Ben and Hattie have an appointment with the dentist – odd how that normality can be so distracting; indeed never has a dentist appointment been so welcome.
The dentist’s surgery, which is in a local hospital sponsored by the Indian community, is one of several down a narrow wooden corridor. Waiting patients sit on the slender benches that line each side of the tongue and groove walls and stare into space or at each other, or, especially, when we visit, at us; it is not usual to see wazungu down here. The missionaries are about the only ones to have the courage to patronize this clinic but that has largely more to do with finance than anything else.
Various doors lead off the alley-like corridor and above each door protrudes a sign to indicate the resident doctor’s area of expertise, ‘Dr Mumbi, Gynnacologie’. Presumably Dr Mumbi can find his way around the complicated intricacy of the female reproductive system even if he can’t navigate a dictionary to find the correct spelling of his particular specialty?
The kids and I take a seat beneath a fan which is secured at ceiling level and lethargically (on account of the power which fluctuates between low and off altogether) stirs the air trapped into this narrow artery which smells of body odour and methylated spirits. An African lady sits opposite us. She is wearing impossibly tight jeans and has taken the weight off her feet which are uncomfortably strapped into impossibly high red patent heels. The constrictions of her clothes prevent her ample derriere from spilling over the edges of the skinny bench on which she is precariously balanced. She is feeding a large baby at her enormous black bosom.
Ben is fascinated and horrified in equal measure. The woman’s proximity and the narrowness of the corridor mean that her knees almost touch ours and Ben’s vision has been tunneled so that her swollen bust consumes his restricted view. He spends a lot of time looking at his hands; his face registers the anxiety that he harbours about both the bare-chested woman opposite him and the impending dentist appointment.
The breast-feeding baby has clearly just had a blood test at the laboratory which is at the end of the corridor, a hatch through which you post your specimens of pee or shit (which you will deliver in a jam jar wrapped modestly in newspaper). If you are having a blood test, you simply thrust your arm over the counter and the technician does the necessary and the loud cries that ensue (in the case of a child) will be channelled effectively up the passageway so that none of the volume escapes until it reaches the door and can spill into the car park.
The child’s mother dabs at his pricked finger with a graying piece of cotton wool, spotted with blood and – when she is satisfied that she has stemmed the flow and her child is reasonably calm again – she staggers to her feet to deposit the cotton wool is the plastic bin beneath the lab’s counter. Crab like she shuffles towards the bin, her bosom still spilling forth from her blouse, her child still clamped determinedly to it, she gets rid of the litter and then she stumbles, bent double, back to her seat. Ben looks as if he’d like to flee.
Trying desperately to ignore her, Ben tips his head back and shifts his focus to the posters fixed to the wall above the row of waiting heads. One graphically describes the life-cycle of the anopheles mosquito, the other that of amoebic dysentery. It shows a crude drawing of a naked man squatting in a maize field to relieve himself. The same man, having evacuated his bowels as crop fertilizer, is then depicted enjoying a banana.
‘Where’s the bathroom?’ asks Hattie
‘Oh God, love, you don’t need a wee do you?’ I ask in alarm, I have no idea where the toilet is and my imagination tells me it wouldn’t be very nice even if I could find it.
‘No, no, where’s the bathroom in the picture?’ she says impatiently, ‘so the man can wash his hands’.
‘That’s the point, Silly’, sneers her brother, ‘he didn’t wash his hands did he, so now he’s going to get Anaemic Dysentery’
‘What’, Ben looks at me blankly
‘It’s Amoebic Dysentery, not Anaemic’, I point out, ‘you’re quite right, you get it if you don’t wash your hands after you’ve been to the loo’
‘Ben never does’, says Hattie crossly, who does not like to be called Silly by anybody. ‘It’s why he’s always on the toilet’ she adds.
I can’t believe we’re about to have a row about sibling bowel activity. Not here, not when there are fifty Africans to witness my mortification.
‘Shut up’, I snap.
Surprisingly, for they don’t often oblige when asked to shutup, they do. They don’t want to invite the interest they’re stirring any more than I do.
Instead they glower at each other and at a 3rd poster, the only one that is too far from the window to be faded by even the longest-reaching and last of the sun’s low afternoon rays. Consequently it is still bright and the black letters boldly state, ‘Anyone for a Smile’. Each psychedelic character in the grinning crowd jostles for front position leering suggestively. Oddly they are all missing their top front teeth.
‘They all look like you’ hisses Ben to his little sister.
Imminent outbreak of war is aborted, thank God, as we are ushered into the dentist’s room by his assistant who is dressed in a lurid Fanta coloured uniform, only her veil is white.
Hattie found a weaver’s nest in the garden, tossed out of its tree by the wind, complete with resident tiny blue speckled egg. She gathered up the egg and swaddled it in cotton wool. She was, she told us, going to incubate it herself so that she could have a weaver chick as a pet.
In order to keep the egg moist – as instructed by her father who knows more about birds than I do, clearly – she wet the cotton wool. In order to keep it warm, she bent her bed side lamp such that the bulb shone brightly – and hotly – just inches from the egg for several days and several nights.
I think she cooked the egg. And then I think – judging by the nasty sulphur smell emanating from her room – that the egg went bad.
Thankfully she conceded to abandon plans of a hatchery and has, this morning, solemnly buried the egg in the garden where she found it.