In my early 20s, I delivered hundreds of babies. Naturally, my interest in my own birth and that of my daughter tends towards the technical.
Among other things, I wish I knew how long it took me to journey through Mama’s birth canal. Was I like most babies, who understand the advantage of approaching the new world head first? Or did I exit feet first? If I came head first, had I turned around a week or two or just before my birth date? What was my Apgar score? I would like to see the record of all this: 5pm: vaginal examination – 8cm dilated; 5.30 pm: membranes rupture; 6pm: pushing begins. Every single detail!
Theoretically, there is a record of my birth somewhere, because I was one of the fortunate few in the late ‘50s to have been delivered by a trained midwife: Mama’s aunt, Mrs. Sanah Mamashela, fondly called ‘Staff’ by the community. Oral history has it that she was the first black staff nurse and midwife to ride a bicycle around Mgungundlovana (Greytown). A bicycle riding, black midwife – Mgungundlovana’s own pioneer! The women she helped deliver must have revered her.
Getting hold of those records of my birth would be a treat. I am curious about the kind of records Sanah would have kept. How did she monitor labour? What charts did she use? The mere thought of looking at the papers – yellowing, time-crumpled – excites me. Most of all, I wish to see Staff’s signature attesting to her professional presence at my arrival.
Sanah passed away in 1999. Now that I think of it, I doubt she would have kept Mama’s birth records for so long. In fact, I doubt that she would have made any notes on Mama’s labour at all, because technically she was off duty when I arrived. What else can I rely upon? Decades ago, Mama used to tell me the story of my birth, but as her memory, too, has faded (she calls her brain a sieve), she cannot confirm the details I have kept alive in my head. I shall have to trust my recollection, while allowing my imagination to fill some gaps.
During Mama’s pregnancy my parents, both schoolteachers, were living with my three-year-old brother in kwaMpande, on the outskirts of Pietermaritzburg. As the winter school holiday approached, they discussed visiting Mama’s aunt Sanah, whom they had not seen in a long time. And so, close to my due date, off they went to Mgungundlovana. Mama helped around the house whenever Sanah was out on her legendary bicycle. Sanah was a mother to five children, and Mama became the parent figure when Sanah was on midwife duty and the men were out.
When the holiday neared its end, Sanah said to Mama, ‘Nomvula, your time is close. You should not go back to kwaMpande. Stay with us until the baby is born.’ My parents took Sanah’s advice. My father went back home alone. I imagine that the journey I began on the afternoon of 10 July 1957 was bumpy at times, but on the whole exciting, urgent and desired. I see Staff arriving home wearily, alighting from her bicycle, walking into her home and packing away her midwifery suitcase. Then, just as she is sitting down to a welcome-home cup of tea, Mama – or is it me? – disrupts her routine. And so, on that evening, she becomes midwife Staff in her own home. I imagine the coal stove emitting sparks of heat and warming the whole house, reaching me, too, in the bedroom Mama is using.
Mama said she had short labours. She did not remember, though, exactly when I was born. It was sometime in the evening, on a Wednesday. I was luckier than most, because I was delivered at home. I must have smiled before I was a day old from the sheer exhilaration of a family welcome. What more could a newborn wish for? Sanah helped Mama as efficiently as she could. A skilled and experienced midwife, she may also have been a little blasé. My birth, though no doubt special to her in some small way, was still a technical delivery. May the bones of her fingers rest in peace! She was there to ensure that Mama’s anxiety was reduced to the minimum and that my confidence to complete my crossing was increased to the maximum. My father was absent.
This is an extract from the collection Just Keep Breathing (Jacana), available from Kalahari.net at R123.25.