* This is the start of an extended piece I’m working on about my experiences in Malawi.
“Allendo. Linda, office,” she said. Her scrawny arm bending in and out as she pointed wildly. As if it would speed up my walk.
“Yeh, I know. I’m meeting Linda at the office,” I said. I wasn’t meeting Linda for the administration staff photo until 2.00pm. But this was Malawi, and it ran on its own time. Friday at 2.00pm, could mean anywhere from 7.00pm Friday through to 10.00am in a months time. Malawi time means anytime it happens.
I rounded the corner of the hall. Linda, with her short stature, tightly wound braids, and ample bosom was trying to run towards me in a pair of wedge-heeled sandals while avoiding tree roots, rocks and potholes in the dirt.
“Emma, I have been looking everywhere for you. Come, Let’s go,” she said. Turning back in the direction of the office, her pace slowed, while her back heaved as she gulped in air.
Linda led me up the path, but turned left to Agogo’s house, instead of right to the office.
Agogo, or grandparent in Chichewa (the main language of Malawi), founded Home of Hope, a children’s home in Mchinji, Malawi. It’s a village currently home to 490 children, and provides schooling and two meals a day to another 100 children through an outreach program.
Every so often, Agogo would call me for an unexpected meeting. It was a chance for him to talk about the needs of Home of Hope, ask how my stay was going, and talk further about my plans for setting up a charity in Australia. But following Linda into the lounge room in his house, I found Agogo, his wife, and an older woman cradling a bundle of blankets on her lap. Two men sat at a table, behind the lounge chairs.
“Ah Aunty Emma, come in please. I want you to meet Baby Emma.” Agogo said, reaching out a hand to point towards the blankets. “I feel that it is important for you to see how people bring their children to Home of Hope looking for help. It is one of the many challenges we face everyday, as we can not always provide all of the help required.”
Tucked inside the thick bright blue blanket, and brown and yellow patterned chitenje on the older woman’s lap, poked a tiny baby’s face. Baby Emma. A crotched yellow beanie loosely covered the top of her head. Little lips pursed together, her tiny nostrils barely flared in and out as she breathed, eyes closed peacefully as she lay, wrapped warm and secure.
I sat beside Linda on the remaining lounge chairs. Tears welled up as Agogo began sharing baby Emma’s story. She was 12 days old. Her mother had died one hour after giving birth. The family could not afford to buy formula to feed the baby, instead trying to feed her with cow’s milk from a cow in a nearby village.
He was interrupted by a knock at the door. The three other volunteers at Home of Hope shuffled in and quickly found a place to sit.
Agogo continued, “This is a challenge faced by Home of Hope. A family brings their child here after the death of a parent. With Baby Emma, we are unable to take her, as we already have many young babies being cared for by the mother’s. We are able to provide Baby Emma with formula though. The family then only has to come back once a month to collect more formula, as it is a long way for them to travel.”
“Agogo, what would you need to be able to keep Baby Emma at Home of Hope?” I asked.
“For a little baby like this, she would need more attention from a caregiver, so we would need another house-mother.” Agogo said.
I looked to Ann, a regular volunteer at the orphanage and my sounding board for every crazy idea I had in this place. “What if the baby came to stay with us at the house for a few days? Just until a house-mother could be found?” I whispered beneath the Chichewa conversations taking place across the lounge room.
“Yeh. That could work. Where are they going to get a house-mother from?” Ann said.
“Yes, Aunty Emma.”
“How much does it cost for a house-mother?”
“It is 12000 Malawi Kwacha per month.”
Ann and I bowed our heads to calculate the currency conversion in whispers.
“I could somehow afford $40 US a month.”
“Agogo, if I pay for a house-mother can Emma stay here? She can live in the house with us until you can organise someone over the weekend.”
“Aunty Emma we are truly blessed to have you as a friend of Home of Hope. God has provided through you to help this needy child.” Agogo said.
Chichewa conversations flew across the room. Many zikomos, or thank you’s, were said, and then we prayed. Thanking God for his hand in what had occurred, for my likeness to Moses or Pharaoh or some other person in the bible’s sister who cared for a lost and needy child, and for a whole list of things we had to be thankful to God for. I don’t remember the details of it. I was concentrating on holding back tears, as I looked at the precious little baby in the bright blue blanket.
“Amen.” The room chorused.
“Now let us go find some clothes for your new baby.” Linda said, taking my hand and leading me out of the lounge room.
