Climbing high Mountains in Motherhood

By Wakanyi Hoffman

My daughter recently summited Mount Kenya, the third highest peak on the African continent.

She did this with swollen, frozen hands that could no longer fit inside her thick, woolen mittens, after 3 nights of camping in the bush. Each day this group of preteen amateur climbers would hike hundreds of footsteps upwards towards the mountain peak.

Mt Kenya

Foothills of Mt. Kenya. Photo credit: Luisa Espovito Melvin

An Unforgettable School Trip

On summit day, she crouched hands and feet down, crawling on unseen icy rocks in the darkness for an ascent that begun at 2.00 am. This would become the most vivid memory of an unforgettable school trip.

“I nearly fell off the mountain mom!” She exclaimed casually when I picked her up from school on their return. She continued to babble nonstop about the experience, as if the thought of the near-fatality should be assuaged by the fact that she didn’t actually fall.

Or that I should be content in the knowledge that her teacher who was crawling up behind her managed to foresee the missed calculation that my daughter made when she turned her head-lamped forehead skywards instead of below her nose. She had tripped on an unseen rock, falling to the side, into the arms of Ms. L.

She had then picked herself up and proceeded upwards to the peak on Point Lenana where she sat poised in a ballerina pause atop a rock, with her face turned towards the morning sun. She had just conquered a professional mountain climber’s wildest dreams, at the age of twelve.

‘How far down would you have fallen?” I asked in a feigned monotone that matched her casual one.

“I would’ve fallen to the side, all the way down to the top of another huge rock,” she replied, then changed the topic to describe the vibrant gold, black, red and purple hues of the magnificent sunrise that painted the morning above the cradle of humanity, reflecting tenderly onto the frozen glacier lakes below.

lake alice

Lake Alice in Kenya. Photo credit: Pixabay

She knew that she had pulled and snapped a mother’s heart-string. A picture of the mighty fall of my Afro-curly haired girl would skirt ruthlessly around my mind. Later that night, a vision of the gluten-intolerant-rash on her mixed-race coloured cheekbones would haunt my dreams until morning.

I would picture Ms. L collecting mittens fallen from too-fat fingers, frost-bitten now, clutching the vertical ground in the shape of a professional rock climber.

Face down. No, face on top of the fat fingers. She would’ve definitely cushioned her face with her hands. Eyes shut, lips pursed into a brave smile. The little musician that she is, a theme song for this dramatic event would remain beating in her faint, but never-giving-up warrior heart.

I would awaken myself from this nightmare to see my baby girl resting beside me.  I would pat her all over to confirm that the accumulated 35 kg preteen mass was still breathing. A tender memory of the tiny baby born  ‘small-for-dates’ on a rainy morning in Nairobi would regulate my hyperactive heartbeat.

Becoming a Mother

“Are you sure she’s not a preemie?” I had asked the doctor in the after-birth, the first gigantic step I took towards becoming a mother.

“She’s small but not premature,” he had said to me, a small light in his dark pupils peering into a brand new space in my heart, hypnotizing my newly heightened maternal senses into a blissfully numb, all-accepting oxytocined mother-brain.

‘I am a mother now,’ I would try to convince myself when what I truly felt was as though the real mama waited behind that birthing room door. I would picture her wide-eyed and all-knowing, plump-faced and soft motherly smile. Her strong, spongy arms, big boobs and fat fingers best suited for firmly grasping a slimy, wiggly, tiny, little baby inside a slippery and soapy baby bathtub.

But I had the manual. The baby books written by experts such as Dr. Spock on top of my mother’s wisdom.

“She’s so tiny!” Mom exclaimed upon seeing her newest granddaughter, middle-named Wanjiru after her,  or ‘the one born in the dark’, with intriguing dark navy eyes that would fade into dark brown pupils within weeks.

“The doctor said she’s not premature,” I explained, matter-of-fact. In the minutes between having the baby placed on my lap and being wheeled out of the birthing room, I had udergone a biological evolution. That little girl that had wiggled her way out of the birth canal in under 3 hours had transformed me into a brand new sub-species of humankind.

