by Daniel Nkado
This is not my story.
No, it isn’t. It’s actually my father’s, the way he told it to me. Unlike most babies, I wasn’t born in a hospital. Come to think of it, no one actually knows where I was born. Or who my mother is.
My father picked me by the corner of the wall. He said it was on a very cold morning. I was wrapped in an old blouse. He said it was dirty and blood-stained. It must have belonged to my mother.
My father carried me to the local nurse, but she wouldn’t touch me. She said I was too tiny to survive. That my mother obviously hadn’t fed well while she was pregnant with me.
My father asked her what he should do with me and the plump nurse shook her head. ‘Oja, I really do not know,’ she told him. She came close and checked me again. She raised one of my legs. My father said each of my legs was just the size of two fingers joined together.
‘She is too thin and weak,’ the nurse said to him. She shook her head. ‘She will not survive.’
On his way home, my father thought of something. He turned and headed straight to the chief’s house. He was the only one in the entire village that could afford to transport me across the river. To the good hospital. The one that was built from cement and had nurses that spoke in the foreign tongue.
‘A baby!’ the big-bellied chief gasped on seeing me.
‘Yes, a baby,’ my father said.
‘You do not have a wife, Oja, who is the mother?’ he asked my father.
‘I do not know,’ my father said. ‘I saw her in front of my house this morning.’
The chief’s senior wife came close and stared at me. ‘She is very tiny,’ she said.
‘Please, I want you to take her,’ my father said.
The chief gave him a look. ‘Take her?’
‘Yes. Across the river, to the learned men.’
The chief smiled. ‘She will not survive, Oja,’ he said.
‘Please,’ my father insisted.
The senior wife touched me. ‘She is just very tiny,’ she said again.
‘Please take her,’ my father said, extending me.
She drew back slightly, as if afraid of me.
‘Go home, Oja,’ the chief told him. ‘That thing will not live.’
My father only now stared, not knowing what else to say. Or do.
‘Please give me a little baby milk for her,’ my father finally asked.
The chief smiled his shallow smile again. ‘I have 14 children, my good herder, I do not have even enough milk for all of them.’
My father nodded and turned to leave.
‘Go well, Oja,’ the senior wife said, waving lightly at my father.
My father nodded and left.
At home, my father gathered all his clothing together and laid me in the heap.
He walked to the newly freshened cow and drew some milk in a bowl. Back inside the house, he dipped a finger into the milk and put in my mouth. My toothless gums tightened around his finger. My father said he’d smiled then, because the sensation had tickled him.
He fed me that way till the entire milk in the bowl was gone. That was when I first moved, my father said. I’d shaken my hands as if wanting to clap, my soft tiny fingers curled up.
In the afternoon, my father fed me that way again. And that way too in the evening. And the next day. And the next. Till one day that I made my first sound: ‘Paah!’
My father smiled. He said by then I’ve added a little more flesh. From the trees in the bush at the back of the farm, he cut some fronds. And with them he made me a cot. It was shaped like a basket, my father said. A standing rectangular basket.
He said he would show it to me. And some other things I needed to see. He named me the day I first crawled out of the cot on my own. He called me Nto-nto, for I was very small.
The cow from whose milk he nursed me died when I was eight. I needed not to be told that. My father and I had buried her together.
I was twelve when I left the farm. The foreigners had gathered all the children in the village together. They taught us their alphabet and how to form words from it.
They promised to take the fastest learners with them. They gave a test and I passed and was chosen. But I did not want to go with them. I did not want to leave Paa. But he said I should go. That I should follow them.
He said it was for the better. Yet he was crying when he said it. I started to cry too. He hugged me tight and wouldn’t let go, till the slim woman in a white shirt and blue skirt came close and said, ‘We have to go now, farmer.’
I remembered her. Her wrinkled face, the round transparent glasses that framed her eyes and her short greying hair.
Sister Mathilda we called her.
I miss her.
But I miss Paa more.
Paa died yesterday in this same hospital where I now work. I did everything I could, but the cough just won’t stop.
‘Leave it,’ he finally said to me. ‘Leave it, Nto-nto m, inu.’
I didn’t. I continued to press down on his chest, battling to calm the hacking and wheezing. It had grown so stubborn over the weeks, the cough. But then it finally stopped. I was about to breathe a sigh of relief when Paa’s eyes closed.
I was there. I saw it all. I watched his eyes close, his breathing die and his arms stretch out. I fell to the floor and rolled in my tears. My fellow doctors came, but they couldn’t restrain me.