Tuesday, August 14, 2012

A Hopefully Happy Ending

I started my last blog with an "I'm going to regret writing this but". And guess what?  I do.  I regret bitching to the Interweb about my baby induced sleep woes. I wrote it knowing it was whiny, but the catharsis of unloading my troubles outweighed possibly sounding like a twat.

But there's another reason I regret it.

Living in Kenyan you don't have to step too far out of your life to immediately be smacked in the head by someone else's more profound troubles, making your own seem trifling in comparison.

My sleep deprivation is nothing compared to Ann's.*  Ann has two needy twin babies to my one, and zero husbands to help her quiet them at night.  She has had to quit her job selling mangoes to stay with the babies, after their mother died, and now has little means to buy the very things that would keep the twins healthy and quiet.  At 8 weeks of life, she's already seen them through a bought of malaria and scrambles to keep them fed.  Despite all this, when we met her last week, Ann was loving, welcoming and strong.  And uncomplaining.  Making my own complaining embarrassingly deafening, even if just in my own ears.

Yes. Someone always has it worse than you do.  But rarely do you so often meet them.


But I need to back up.

We hired Lilian* when we moved to Kisumu in January.  She came in once a week to help with the housework - washing the pile of laundry that had built up over the weekend and mopping the floors. She was thin, but in a graceful and not wiry way, shy and hard working.  She had that bashful smile of village women who come to the city for work.

Shortly after Emmet was born it became obvious that she too was expecting.  Her imminent motherhood and my new status as a mother of a newborn deepened our till then superficial relationship. She opened up a bit about the father (a now ex-boyfriend) and her feelings about the impending birth.  She loved holding Emmet and I loved watching her knowing the nervous excitement she must be feeling to hold her own new baby.

Lilian had very little support. Her family was several hours away in her home village and she had only a teenage cousin to help her.  I gave her a pile of clothes, toys, diapers and a bathtub to help with the baby.  Still, just before we left for the US, she texted me to ask if I could "add something" (i.e money) to help with the baby.  In our rush to leave for America I never responded. 

While in the US, I was crushed to learn that Lilian - beautiful, young and kind - passed away a week after giving birth to twins she did not know she was carrying.  Unthinkably, she was just gone. 

But statistically Lilian was one of the lucky ones.  She gave birth in a district hospital, with access to life saving equipment and professionals that many village women lack.  Still, she was weak and struggled to deliver the two babies.  The doctors asked her to stay on and recover a few days, but she left.  She left because she was afraid she wouldn't be able to pay the medical bill.  She left to a cold and leaky brick and tin roof house in a poor part of town cared for only by a teenage cousin and with two babies to nourish. I'm haunted and disturbed by the prospect that she might have made a different decision had I remembered to send her some money prior to my departure. It's almost more than I can bare.  

We're not sure if she died of pneumonia or sepsis or too much hemorrhaging.  She died on the way back to the hospital when things began to look too dire to let the prospect of expensive medical costs deter her any longer.   

Strangely, the other expat family that Lilian had worked for are also expecting a baby - their first. Neither of us had any fear that we wouldn't survive the pregnancy. Our births would not be easy and might not go as expected.  But we would live.  That was certain.  For Lilian, there was no such certainty. The juxtaposition and unfairness of it all rattles me and makes me somehow ashamed.  I'm not sure of what.  I suppose to live in a world that allows this kind of disparity.  

I'm sick of writing about maternal mortality. I never know how to end the post and I end up feeling overwhelmed and helpless, my plea for readers to donate to the cause feeling ineffectual in the face of the problem, rooted in endemic poverty.    

But this time I have a different ending. 

This is a story of another woman: Ann.  Ann, the twins paternal grandmother, and Lilian never met. Her son, the twins father, struggles to survive in Kisumu and has another girlfriend who also recently gave birth, leaving the motherless twins with pretty much no one who can invest the time, love and resources that they need.  

In steps Ann. She's given up her livelihood and her peaceful nights to bring up these babies she didn't even know existed until their mother passed away.  Her life has been upended, but she's taken them in willingly because no one else will and they need someone.  She struggles, but she perseveres.  She doesn't really complain.  At least not to us.  

As unlucky as the twins were to be born in a place that sees poor women like their mother perish just for bringing them into the world, they are also born in a place in which relatives easily step in to fill the void.  Out of tradition, necessity, duty and love.  

Ann's daughter has now moved back with her to help with the two babies and allow her to start selling mangoes again.  She has brought her own baby.  I have hopeful visions of the three of them growing and playing together.  

