“Chidaona maso mtima suyiwala.” What the eyes see, the heart does not forget.
- Chichewa proverb.
I have been lied to for my entire life. The knowledge washed over me and clung to my skin like the sticky, African heat that enveloped me, choking me and making me feel nauseated.
I held a newborn baby in my arms, her face the smallest face I’d ever seen on a human, and all that was visible of her wrapped up tightly in a bundle of colourful cloth. The baby’s grandmother sat in the shade, and her son—the baby’s uncle, and my friend—stood beside me on the dusty, broken pavement of this road at the end of the world, as we desperately tried to hail a ride to the hospital.
I looked down at the baby to see if she was still breathing, imagining her impossibly tiny, not yet fully formed lungs struggling for breath in this stifling heat. She was too small. She would not live; I knew that. Not here on the side of this road in Malawi with no ride in sight and no ambulance available and no doctors for miles, and not at the hospital 40 kilometres down the road that did not even have enough IV poles, necessitating relatives standing by bedsides for hours holding up the drip.
I frantically stepped in front of a vehicle that emerged from around the bend, standing there like a crazy person, hair askew, causing them to have to stop. Some important looking men peered out at me from their air-conditioned truck with unimpressed looks, apparently in a hurry. The driver reluctantly pressed the button to roll down his window, partway. I asked them if they could take us to the hospital—me, the baby, her mother. It was on the way, and they had plenty of room.
“No. You can come, but not them.”
I looked from them, several well-dressed men, to the tiny baby in my arms, then to her mother who had appeared from somewhere looking exhausted and somewhat resigned. I could hear my heart pounding in my ears.
My reflection stared back at me from the mirrored lenses of the man’s sunglasses. His foot reached for the clutch, and somehow I summoned some pleading, some proselytizing about their duty to humanity, some threatening, and possibly some money, and the baby and her mother were in the backseat headed to the hospital, I hoped.
I waved goodbye to the baby’s mother, promising to check on them later. The truck sped away in a cloud of dust and I stood there for a long, long time.
The baby died that night, in the hospital with no neonatal unit and no incubator and no doctor and no food and no IV poles. “Her name is Grace,” her grandmother had said that morning as she handed me the featherlight bundle, smiling. Grace.