Thula Baba

I am stuck in the birth canal, inside my mother. All that Doctor Kaizer can see is a tiny patch of my head; pink and blonde. Everything else is swollen folds of red skin stretched into circles and covered in blood, mucus, discharge, remnants of broken water.

My tiny eyes are still shut. Forced shut by being pressed up against the walls of the tunnel everyone is trying to get me out of. So I don’t see the “vanity screens” wheeled around my mother in the labor room, with faded lime cloth scrunched onto the upper and lower rods of a shiny silver frame. Or the hospital-issue, light blue sheet tented over her lower body, her legs stirruped in icy metal holds. Don’t see the white-uniformed nurse handing polished steel tools to the doctor. Or the steel kidney bowl that holds these scalpels, surgical scissors and the glossy new clamp that will grip my umbilical chord when I am finally born. Don’t see my dad holding my mom’s hand but unable to look anywhere near me, or where I’m coming from.

Jacky is swearing. The woman who is giving birth and whom I will call Mah-mah shortly before my first birthday—and Mom or Mah for the rest of her life—has been in active labor for nearly six hours. And Dr Kaizer, the same man who’s tended to her since she was a little girl, has already made an incision on her perineum, cutting through her posterior vulva wall. Cuts that should have made it easier for me, for everybody, to start breathing.

But the scalpeled incisions don’t help. And each contraction of her uterus and abdominal muscles—Nature’s perfect design—only succeed in compacting my legs and lower torso into my jammed upper half in failed peristalsis.

And so a contraption is wheeled across the ward.

This is 1976, in isolated, unpopular South Africa. Options to overcome my stubborn stuckness are limited and unsophisticated. The suction cup, looking like a miniature toilet plunger, attaches to a long tube, which attaches to a foot-operated vacuum. Dad is given brief instructions on how to activate the suction with his foot. Then Doctor Kaizer fingers the dome into place around my head and gets ready to pull me into this world.

“Okay, Dorrian, pump it a few times, quite hard,” the doctor urges. He gently tugs the tube where it attaches to the cup to test its traction. After my dad’s first few foot pumps it’s feeling properly attached and the doctor pulls harder. He tries to tug me forward. But the cup snaps off instead. He starts again.

Again and again it pops off without my moving forward a millimeter.

Earlier that day, Jacky had phoned Dorrian at his site office on East London’s harbor. She sounded nervous but calm as her voice came through the beige telephone receiver. Her water had broken. It was time to be taken to the hospital. Outside of his tiny, unkempt office he saw his team of workers—boys—sandblasting the front side of a ship that had arrived in the dry dock yesterday. Glints of metal breaking through the red rust and paint pocks. Tomorrow that exposed steel base would get a wash of hydrochloric acid and the day after it would be coated, restored, with three layers of bright, shiny white paint. Back in the receiver at his ear Jackie asked whether he had heard her.

“Yes, my kid, I’m leaving now.”

He tore through the humid city streets in his rusting yellow bakkie, arriving home breathless and in a puff of black diesel smoke. One day he’d have to replace his van, but today was not a day for thinking about that. Sweat ran down his temples and he hesitated for a moment before dashing insider to fetch her.

“Come on Jax. We’ve got to go!” He expected her to be ready to be whisked off to hospital.

“Dorro, yes. In a minute. First we need to take a few last photos of this massive tummy of mine,” she insisted. Jacky looked relaxed. She handed him their small black and silver instamatic camera and posed for photographs in her bell-bottomed jeans in front of their brass bed frame.

She hadn’t even packed a suitcase yet.

“Nurse! Forceps!” the exasperated doctor barks after the third failed suction.

He is an old man, but not one to be beaten by a difficult birth. His hands receive the metal tongs. He inserts them into my mother, helping them find the sides of my face with his index finger and thumb. They hook underneath my fetal jaw. He starts pulling again. He pulls harder, forgetting to be gentle.

He repeats his loud urging, “Just breathe easy, Jacky!”

“Don’t you fucking tell me what to do! Have you ever had a baby before!!”

She is tired, in pain, raw. Shredded. He doesn’t flinch. Instead, he tightens his grip on the metal forceps and pulls down harder. Nothing. Then something. Slowly. My head and shoulders come unstuck. Adult fingers slide further up between my skin and my moms’. They curl around me. Hands gently guide and receive me. Nobody speaks, even Jacky is silent, as my body—wet, bloody, breathing—is released from its sticking place and comes into full view. I am born. I am also screaming.

 

Thula thul, thula umntwana, thula sana,

ˈtʰuːla ˈtʰul, ˈtʰuːla umnˈtwaːna, ˈtʰuːla saːna

 

Thul’u baba uzobuya, ekuseni.