The twins are still small - 4 kg (8.8 lbs) at 2 months.  But Ann's taken them to be vaccinated and found ways to buy medicine when they need it.  Formula is out of reach expensive (2 weeks salary for 1 tin), but she supplements what we've given her with cows milk, thinned out porridge and even tried nursing them herself.   

So, this post is a celebration of Ann and the generosity of spirit that fills the ugly void death leaves so often in this part of the world.  It's also a prayer that her care as well as some continued outside assistance is enough to keep these precious young twins alive.

We recently visited Ann who lives 2 hours away bringing more formula, a bednet, clothes and some money. This is Michael.

His brother Joseph.  They both have the slender fingers of their mother.

Not too exhausted from the care of her twins, she offers to hold Emmet.

She thanks us for our visit with a chicken.  (She had bought us the sodas in the background as well). All of this despite how little she has. 

*Not her real name

read to be read at yeahwrite.me


  1. Kim,
    Your stories always move me. Thank you so very much for sharing.

    You are a remarkable woman. I wish I could help this woman with more than prayers and feel a bit helpless/sad typing from a computer a world away.

    Puts my time in BI(Beth Israel)in perspective.

    Hugs to you,

    1. Thanks so much Kendra. I feel helpless even sitting so close. And yes - it sure puts a whole lot of things in perspective. Hugs back at you!

  2. Kim, please don't be so hard on yourself. Despite all the suffering around you, you are "allowed" to be overwhelmed and exhausted with your own situation. Your family is doing a wonderful job helping Ann and her family, and you may never know if your money would have made a difference or not...Sounds too much like the U.S. problems with lack of affordable health care. Best of luck to Ann and you both. And on a lighter note, it was heartening for me to see orange soda on a table.. Many memories of being given warm Fanta as a guestt! Kenyans are very generous people.

    1. Thanks so much for your kind words Carol! I tend to do that (be hard on myself) and it's easy to feel whiny and privileged here. Yes. Kenyans inspire me with their generosity and strength. And yes - this was really an issue of lack of affordable care, an exaggerated version of what those in the US are facing.

  3. Oh, now I feel a little ashamed too. Our first world problems seem so first world. Anyway, as always, I love your voice in this piece and I love how you wove the two stories together. Ann really is a happy ending of sorts for these boys. The pics are beautiful. Erin

  4. What a sad sad story. Thank goodness for Ann.

  5. I was floored by this, it's so easy to forget while sitting here in the US. How heartbreaking. And, brave of you to mention things that must have been difficult for you to admit. I will be thinking of these twins often.

  6. We all have our own struggles. It is crucial to have perspective, without accepting the additional weight of guilt. This story is heartbreaking, but the pictures at the end gave me hope. Thank you for sharing a difficult story.

  7. Amazing. And yes it does give you perspective for your own life. It's hard because we measure our own tragedies and hardships against what we have actually known and experienced - when compared to anything outside the first world they always seem so trivial. Yet, they are still ours - and its hard when you don't get any sleep and when you feel overwhelmed by your children. Great post and you are doing a great job, as a Mum and as a humanitarian.

  8. Mothers are remarkable aren't they? Way to celebrate something so important.

  9. Kim,
    Wow. I am constantly amazed/crushed by these stories of what women go through "overseas" - and so disappointed in myself for not educating myself about them until we moved.
    The helplessness is frustrating to the point of anguish.
    I understand how you feel. Almost. This is probably the saddest of these "stories" I've heard.
    Beautiful babies x

  10. Beautifully written as always, Kim, and sad as is too often the case - especially on this continent. This brought tears to my eyes, even though I know something about what life is like in Kenya. My hope for you is that you will celebrate the support you are now giving and try to let go of guessing what might have been. The first is within your control; I love that you are embracing it. The second is impossible, at least from this earthly plane.

  11. Joseph has the face of an old soul. Perhaps he is destined to be someone great.

  12. You're so right about these stories making our own troubles trifling. And I'm also grateful to you for sharing these stories and reminding me to be grateful for the life I lead...and to open my heart (and wallet) to help others less lucky.

    Beautifully told, as always.

  13. I'm tempted not to leave a comment because I just don't even know what to say. Wow. Heartbreaking and uplifting at the same time. What a truly remarkable woman. I wish I had that kind of strength.

  14. Thank you so much for writing something that is so very important.
    Sometimes we all need a reality check, and this was it for me. I will definitely be sharing this, and I hope that others will read it and pass it on.

    Please don't hurt yourself with the what if's. There's no way to know if helping her with more money would help or not.

    Thanks again for sharing.

  15. Beautiful post, Kim. Took me right back to Africa. Been missing it...

  16. Oh my. So heartbreaking. Prayers for Ann, Michael, and Joseph. Thank you so much for sharing this story.

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