My daughter, my gift
While picking bananas, she felt the first pains...
(True Love)
I remember the spasms in my left eye. They say in Rwanda that spasms on the lower lid mean crying and those on the upper lid mean receiving a gift. Which eyelid was it? I cannot tell now.

What I do remember is that it was a sunny Tuesday in July, in the long, dry season before the umuhindo brought the rain and cooled the air. I was helping Adrian, our cook, with preparations for making sweet banana wine. We had a small banana plantation on our plot of land across the street from our house in Kimisagara, a suburb of Kigali. The bananas were ready to be cut down and buried in a pit to ferment. After five days, when they had fermented, we would go to the rain forests in the mountains to cut ishinge, a special grass through which we would press the banana juice. We would press and press until the sweet juice ran out. Making banana wine was important for us. It brought people together and kept them together.

I had just stripped some bananas from a branch, when I felt the first pangs. I was no novice. I had already given birth to two children and I knew I had to find a lift to the hospital soon. I couldn’t go by taxi or bus; I needed the safety and reliability of a private car.

I walked to find my friend Judith, who lived in my neighbourhood. We were both teachers, enjoying our long school holiday. Judith reassured me that her car would be available whenever I needed to go.

I had already prepared the baby’s suitcase. It wasn’t big. In my country they say that you should not spend a fortune on an unborn baby. If you do, it could bring you bad luck. At around five in the afternoon my husband came back from town with building supplies. Like many people do before the birth of a child, we had been renovating our house. Seeing me doubled over, he ran to fetch Judith, and within minutes she was driving us to Centre Hospitalier de Kigali, one of the biggest hospitals in town.

My contractions were getting stronger. I shifted on the seat, trying my best not to make a noise, trying to prove myself a strong woman. We drove up the hospital driveway in the dry, dry heat, past the eucalyptus trees and the bright red bougainvillaea creepers to the hospital entrance. My husband and I had been together in the car, but when we reached the building, I had to go inside alone.

A nurse took me to a small room, where she examined me. She told me that the labour was still in its early stages. I did not believe her. I was in so much pain. She suggested that I walk around the maternity ward to encourage the contractions. The ward was full and noisy. I passed women screaming and swearing. It made me feel more nervous. There were so many women, but I still felt alone.

At around seven in the evening I was checked again. The progress was slow. About an hour later they decided to do a scan. I was told that the umbilical cord was wrapped around the baby’s neck and that there was a danger of it strangling the baby if I tried to have a natural birth. I would have to have a Caesarean delivery immediately, under general anaesthetic. (They didn’t do epidural Caesareans in Rwanda at that time.)

I was hurried to the theatre. A doctor and a team of nurses surrounded me. I was very scared. My first two sons had come out naturally. What if I didn’t make it? As they gave me the injection, they explained to me that I wouldn’t feel any pain at all. I remember my heart beating very fast. In that hospital in Kigali, the nurses comforted me and prayed for me as I sank into twilight sleep.

The next morning, as I slowly regained consciousness, I saw a nurse standing next to my bed.
‘You have a baby girl,’ she said, laying the sleeping baby next to me.

I was overjoyed. I had really wanted a girl. Now I had my gift.

This is an extract from the collection Just Keep Breathing (Jacana), available from at R123,25.

Just Keep Breathing

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