The first 24 hours had passed without incident. Baby Emma, after some coaxing, squirting a 5mL syringe into her mouth, had begun to drink the powdered formula. Swapping to the bottle not long after. She took little drinks. 10mL here, 25mL there, so on her first full night in the house with us, I’d estimated that we had plenty of formula to last through her feeds.
At midnight, she finished off her bottle.
New to this mothering business, I’d neglected to bring her tin of formula from the caregiver’s house. Emma would not last the next six hours without a feed.
Wrapping my new little baby up in an extra blanket and slipping into my Ugg boots, we set off from the guesthouse to trek 400 metres across the village. Baby Emma swaddled tightly in one arm, her bottle hanging from a plastic bag around my wrist, and my iPhone torch app glowing in the darkness to light up the rocks and pot-holes along the way.
A growl seeped out of the darkness behind me. A few steps later and two more growls joined somewhere to my right. I froze.
The dogs that lay around all day, actually went on guard at night, and now me, my new baby, and iPhone torch-light were standing in the middle of the dark village, at least 100 metres from the nearest house.
I took another step. Several sets of paws moved closer. One dog barked.
I shone my light around, but they were just outside its reach.
Don’t be scared, Emma, just keep walking and they will leave you alone.
Several dogs started barking, while more were running out from the midnight black surrounds, to add their voice to the chorus of growls.
“No!” I yelled, setting off at a brisk pace towards where I thought the house was. “No! No. No.” I growled back at the dogs.
Surely someone would hear the dogs and come out to see what was happening. Or maybe they’d hear my attempts to frighten the dogs away. I kept walking towards the doorway I could make out in the light thrown from the porch, a little way out in front of me.
I felt like I was drunk, trying to walk in a direct, purposeful line to my destination, but tripping and stumbling over rocks, potholes and tree roots in the shadows of my torch-light. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to cry or run at this point. My arm was shaking, loosening Baby Emma’s blankets.
Stepping over a drain pipe, the dogs stayed just beyond the trees surrounding the village, still growling, but not moving towards us anymore. I’d crossed some invisible line that the dogs wouldn’t cross. A few more steps and they still stayed where they were. I ran. Straight to the doorway, never have I been so glad to arrive inside the house, as I was at that moment, I knocked quickly, but opened the door without waiting for a reply.
The house-mother, fast asleep, jumped up out of bed. Somewhat startled by my sudden appearance in her room, but seemingly understanding that I needed another bottle of formula, as she fetched the tin and thermos of hot water from under her bed, before I had time to remove the empty bottle from the plastic bag still dangling from my wrist.
The house-mother prepared a bottle for us and I asked her how to shoo the dogs away. She smiled and handed me some more cloth nappies, then went and climbed back into bed.
From the doorway, all I could see was darkness mixed with shadows, and the light of my front porch 400 metres away. I looked around, desperate for another person to emerge and rescue me.
I was failing at this mother business.
With no one in sight, I tucked Baby Emma in closer to me, took a deep breath and set out into the dark. I walked as close to the house as possible, before going across the village and running the last few steps towards a house with the TV blaring. I knocked loudly.
“Shinghai, hello? It’s Emma.” I called.
The door opened and a young boy stood inside.
“The dogs are following Baby Emma and I and I’m worried about them biting us, cause they’re growling. How do I make them go away, I don’t know what Chichewa words to use to make them stop?” I said.
The boy came out onto the porch he looked out to where the dogs stood a few metres away.
“Come, let’s go,” he said, leading me down the front steps.
There was a knock at the door, before it squeaked open.
“Good morning,” my sister Sarah said, “I’ve made you some breakfast.” She placed a bowl on the chair beside my bed.
“Thanks,” I said, groggily shifting to look inside the pile of blankets beside me. She was still sound asleep.
“I did run out of formula last night,” I said, then rehashed my midnight adventure and the dogs.
“I did ask if you would have enough formula for the night,” Sarah said.
“Well, I grossly miscalculated how much she would drink, based on her previous feeds. Lesson learnt ok? I’m going to pick up the tin of formula today.”
“Some girls already dropped it over this morning, along with a few sets of clean clothes.” Sarah said. “Do you want me to take her for a bit so you can have a little bit of a sleep or eat your breakfast, before we have to go to church?”
I nodded, extremely grateful to have a moment to sleep. Between the midnight run for formula, the six dirty nappies during the night, and waking up in a panic at every noise Baby Emma made, I was exhausted. Worse than the noise was the silence. My heart leapt, certain that she’d stopped breathing or I’d smothered her in her sleep.