ˈtʰul uˈɓaːɓa uzoˈɓuːja, ekuhːsehni

 

Sebe sikhona xa bonke bashoyo,

ˈsɛːɓe siˈkʰɔːna isiˈǁa ˈɓɔːŋke ɓaˈʃɔːjo

 

Be thi buyela umntwana ubuye le khaya,

ɓe tʰi ɓuˈjɛːla umnˈtwaːna uɓuˈje le kʰaːja

 

Thula thula thula sana,

ˈtʰuːla ˈtʰuːla ˈtʰuːla saːna

 

Thula thula thula baba,

ˈtʰuːla ˈtʰuːla ˈtʰuːla ɓaːɓa

 

Thula.

ˈtʰuːla

Nosi was our maid. When we were in polite company, she was called my nanny, but mostly she was our maid. She had recently started working for my parents, employers she lovingly called “Ma’am” and “Master” with plump chocolate cheeks that swelled with pride and admiration every time she did so. She was twenty and lived with her husband, John, in a tiny metal-walled shack in Mdantsane township, outside East London. She considered herself very lucky to have found us.

Three hours before sunrise she would wake up and wash herself with water boiled on a paraffin stove, poured into a small aluminum basin. Leaning over it she sponged down her chubby frame, her rolls of firm black flesh a sign of wealth and abundance in her Xhosa culture. Washed, clean, she dried herself off and put on the pink or apricot or turquoise or white-and-black uniform that my mom had bought her from the Indian market on the outskirts of town.  She’d leave off the apron until she arrived at our house but she would tie her doek over her head, framing her face in floral pleasantness. John wouldn’t have to rise for another hour and so she’d leave the house quietly, walk two kilometers through the dark, untarred, litter-strewn streets of the township and catch a train that would take her into East London. In the crisp dawn air, she’d arrive at the main station and catch a minibus to Nahoon, indicating politely between commuter heads to the driver as they neared the bottom of Granton Road that she would like to get off. Just as the sun was peeping over the horizon, and as the very first electric alarm clocks echoed through the houses of the white—blanke—suburbs in their high-pitched hysteria, Nosi was waddling towards 5 Granton Road, gently opening the latch of our gate and walking towards our family home. She would always be smiling.

Every day she cleaned the house with me tied onto her back in a big, strong blanket. The blanket covered my bulby torso, with only my head popping out of the top. It tied around the front of her body in knots at her waist and above her ample black breasts. I rocked gently in her warmth while she maneuvered the orange Electrolux vacuum cleaner or bent over the dirty lunch dishes or dusted sideboards or folded and packed away clean laundry. And when I was on her back there was quiet and peace at 5 Granton Road.

Something about the way that that blanket held me was comforting. Something about her contact and its warmth soothed me. Something about the earthy mother in her singing voice quieted me: Thula thul, thula umntwana, tula sana; Hush, hush my child, hush my baby.

But those were relatively short reprieves and soon I would become hungry or restless. Painfully discontent. And when I was eventually lifted out of my temporary sanctuary my eyes would squeeze shut and my mouth would open wide in a massive scream from the pain that she or my mother or my father were unknowingly causing me. Pain from broken collarbones that were never allowed to heal. Breaks that no one knew were there.

Nobody could figure out why I let out such excruciating cries, especially when they were just trying to pick me up, to nurture me, to hold me and make the tears go away. Mom was a brand new mother and all she knew to do was make twenty-two bottles a day and feed me. Even her mother, my Nanna—experienced in raising three obedient daughters and helping them raise three grandchildren before me—was at her wit’s end. Her beautiful, long grey hair, always done up in a bun, ruffled by this child that was so terribly upset.

Doctor Kaizer said that I was a naughty baby and just needed to be left under a tree to be entertained by the moving leaves. My mother tried that and it didn’t work. She tried pushing me around in a pram, picking me up, palming me off to Nanna and Poppa or any of the many friends that lined up to help: some of those things quelled my tears, others quelled hers.

But the screaming didn’t stop for many months, and the puzzle wasn’t solved for nearly a year: one day, being treated for my third lung infection, our new family doctor ordered x-rays. After a few moments of staring intently at the backlit navy-blue rectangle that showed Jacky the inside of her firstborn, the nurse happily reported, “You’re so lucky. His collarbones have healed perfectly.” It was the first time that my mom had heard anything about the fractures.

Somewhere between the tugging of my body and the gnawing of its resistance, between breaths and swearwords, suction pump and forceps, both of my collarbones had broken. Tiny bones, like fresh, still-damp twigs, snapped in the birth canal.