Sunday, March 27, 1966. The District Officer, Nikki Kiprono, and his wife, Hanni, invited us to dinner that evening. Mary and I walked up the hill to the D.O.’s official residence. Only the beam of our flashlight cut through absolute night of the empty market.
Nikki had studied in the Netherlands where he met and married Hanni, who was now teaching in the government secondary school on our mission compound. Nikki tried to pick a fight over Vietnam, but I told him he was talking to the wrong Americans. We opposed the war. Hanni told stories of how her Jewish family had survived under the Nazi occupation of Holland. At the end of the evening she lent me a book about the Holocaust.
Mary was very tired by the time we got home and went right to sleep. I stayed up reading Hanni’s book. After about an hour, Mary started to get restless and then woke to say she might be going into labor. I said we should wait a bit to be sure before going down the dirt road to the hospital, which was only about 600 yards away from our house. Since we had come home, the monsoon rains had started pounding on our roof.
After her pains started to become more regular, Mary said I needed to go wake Brother Albert so he could drive us to the hospital through the deluge. I put on my raingear and rubber boots and walked down the driveway to the school where Mary taught science and maths. Brother Albert lived in a tiny room at one end of the building, next to the dormitory section where his students slept. We had already become close to him in the short time we had been in Nkubu. A tall American, from the deep South. I was in awe of his ability to take a five minute nap every day after lunch. His Peugeot pickup truck was parked in a thatched lean-to at the other end of the school building. (I remember what kind of pickup because Brother Albert later acquired a dog, which he named “Peugeot.”)
Even though Brother Albert’s room cannot have been much more than 8 feet by 10 feet, with his bed not far from the door, I had to pound on his door for about five minutes before he heard me. The rains deafened me as they fell on my hat, on the ground, and on the metal roof above. Brother Albert had been asleep inside that drum. I told him that Mary had started labor and that we needed a ride. He dressed and we walked over to his truck. It wouldn’t start. And nothing he could do would get it to start.
I said I would walk down to the seminary to see if I could wake one of the priests to drive us. First, I walked back to the house to tell Mary where I was going and that Brother Albert would stay in the living room until I got back.
My flashlight barely lit the raindrops as I felt my way down the muddy path to the seminary. The seminary was a big stone building with two wings, and a large courtyard in the middle. The corridors between classrooms were open. The faculty lived upstairs on one wing, near the chapel. I pounded and pounded on the door to their quarters, but the roar of the rain on the metal roof defeated my efforts.
I walked back to the house and told Mary that I would walk down to the convent to get Sister Lavinia, the midwife, to come to our house. Mary said to hurry. The pains were getting more and more regular. I reminded her that Brother Albert was out in the living room if she needed help. Mary had a Primus lamp in the bedroom, but Brother Albert only had his flashlight so I got him another lamp.
I had said that the hospital was only 600 yards down the road, but the 550 yards to the convent was a sodden slog through driving rain and deepening mud. I was terrified by now that the sisters would not be able to hear me above the drumming on their roof. Luckily, after pounding a bit, I found a buzzer by their door. Because the sister-nurses frequently had to respond to emergencies in the hospital during the night, they were set to be awakened in any kind of weather.
The Italian nun who answered the bell did not speak much English, but she recognized me and knew about Mary’s pregnancy so she went to get Sister Lavinia. I waited for Sister Lavinia to get dressed and to get her kit. When she came out the door, she was accompanied by Mother Superior, an Italian woman who was probably only in her 50s but whom I regarded as ancient, as much for the venerability of her position as because of my youth.
With three flashlights we made it back to the house more easily. As soon as Sister Lavinia took off her raingear and washed her hands, she examined Mary and said that the baby would be coming soon. She and Mother Superior pulled back the mosquito net and started arranging the bed so they could assist in the delivery. When they saw that I was making no move to leave the room, they sent me out to boil some water.
After I had the boiled water simmering on the stove, I waited at the door of the bedroom. By then it was probably about 3 o’clock in the morning. The rains still pounded on the roof. After about an hour more of listening and watching Mary work through her labor pains, I saw the baby as Sister Lavinia said we had a boy and lifted him away from Mary.
Mary looked worn out, but ecstatic as she held our son. We had already decided to name him Joseph Mubundi, if the baby was a boy. We were both very devoted to St. Joseph the Worker. “Mubundi” means “skilled worker” in Kimeru, the local language. (The name turned out to be prophetic because Joseph grew up to become a skilled auto mechanic.) I brought the baby out for Brother Albert to see for a moment. The nuns said I could use the boiled water for tea if I wanted some now. That’s when I learned that the primary purpose of that task is to get the man out of the way.
The nuns stayed to clean up Mary and the room, put clean sheets on the bed, and wrap Joseph up in the basket we had bought for him in the local market. This straw basket was Joe’s crib for his first few weeks. It was rectangular in shape, with a raised woven straw "roof" at one end to keep off the sun, and handles on either side for carrying. When Mary went back to teaching after about 10 days, two of her students would come every morning to carry Joe across the field to the classroom where he would stay with Mary until it was time for them to carry him back to the house.
After the nuns and Brother Albert had left, I lay down on the bed with Mary. As the dawn light grew brighter, Joe started to cry. We panicked. We felt all alone with no adults to tell us what to do with our new baby. We thought that perhaps he was thirsty so I dipped my pinky in some of the boiled water and let Joe suck on it. He then fell fast asleep after all his work of the night before. He was so quiet, however, that I thought that I had killed him and had to get up again to check that he was still breathing. Much to my relief he was.
When the District Officer heard that day that Mary had walked home from his house the night before and then had a baby, he said, “She’s a strong woman.”
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Not right, nor orderly.Non-Fiction
The phrase "not right, nor orderly" comes from John Donne's poem, "An Anatomie of the World," written on the first anniversary of "the untimely death of Mistress Elizabeth Drury," the 14 year old daughter of his patron, Sir Robert Drury. The poet u...