Our maid Viviane was a bachelorette when we moved here four years ago. I’ve never asked her how she managed to avoid marriage before age 26, in a country where early marriage is common and girls start having babies in their teens. I also don’t know the circumstances of her marriage, which came as a total surprise to me. One Monday she casually told me she was married over the weekend. I asked her why didn’t she tell me earlier; I would have liked to come to the wedding. She shrugged and said it happened quickly, and it was a small affair. The Viviane I’ve come to know is a very strong, proud woman. She’s not the type to ask her mzungu boss to come to her wedding just so she can score an expensive gift.
Her first baby came along exactly nine months later. When she told us that she was pregnant, I was excited and happy for her. Tu es enceinte! I exclaimed. She took one look at my smile and dropped her head in her hands. Having a baby was not exactly according to plan, apparently. A few months later, after coming to terms with her fate, she told me with a smile that her husband wanted a boy but she wanted a girl, so she could name her after me. Soon Olivier arrived, a gorgeous and sweet little boy who then proceeded to grow up in this house until he was able to start walking around destroying stuff. Viviane was very happy with her new arrival, and so was I. He was born just one week after my brother’s little girl back in Arizona, so I call them cousins.
The baby weight never really came off, despite the calories Viviane expended each day on her long walk to and from work with a baby on her back, and all her physical labor. I began whispering to Seb that maybe she was pregnant again. In January a little baby girl arrived, equally gorgeous and sweet. I told Viviane that she and her husband, a very nice fellow named Carmel, made good-looking babies. This time I took more pictures, knowing from the first round she was comfortable with it.
True to her word, Viviane named her daughter after me. Djeni, she spelled it. It’s a common Swahili spelling for the hard “J” sound we are familiar with. The D, to us, is silent. As if “banjo” was spelled “bandjo.” Like the country Djibouti, or the capital of Chad, N’Djamena. You know.
Some time later, Viviane told me she changed the spelling of Djeni’s name to Jenie, because her husband thought she should have used an English spelling. I told her that was too bad; I loved that name, and was thinking of changing mine to match! People often ask me if I spell my name with a Y or an I. “With a D,” I could say next time.
I welcomed baby Jenie into this house like I had her older brother. They are the only babies to spend time on property that I know of, which is probably breaking company rules, but I don’t care to separate mother and child (specifically child from mother’s milk). I speak French to Viviane but English to her babies, knowing what I do now about their brain development when it comes to language. Jenie doesn’t nap as well as Olivier did; she wants to always be with us, around the action. When she fusses Viviane will put her on her back as she scrubs the floors (bless her heart), where Jenie will slowly nod off, fighting sleep.
On Friday Viviane returned from a two-week break, the remainder of her annual leave. She doesn’t often cry in front of me, but with a tear running down her cheek she told me that Olivier is not well. He hasn’t been well for a couple of months, but these last two weeks have been especially bad. He’s in pain, not eating, not sleeping, losing too much weight. Il a vraiment perdu sa santé, she told me. He has totally lost his health. They’ve taken him to every doctor in town, where all tests have been inconclusive but they guess the usual suspects: typhoid, malaria. Who knows. They’ve thrown a few random medications at the problem, which I fear could compound or confuse the problem. She doesn’t know what to do anymore, she told me.
The statistics here are grim: 15% of children die before the age of five, and most of the time from preventable or curable diseases. Imagine that. Back home it’s rare and unbelievably sad to hear of a parent losing a young child. It’s against nature, it feels like to us. Here it happens every seven times. Our gardener lost twin infants last year. Another gardener nearby lost two children within two years, both under a year old. Seb says every week he’s signing papers for one of his 150 guys requesting funeral leave for someone in their immediate family, often a child.
I gave Viviane extra money as a Christmas gift and told her to take the rest of the month to be with him. With that money she can take him to Lubumbashi where there’s a chance of getting better medical care. I wish so much I could put them on a plane for South Africa or take him home with me to the States. Tomorrow morning we are boarding a plane for nearly a month of vacation; in a weird way I’m relieved to be able to tell her that we’re not going home but to another under-developed country, Vietnam. It would be too sad to be home, unable to take him with me, with such easy access to medical care that could surely save him, if only he could get there.
For further reading:
Ben Affleck on child mortality in DRC (though, for the record, I side with Bill & Sam)