janet taken before she passed away. It was a difficult moment, capturing both the joy of them both holding their own tiny miracle together for the first time, and the complete weakness of her body, foreboding her inability to be part of that family unit in physical form again.
Later in the day I washed some more clothes and added some laughter to the compound as any “traditional” task completed by a mzungu tends to bring. As I stood in pooled water in the bathroom, rinsing the vomit out of the basin and began washing the few clothes I was entrusted with, the thought crossed my mind that being exposed to all these bodily fluids might not be a good idea. I’m proud that my next reaction was that this might not have been the brightest undertaking of my life, that this is what I could do right now to help a woman who was struggling with her very life, and that there wasn’t anything else I’d feel more confortable doing.
Janet and I then sat by the drying clothes in the sun for a few quiet moments, enjoying the fresh air and each others company as she tried to stomach a few bites of the lunch her husband had arranged to have made for her. Despite holding some of it down, her stomach continued making loud gurgling noises and she would vomit intermittently. At one point her face contorted and she yelled out to the doctor doing some paperwork in the room that her stomach hurt very badly. He barely looked up and asked her if she’d taken the medicine prescribed to her. She replied that she had and then vomited almost effortlessly into the basin I was holding. The doctor didn’t so much as flinch, and this was typical of the treatment I observed. Each day, the patients were visited by a head doctor, and not even the husband was allowed to be part of the consultation. Janet was so exhausted that she was in no state to plead her case or explain her symptoms or pains, so he hustled away without really doing anything. Her legs had been swollen in the month leading up to her cesarean section, and continued getting worse and were very cold. Nathan had gone out and bought her some thick socks to keep her warm, and when taking them off we noticed that the bottoms of her legs were still swollen, but there was a sudden depression that looked very unhealthy where the elastics were. He asked me what to do about the swollen leg. Here in a hospital, the economics major was being asked what to do. Part of me wanted to scream that just because I am white, does not qualify me to do anything. But having seen that the doctor either had no ideas or just didn’t care, I somehow thought of some info-mercial I’d seen for diabetic socks that keep you warm and don’t cut off circulation of swollen feet. So we cut the elastics on the socks, and at least that seemed to relieve some of the pain around her upper shins.
I think I maxed out emotionally around noontime and seemed to drift through the rest of the day as we struggled to understand the system and took Janet for X-Rays etc. I left a bit overloaded, but hopeful that Janet had in fact stomached a bit of food, and seemed to be feeling slightly more comfortable. This gleam of hope has since been shattered by her passing, but it reminds me that there were good points of that day. A joyous moment that stood out to me was watching about 20 vibrantly clothed pregnant women crowded into a room awaiting their time to give birth. Their camaraderie was evident, as they embraced their collective struggle, alternating their time between pacing while yelling in pain, and laughing at the others who paced once their own contractions receded. One lady was pacing and ended up against the railing outside yelling and experiencing back pain. Her husband timidly tried to soothe her by running his hand along her back, when another woman (also very pregnant) shoved him aside and began digging into the woman’s back with her elbows and fists. This caused the entire clan to laugh about how men don’t have a clue what needs to be done in this situation. The spirit of African women was alive in that room, and knowing how important bearing children is as part of their society, they were not about to let a man belittle their plight with a feeble caress
There is no easy way to sum up my experiences that day. I am glad I could have been there, to help in at least some small ways, and gain a better understanding of the challenges facing a family I’d come to feel a deep connection to. But losing a friend is a steep price to pay for a learning experience. There is also the feeling of guilt that maybe I could have done more. Some of my frustrations stem from the attitude of passivity that accompanied the whole process. Nathan just kept working to help his wife as best he could, even though he kept running into roadblocks. His response to each doctor who kept just prescribing another X-Ray (the cost of which would just be added to his ever growing hospital bill) was to do what they recommended without a complaint. I really respected the humility held by both him and his wife, as they seemed to take what came at them with grace and without anger. I wanted to parade around and demand better answers and to convince people that Janet was a wonderful person worth fighting for. I was torn for wanting to honor how the family had chosen to handle this crisis, and yet feeling the need to do something to feel that I wasn’t completely helpless.
At first, I suggested the name Joseph because it seemed to be an easy name for Kenyans to pronounce. I thought that Nathan was asking lots of people for ideas for names, and was then going to choose the one that him and Janet liked best. But instead he had chosen me to choose the “Christian” name for the baby, and would go with whatever I decided. This upped the ante on my decision, but Joseph stuck in my mind. Chapters 37 – 50 of Genesis describe Joseph’s life, especially his rise from life as a lowly slave to that of the Pharoh’s right hand man. Nathan and I discussed Joseph as a man who started low, rose to be great, yet maintained his humility throughout. Though our lives have taken us to different locations, whenever Nathan and I talk, we always refer back to that conversation and continue to pray for the future of Baby Joseph, and his older brothers Sammy and Godwin.
Since writing this, baby Joseph has also passed away. Upon hearing this news, I was overwhelmed with a sense of peace, as his earthly suffering has ended and he is now in a better place. Please continue to pray for the rest of the family and the entire Hamomi community with whom I truly loved learning from and laughing with.