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Today's Story by Debbie Ventimiglia

"Mommy, how did that baby die?”

Africa Time

The car smells like Coppertone and I breathe that familiar scent and let my mind retreat to beach holidays on the Outer Banks, a lifetime ago before our move to Zambia. I strap the baby into her infant seat and sweep leftover popcorn kernels onto the floor. As I pat the cushions, a small cloud of brown dust rises to sting my nose. The baby sneezes once, then twice. She smiles, still amazed at all the crazy sounds she can make with her own body.

“I’m leaving in exactly 20 seconds boys!” I feel the warm drops of perspiration begin to roll down my cheek and the sticky moisture under my arms.

“11, 12, 13!! “

I reach inside the console to check for Kleenex, wipes and sunscreen. Today, I am not just a mom. I am going to be a nicer mom. Last night, I gave myself a time out in the bathroom. I sat on the edge of the tub with a glass of wine and a Victoria’s Secret catalogue from two years ago taking deep, full breaths between sobs. The electricity was out again. Which meant no water. Again. And Tom was travelling. I did my best to block out the sounds of my infant screaming in her crib and the boys intermittently pounding on the door pleading to come in.

“Twenty! Let’s go guys!”

Today, I will not only be a nicer mom but a professional woman. At 8 a.m I have my first job interview in five years and I am committed to impressing the panel with my uncanny ability to be a wonderful mother and inspired public health professional (after a five year break changing diapers, hosting playgroups and encouraging my husband’s public health career). When we moved to Zambia almost five years ago, I never imagined I’d be a stay at home mom for so long. I figured I would take a year or two off just to settle us in, but in a country where so many babies die of preventable diseases before they are five, and where HIV/AIDS touches almost every family, there’s not a moment to spare. I have Masters degrees in Public Health and African Studies, for heaven’s sake—certainly I should be doing more.

I feel an expatriate’s guilt when I complain about my electricity and water. I have three healthy children, yet outside my gates are people begging for food, school fees and money to bury their children. I wanted to DO something. I yearned for more of a balance in life and felt my self esteem oozing out with my breast milk. Today, my plan was to drop the boys off at school, leave the baby at a friend’s house and be early enough for my interview to sit in the car. By myself. With the air conditioner blasting.

I bend over one last time to plunk the pacifier in my baby’s mouth, step aside and hold the door as the boys fly in, one on either side of the baby. Soccer cleats? Check! Hat’s? Check! Water? Check! Did everybody pee? yea. Brush teeth? Dead silence. Then they’re both shouting, bouncing and giggling in their seats. I am not fighting the teeth battle today and climb up into the car, give my watch a glance and shift into gear.

This is the beginning of our morning dance to get out of the house and to school on time. The choreography is an intricate balance of scripted steps and the cacophony that is my life with three children in Zambia. All backstage hysterics are silently forgiven on the days we all end up in the car on time.

I’m anal about time. I love being early. To school, meetings, parties, bed, playdates, airports. Makes me feel like I’ve got a little surplus saved for a rainy day. I’m completely torn about time since motherhood. Torn between hurrying my children through breakfast, to school, to naps, through dinner, stories and off to bed so my day with them is finished and I can be my selfish self. And wanting to halt time completely and hold their little hands that seem to grow in mine by the second.

Time in Africa is fluid. Like water when we get it. Don’t worry, we’re on Africa time is the phrase most expatriates begin to use after the first year of scurrying to get to meetings on time only to find out that their colleagues are stuck in traffic, at a funeral or otherwise just not going to make it on time. It’s always caused me a lot of stress and anxiety. It’s one of the constant losing battles I fight here. Like staying clean. Like not becoming jaded.

The bush on the outskirts of Lusaka has been alive for hours while I’m still wiping the sleep from my eyes. Rainclouds gather close overhead either to open up or to dissolve yet another time this month as we wait for the beginning of rainy season. I wake up in the midst of Africa every morning. Sometimes I hardly notice.

My ’92 Nissan Patrol bumps and gropes its way down the steep pitch we call our driveway, two kilometers from the main road. We drive along a creek bed that eventually feeds into the Kafue River. The creek floods during most good rains up over the dirt road making it impossible to cross.

Where the driveway meets the two-lane, partially paved road, I slam on the breaks and skid to a stop.

“A funeral!” Noah yells.

“Just my luck,” I whisper, glancing at my watch.

You could sit in this spot all day and watch funeral processions. They begin as early as 7 a.m. and last until after nightfall. Obituaries take up most of the local paper. Pneumonia, malaria, TB, “unknown cause”—everything but the truth, that is, AIDS. On any given day, twenty percent or more of the country it seems will be “attending a funeral.” Here there are vacation days, sick days, and funeral days.

A dump truck lumbers past – men and boys sitting, balancing along its narrow sides—their backsides dipping precariously over the edge. They surround the heap of women and young girls standing belly to back, holding onto each other’s waists and shoulders singing softly as they jostle and bounce by. The truck grunts and belches out clouds of noxious black fumes as it passes. A convoy of blue minivans, doors slid open, brimming over with women wearing bright, cheerful chitengues decorated with dozens of tiny Pope Paul VI heads stretched over their ample hips and thighs idles by.

