Feeding the Chief's Twins
"Maintenant—Now—Mawa," Monique said, holding a flattened metal spoon in one hand and a plastic bag of black-eyed peas in the other, "listen closely and I will show you how to make baby food."
She sat next to a small fire with a bulbous pot of boiling water balanced on three large rocks. Mawa sat on a mat beside her with the twins, as well as three other children. She sat close enough to the pot to watch, but kept a respectable distance. Small children had a horrible habit of stumbling into open fires.
Fousseni and Lassine, at almost a year old now, could barely sit up. Their eyes were half-lidded and crusty, and they leaned their wasted little bodies, bare except for protective amulets on their waists, into Mawa. They may have been a miracle, but now they were dying. I saw it in their lethargy, pale complexions, and lackluster attempts at eating food. Their weights had slowly and steadily dropped for several months, taking a sharp turn downward in the last few weeks. It had happened so fast.
I couldn't help but contrast them to Basil, who at a year and a half was storming about and had just cornered a chick. He was chunky and feisty. I was astonished that Monique could still lug his ample girth, but many women here carried their kids even at 20 kilos, over 40 pounds. I had carried Basil on my back only once, from the clinic to my house amid Monique's howling laughter, a distance long enough to make my back ache from the weight and my breasts sting from the pressure of the tied cloth. Since Basil had learned to walk, though, he preferred spending more time on his own feet, overturning bowls and keeping livestock on the move.
The chick's kin were distraught. Its mother clucked and pattered to and fro, followed by her other offspring, all fluster and peeps. The hen issued some quick instructions; the trapped chick feigned left, skittered to the right and past Basil. The chicken clan made for the courtyard entrance and the relative safety of the village paths. Basil fell back on his wide, naked bottom and hollered his disappointment. Monique ignored him. He got back up and, wailing all the way, ran into her lap. She put aside her spoon for a moment to position him at her breast.
"First, take these beans, Mawa, and grind them into a powder," Monique said. "This makes them easier to swallow, since Fousseni and Lassine do not yet have all their teeth."
Mawa got up, put one of the twins on her back, laid the other on the ground, and walked over to a large flat rock in the middle of the compound. She began to grind the beans expertly, as I had seen Monique do so many times with peanuts and karite nuts. Soon she had a pile of coarse bean flour.
We had done this same demonstration just a couple of weeks back for a large group of mothers. Mawa hadn't been there, but Elise had. We had yet to see Elise institute anything she may have learned. Karamogo remained the poster child for childhood sickness. I hoped with Mawa and the twins it would be different.
Sickness could come in an instant. Death was skulking behind every calabash of dirty water, untreated burn, or mosquito bite. This was true for anyone, but with their young immune systems, the children, after being weaned from protective breast milk, were especially vulnerable. Lack of the right foods during and after weaning was most important. Typically, a child's diet abruptly changed with the advent of a younger sibling. While the newborn got the bosom, the older child went straight from breast milk, with sips of water. The toddler's digestive system had little time to adjust, and tŏ with sauce did not have the concentration of vitamins and protein he or she needed. Even in lean times, I had learned, the men ate first, meaning they skimmed the meat and vegetables before the remnants were passed on. Infectious diseases, mostly caused by dirty water, took lives as well. The making of baby food, a new concept to the village women, tackled both these problems. It was high-protein food cooked in clean water.
"The dùgùtigi has five children with Mawa and three children with his other wife," Monique said, watching the twin on the ground by Mawa. "And he is looking to take yet another wife. If he wants all these children, he must feed them. If we succeed in bringing the pill to the village, he might let his wives use it as well."
"Mawa must make the baby food for a week or two, until she can see her babies are healthier. She must make it every day. Every day. This will be difficult, as I do not have the time to come here and do it."
Monique's schedule kept getting busier. We hadn't had a night in Koutiala with Pascal for weeks. Henri was a help, but he could not yet run the clinic on his own.
"I'll work with Mawa," I said.
My mind wandered. John was in the capital, awaiting word on the funding of our maternity ward project. I was worried about him, as the political situation in Bamako had worsened. Unlicensed vendors (forced by General Traoré to close down their shops) and students had demonstrated in Bamako by throwing rocks, looting stores, and burning automobiles. General Traoré had cracked down with an iron fist of teargas and mass arrests. Thousands had then taken to the streets to demand the dictator's resignation. I hoped John would return safely, and with good news about the funding.
I looked around the compound, with its scattering of pots, stones, mortars, and sigilans (small seats). The firewood, a jumble of twirling branches and asymmetric logs, was piled in a far corner. Mawa and her older daughters walked several kilometers into the bush to gather it. Draped over the pile was clean, wet laundry. The drying cloths were drawn taut between the branches and looked like outstretched bat wings.