No longer speculating about the mystery of childbirth, now Mother Nature’s mysterious, ‘expert mom’ gaze had taken over, and I inspected every little fingernail on this tiny human with microscopic detail. It helped that I had also spent nine months memorizing Heidi Murkoff’s ‘What To Expect When You’re Expecting’.

Mom had been sitting outside the birthing room since she received a text at 5 am saying her baby girl was at the hospital in labour. She had not slept for 3 nights since I broke the news that I would have to be induced for the ‘too-small-for-dates’ overdue, but not preemie baby girl. She had watched me fret about a pink colour-cordinated nursery that had been prepared since the initial baby announcement. Even the woolite baby delicates soap powder came packaged in a baby pink-coloured box.

I didn’t ask my mother to come into the birthing room because it was now time for me to do my ‘big girl thing’.

Becoming the big girl 

I had initially prepared to chaperone the children up that mountain until I asked for my daughter’s opinion. She replied, “No, mama, this is meant to be a bonding trip for me and my friends.” Right below my eyelashes, she was becoming the big girl. This was her way of telling me that  it was her turn to do the ‘big girl thing’.

Looking at her still-too-tiny fingernails, still-too-soft hands, brown eyes and the recently-trimmed bouncy curls sitting atop a head short of me, I struggled to contain the adrenalined fear sizzling hot in my head.

My older, wiser and matured mom-face was now cast downwards, betrayed by the conflicting, self-doubting, mom-guilt trapped inside my throat. I struggled to accept that before me stood the bigger version of the little baby that emerged out of me in synchronized pushes and lamaze-trained long breaths not so long ago.

My mind wandered to a stored image at the very back, of  the ballerina-postured baby bump that sat atop a not-firm-enough blue exercise ball, contracting at 5 minute intervals, sending my whole body into unfathomable pain.

My husband had breathed in louder, letting out long, exaggerated sighs. He was determined to follow the doula’s guided prompts and fulfil his role as birth partner while masquerading as the paparazzi of the text-book natural birth that was captured in under 40 minutes. This was just before the battery power on the video camera died. At that point,  my husband had snapped out of the hypnosis and said in panic, “Hurry up, sweetheart! The camera is about to die!” Then we heard the baby’s first dramatic cry, followed by the click of the camera.

Little, Big Girl

I didn’t go up that mountain with her, but I did move into her bedroom. Like my mother did the night before I went into labour, I too lay awake inhaling my little girl’s lavender-scented pillow case for the 3 nights that she had embarked on a mountain climbing expedition 3,500 meters, 16,000 feet above sea level.

I cried when I saw her face emerge from behind the crowded mixture of fellow anxious moms, dads and classmates. She seemed wiser, this little, big girl.

“Describe the experience in one word,” I dared her.

Fu-rd?” She said, a contemplative eyebrow raised towards the blue, afternoon sky.

“Fun plus hard equals furd,” she explained, stepping out of the car back home, happy to get her face licked by Thomas the ‘butler’ dog who was barking madly all over her.

Then she turned around for a hug and broke into tears.

Mama-Vera tender

Author’s mother-daughter tender moment. Image credit: Caroline Kist

“Did you cry going up?” I asked her.

“Not until I got to the top,” she revealed, as I wiped the pool of salty wetness collecting down on her collar-bone, towards the back of her neck, where there’s still a hint of that fresh, new baby smell.

As I held her at night and sat watching her evenly-timed breathing, legs sprawled wildly as she always did as an infant, it dawned on me that motherhood has so far been a furd journey towards the miraged mountain peak.

