Looking Back, Series

Looking Back: Setting Out

By Nick Twinamatsiko, Uganda:

The moment of birth must be as painful for the baby as it is for the mother. Everybody talks about labor pains – and I suppose they are as severe as they are said to be – but the experience of being thrust out of the cozy womb, snugly inhabited for 9 months, through an excruciatingly tight conduit and into infinitely unfamiliar territory where we are promptly grabbed by nurses or midwives who, for all we know, may be aliens, must be equally painful. Like any other baby, I cried at that natal moment, and I am not surprised that I did – or that any baby does. You cannot open your eyes upon the world for the very first time, and not be overwhelmed by the unfamiliarity of the prospect, even to the point to the tears.

But, with time, the unfamiliar environment that had initially reduced us to tears became more and more familiar, and we grew curious to discover more and more of it. The sounds of shutting doors and barking dogs that, in the first months, brought on the startle reflex were, by repetition, transformed, from frightening phenomena to intriguing ones worthy of exploration. The desire to explore spawned the desire for mobility. And so we began to shuffle on our tummies, then we managed to crawl and, finding crawling limiting, learnt to toddle. We had to get out of our cradles, go out there and see for ourselves what things were like.

Even in those incipient stages of life, the instinct of self-preservation, that famous first law of nature, was in active play. That instinct compelled us to classify the things we discovered as safe or unsafe: there were safe places and unsafe places, there were people we grew to trust and people we grew to mistrust; there were plants we learnt were edible and plants we learnt were poisonous. We learnt how to attract succor; we learnt, for instance, in our very first months, that crying was a very useful measure, since it attracted the attention of those that cared for us.

Crawling or toddling in my mother's trail as she went about her domestic chores, I observed the routines of family life: the removal of a matoke bunch from its trunk and the subsequent peeling and cooking; the harvesting of millet stalks and the subsequent drying, winnowing, threshing, grinding and mingling; and so forth. These things were repeated so often that they registered in my mind as fundamental elements of life – as fundamental as the rising and setting of the sun. And the transformations they entailed – green matoke turning out to be white upon peeling, and then morphing into a yellow mash upon cooking and mingling – were as impressive as the twilight transformation of yellow day into black night. The Greek philosopher Heraclitus famously wrote that nothing is constant in life except change, but no observant child ever needed a philosopher to tell him that.

Even my mother's breasts, which I had suckled with great savor for many months, changed one day and gave such a burning sensation that I jerked from them with the resolve to never again bring my lips within their proximity. I didn't realize this change had been artificially contrived until my mother decided it was time to give my little brother a taste of the heat. She sent me to fetch red chili pepper from the matoke garden, and I saw her crush it on her breasts just before my poor unsuspecting brother came for another round of suckling.
I wouldn't have warned my little brother even if I had got opportunity to do so. By that time I was glad I was no longer breastfeeding, I wanted him to similarly grow up, and I could see that the pepper pain wasn't too high a price to pay for the growth.

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