One of the little girls who had been sitting by the fire got up and walked toward the woodpile. She squeezed in by the wall, squatted and strained and, after a minute, got up and walked away. Flies wasted no time settling onto the small mound left behind, the same flies that would soon gather on the bean powder, on the rim of the cooking pot, and on the tiny hands and faces of the twins. Normally, Mawa or an older daughter would sprinkle dirt on the pile, slide it onto a piece of cardboard and deposit it outside the compound door, or use a small cup, as Monique did for Basil, but this time, no one seemed to notice.
Mawa finished crushing the beans into a coarse powder, no lumps or shells to be found. She lifted the pagne, folded it to make a spout, and poured the powder into a small tin bowl.
"Good," Monique said, in her teacher's voice, directed, praising, expecting the best. "Now, we put three handfuls of powder into the water."
"Stir it until it thickens, like a sauce." She handed Mawa the spoon, "almost like the consistency of hot tǒ."
Mawa approached the pot, stirred it from her side, and spoke to Monique in Minianka.
"Fatumata," Monique said, "Mawa has an idea. And I think it is a good one. She said it is difficult to get beans and peanuts this time of year. That it will be difficult for women to use peanuts for baby food and not for the family sauce. That perhaps, if the village agrees, and if the women wish it, each family could bring a few beans and peanuts to plant, in a field, together."
"A communal field? Just for growing baby food?"
"What a great idea, Mawa, a kanyi, i hakili kadi," I said, expressing my enthusiasm for the idea.
"Aw ni ce," a husky voice greeted us. Korotun appeared in the compound doorway.
She shuffled across the yard. She had lost weight since the birth. Her cheeks were hollowed bowls and her skin was sallow. I could not tell if the yellowed shadow under her eyes was lack of sleep, lack of nutrition, or healing flesh.
"How are you? How's little Ami?" I asked.
"I have come for aspirin," she said listlessly, not lifting her gaze from the ground. She turned sideways so I could see her daughter bound to her back. Little Ami was as cute as the day she was born, with a symmetrical face, trim features, and lips that curved into a natural smile. Red threads hung delicately from her freshly pierced ears.
Monique strapped a now sleepy Basil onto her back, opened her bag, counted out two aspirin, walked to Korotun, and placed them in her open palm. She uttered small thanks and turned to go. Monique blocked her exit.
"Korotun, new mother, where are you going?" Monique said. "Are you so busy that you must take your aspirin and run?"
Monique smiled at her, trying to ignite some spark of the familiar in our friend.
"I can't today," she said and brushed past Monique. Her eyes were still and cold.
"Hey, the first months with a baby are not easy. Stay a while with us."
Her sentence was phrased politely, but was also an unmistakable command. Korotun did not look back, but drifted out.
"Something's wrong," Monique said, tightening her pagne and taking a bunch of tiny ripe bananas and a plastic bag of salt out of her bag and placing them on the ground. "Fatumata, can you finish with Mawa?"
"Yes," I said and watched Monique disappear after Korotun. Please let it be anything but Dramane, I thought to myself. I turned back to concentrate on Mawa, who was still stirring the pot.
"Maintenant, we will cut up the bananas, and add them." I tore off two bananas, peeled them, and dropped them in. Mawa, arms now cradling the twins, did the same.
"Now we put in two fingers of salt," I said, adding a pinch. "Voila."
Mawa said something in Minianka, which I thought indicated the porridge was done.
"How does it taste? It looks ... ah ... good," I said, looking at the thick, brownish goo.
Mawa dipped her finger in, put it to her mouth, and nodded. She dipped it in again, blew on her finger, and thrust it into Lassine's mouth. He frowned, his first expression since my arrival, and spat it out. A fly landed on a glob of food stuck on his bottom lip. Mawa then swung Fousseni off her back and into her lap to give him a try. He was no more impressed with the menu than was his brother. She continued balancing them in her lap, dipping her fingers, blowing, and feeding them while they pushed the food back out of their mouths with their tongues. My mother always said that a child would eat anything if he was hungry enough, but now I had my doubts.
"Little by little they will learn to eat it," I said, trying to sound confident. "Now Mawa, you can take bean flour or peanut flour to make this, and add any kind of fruit: mango, papaya, guava. When they are a little older and are used to eating this food, we will add sunbala and leaves."
Sunbala is ground-up néré tree nuts used to flavor sauces and is rich in vitamins and minerals.
"The water must boil before you add the flour. Try and get water from the pump; it's cleaner than the well water. Make the porridge for them twice a day. I know it's hard to do, but it's the only way they'll get their strength back."
Mawa clicked her tongue in understanding.
"I'll be back tomorrow," I said, "to make another porridge with you."
Neither of the twins had eaten much. Lassine was falling asleep and Mawa covered his face with a light cloth to keep the flies away. Fousseni stared at the wall, managing enough energy to fend off his mother's occasional attempts at feeding. For now, we needed to concentrate on getting food into the boys, but I realized that we needed to tackle sanitation issues as well. Mawa must cover her food, the kids must use a nyegen, and everyone needed to wash their hands with soap. If I had learned one thing from my year in Nampossela, it was that the most mundane habits could separate life from death.