Another smaller, open-backed pick-up carrying only a few women passes by slowly. They glance over briefly at us as it inches its way forward. Behind that car, a minivan has stalled and the young men inside leap out and begin pushing –causing a break in the line. Gravel sprays up behind us, clicking onto the rear window as my wheels dig in and I pull into the line of trucks.

Two feet in front of us is the reason for the line of traffic this morning. The two women who glanced our way minutes before sit in the back of the narrow truck dressed in white with blue headdresses—a sign of mourning—a small, diamond shaped pine box wedged in between them. A baby’s coffin. I can see the woman’s bare feet, wrinkled and worn, as she sits with her back up against the cab of the truck, legs crossed out in front of her, looking straight into our windscreen. Her delicate, brown fingers rest on the edge of the coffin, steadying it from the bumps. Her face is thin and drawn, her lips are pink and dry. Expressionless. An older woman sits with a sleeping child cradled on her lap, its head resting against her large breasts, its mouth slightly open.

The procession slows, then comes to a stop. The women in the back of the truck ahead of us crane their heads around the side of the truck, as I do. I shift into neutral and try to avert my eyes. The sadness comes in waves here. There are days I try to ignore it. Shut it out. And there are days like today when there’s no way around it. And it haunts me.

Just then a woman walks up to the passenger side of the door—she looks familiar. She’s smiling, waving into the car. I pass her a noncommittal smile. I know I should know her but I still get this amnesia here with some Zambians—once they’re out of their normal places—bakery guy, bank teller, gas station guy—I just don’t recognize them. It’s shameful. I’m pretty sure Zambians are the same with foreigners as I’ve been mistaken for an Asian neighbor of mine who happens to be about my same height.

“It’s Miss Joyce, Mommy—from Pre-school. She wants a ride!” yells Sam.

“Well of course it is!” I reach over and quickly unlock the passenger side door.

She’s wearing a pressed white blouse and knee length wrap around skirt that she is careful to close as she steps up into the car. “Muli bwanji boys,” she says, greeting them in Nyanja and reaching back to pat the top of the baby’s head. “Eyyy, I’m late. I’m happy to see you,” she says smiling—her beautiful white teeth the color of her blouse. Joyce lives in the Bauleni Compound between our house and school.

“Don’t know how much faster it’s going to be than walking today Joyce,” I grumble, still deciding whether or not to pass.

“Eyyyy, I know,” she says shaking her head slowly back and forth. She’s rooting through her purse on her lap for something. “My sister, she knows the cousin of the baby’s father. I’m going to the funeral after school.”

Joyce pulls out a stack of kwacha and straightens them between her fingers, folding them into a small fan and fans her face. She fumbles around on the door. “Please can you roll down the window?”

“I know, it’s hot already,” I start to say something about the weather having been cooler than this last September, but she puts her head partway out the window and starts yelling something in Nyanja to the two women in front of us. They turn around and knock on the glass window to the driver in front, saying something. The driver pulls up slowly edging the truck closer to the side of the road. A dark cloud of diesel belches out of his tailpipe.

“Pull up beside him, then you can see to pass,” Joyce says rolling up the window.

“Are you sure I can do that? They won’t be mad?” I ask, always afraid of offending.

“Pull up! Pull up!” she directs me, still fanning herself with the money.

I pull the car slowly up beside them, halfway into the oncoming lane and I can see it’s clear practically the entire way to school. Joyce rolls down the window again and greets the two women, closing her hands in a sort of clap up near her face—a sign of that can mean anything from ‘sorry’ to blessings to thank you. She passes her fan of money, her funeral contribution out of the window—thousands of soft, limp kwachas—worth probably $2, fluttering in the wind like limp daisies. The younger woman reaches over and takes it, clasping her hands together in thanks, over and over – her head bowing to Joyce and to me.

“Mommy, how did that baby die?” Sam breaks the silence she hadn’t even noticed.

Before I could answer, Joyce broke in. “Fell into a laundry bucket Wednesday and drowned. They’re going to bury him in the ground just now. He was three years old—like my boy. Shame.”

“Is that the mommy?” asks Sam.

“Yes,”Joyce continues, “that’s the mummy.” She points at the young woman still clasping her hands and silently thanking “us” for the money. “And that’s the grandmother.” I’m always shocked at the honesty, the no bones about it approach Zambians have toward talking about death. Before I could come up with a suitable story, she’d laid out the hard, cold facts. This is a part of life. A child died. He’ll be buried. A family will grieve forever.

“Do you have air conditioning?” Joyce asks.

We listen to the humm of the fan as the cool fills the silence. I speed up past the line of mourners for this child.

I glance at my watch. I’m late for my interview. My nipples are beginning to get that burning sensation. But somehow I feel calm. Unhurried. I’ll park the car and walk the children up to their classrooms instead of dropping them off at the curb. I’ll nurse my baby on the bench near the tennis courts and I’ll hold her tightly under the shade of the jacarandas whose lavender velvet blossoms drip to the grass like purple rain. We’re on Africa time.


Debbie Ventimiglia’s publishing credits include Jambo Magazine, Street Level, Reston Connection, Dar Guide Magazine, and Mama Dar: Tales of Family Life in Tanzania, which she co-edited.


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