I changed her nappy, adding the dirty one to the pile in the plastic bag on the floor.
Wrapped in her chitenje and blankets, sound asleep, I passed Baby Emma out from under the mosquito net.
I lay staring at the ceiling, eyes heavy, but thoughts raced around my head, keeping me awake. It was Sunday, so a day of rest and church. Except Baby Emma had gone through all but one of her cloth nappies, even using the extras we’d picked up the night before, which meant I needed to wash them all, before we ran out completely. She needed a bath and clean clothes for church, and I had to be at church early to take photographs of the children in their Sunday best, dirt free and where possible, in shoes.
I slowly rolled out under the mosquito netting and sat on the chair eating my breakfast. I could always catch up on sleep later.
Malawi is close to the Equator, but in June and July, chilled southerly winds sweep across the dry, dusty plains. Baby Emma cried every time I changed her nappy. It didn’t matter how much I rubbed my hands together before touching her skin, they were still icy cold on her tiny little body.
So when it came to bath time, she screamed the house down.
Her twig like frog legs kicked out, as she desperately tried to push away from the water. She arched her back and twisted her head, all the while her high pitch cry echoed off the concrete floor and walls of the bedroom. The laundry wash bucket was big enough to fit her small limbs and pot belly, and I squatted beside the bucket with her cradled in one arm. Sarah looked on with a video camera over my shoulder.
I had only ever bathed older babies, babies that can sit and hold their heads up. Holding my squirming baby with only one forearm running the length of her spine, my thin little wrists balancing her unstable neck, and round little head in the palm of my hand, I felt awkward. That at any moment she would kick out those skinny frogs legs and topple into the bucket of water.
Somehow, I managed to wash all of her.
“That was the longest baby bath in the history of the world,” Sarah said.
“Hey, new mother remember. I’m learning as I go.”
The day before, one of the villager’s had ridden a bicycle into the nearest Boma, market, to buy talcum powder, cloth nappies and pins, and waterproof nappy covers, since all we had for Emma were over sized jumpsuits and towels cut up with a razor into nappy size pieces.
Dry and naked wriggling around on the towel on the bed, Baby Emma had stopped crying. Her curiosity turned to the piles of clothes and folded nappies stacked around her. I tipped the talcum powder upside down and with a flick of my wrist, out puffed enough powder to cover her entire body. Her stomach resembled a marshmallow, white, round, and soft to touch. No matter how much I rubbed the powder in, spreading it around into her armpits, along her shoulders, onto her bottom and legs, I couldn’t get rid of the white.
“Whoops, that was a bit too much. Silly mummy, but at least now your skin will be lovely and soft,” I cooed.
Dressed in her last clean nappy, two newborn jumpsuits that were twice the size of her and wrapped in two fresh blankets, Baby Emma was ready for her first Sunday church visit.
I left her on the bed, in between two pillows to stare at the ceiling, mosquito net and anything else in sight, while I took the bag of nappies out to the front yard. Everything in this place takes far longer to do, than at home. There wasn’t a washing machine I could just stuff her nappies into, press a button, and 30 minutes later clean nappies were left in the machine to hang out.
I filled the saucepan as high as I could in the little sink then emptied it into the laundry bucket on the ground below. To get enough water in the three laundry buckets I had to fill the saucepan at least 10 times per bucket. Then there was the large pot on the stove heating some water to also add.
I carried each bucket out the front onto the grass, emptying the dirty nappies from the plastic bag into one of the buckets. Scrubbing yellow stains out of white cloth with a bar of Nu-clean laundry soap, the absurdity of the situation hit me. Here I was living in a place where the power went out on a regular basis. If I wanted clean drinking water, I had to boil it then add purification tablets to it. If there was washing to do, it was all done by hand. There were no mirrors in the house, so I couldn’t see how I looked after my sleepless night, and frankly, I didn’t care. I didn’t care, because there was a tiny baby, warm and comfortable in my bed. She had a full belly and clean body that was growing stronger with each feed. I would stay awake in the middle of the night listening to her breathing, happy in the knowledge that she was still alive, when she had arrived a few day’s earlier so close to death.
Knuckles red from scrubbing, I wrung out the nappy and dropped it in the next bucket to rinse the soap out. A little boy, walking past on the road, called out and waved. I waved back and called out a hello.
A cry escaped from the inside of the house.
Shaking the soap off my hands, I wiped them dry on my skirt and went inside to my baby.