It is filled with near-falls, fat, cold and sweaty fingers, all clutching and crawling up towards the top, to the place where every now and then the cradle of humanity can be viewed in clarified hues of a rarely seen sunrise.

dawn mt kenya

Mt. Kenya at dawn. Photo credit: Pixabay

Categories: Uncategorized

Mixed-Race, Meghan Markle and the Complexities of Identifying as a Global Citizen

By Wakanyi Hoffman

I watched the royal wedding between Meghan Markle and Prince Harry inside a tent on the shores of L. Naivasha, in the middle of Kenya’s Great Rift Valley. My two oldest children were sailing with their father while I had been left to devise creative ways to entertain our youngest two for the rest of the day. We couldn’t be on the boats with the big kids nor could we brave the blistering heat outside anymore. Our tent was set up, but as this was only an overnight trip, we had opted to bring limited supplies of clothes and toys. The Royal Wedding offered the best entertainment alternative for the three of us, as we huddled close together in front of a tiny, low-battery-mode iphone screen inside the tent.

naivashaOur family’s 12-person tent pitched above L. Naivasha

Meanwhile, inside another larger tent was a group of adults huddled around a laptop which one of the parents of the sailing cadets had generously offered as a ‘big screening’ of the global event. Nobody was missing out, not even the lot of us oddly mixed up nationalities and ethnicities gathered in a remote village in the middle of Prince Harry’s supposed first love- Africa. Not even the fish eagle sitting atop an acacia tree in the middle of the lake, inspecting his prey from his vantage point. Or the regal water-buck staring stoically back at us from a stone’s throw distance.

waterbuckA lone water-buck seen walking towards the lake below

And as if the stars were aligned to bring us into the virtual spaces inside Windsor castle, my two little royalists had found some fresh white roses oddly scattered in the garden, very similar to those used for the exquisite royal wedding flower arrangement. It is on this lake that the world’s second largest export of rose flowers is made. As I watched in amazement as my little children made an ikebana-worthy bouquet, I wondered whether it was these same flowers that had in fact, made their way to Windsor castle for that day. Our modest bouquet was delicately balanced atop a sleeping bag beside the tiny phone screen to complete our ultimate royal wedding experience. Even the internet connection kept up throughout the ceremony as did the battery power, although it did eventually give in and the screen blacked out right at the point when the newly weds went on a carriage spin around Windsor.

“It’s a gorgeous day in Windsor, isn’t it?” Said my 6 year old, stressing on the ‘gorgeous’ in her most British of accents, which she has picked up from 2 years of living and attending a British school in Kenya. Her little 3 year old brother was glued to the screen, in the same way that he would have been glued to a screening of back-to-back episodes of Peppa Pig. For him, any screen time was better than none at all. But as time went on, he really got into the pomp and wedding hype, constantly asking, “Where’s Meghan?” As if he was asking for his older sister who could have easily been mistaken for a younger version of Meghan Markle, bearing that ambiguous ethnic identity that children of mixed-race are dealt with from birth.

I marveled at Meghan’s shiny, straight hair, which gave no evidence of her ever having curly-textured hair and her perfectly form-fitting wedding gown, which transformed her into a living and breathing princess, every inch of her elegant and dramatic veil seeming to glide in tune with her stride. My dress-up-ready little girl marveled at the sparkly tiara asking, “Are those real jewels?” Little brother found this the opportune moment to boldly announce that he is never getting married! Little sister chuckled and said, “I am getting married to a prince!” Her petite face was beaming with a sparsely toothless grin so genuine, that her big brown eyes appeared to be enlarging right in front of my very own. Even her golden curls seemed to be covered by a glistening halo the colour of the rainbow from the blinding sun rays peeking through the tent window. She was the perfect image of cuteness overload as she slyly asked if the newly weds would have to kiss in front of everyone. She blushed when I confirmed that they would and quickly puckered up her lips to her little brother who, despite his squirmy protests was secretly desperate to get to that kissing part too. They both impressed me with their relentless patience until the very end, when the new Mr and Mrs Mountbatten-Windsor exited the cathedral and satisfied the world with the anticipated smooch that sealed their matrimonial engagement.

We cheered as loudly as the crowd at Windsor. The folk in the larger tent cheered even louder, cups of teas and beer mugs clunking in unison. At that very moment, the skies over L. Naivasha were the same bright blue as those above Windsor castle. It appeared as though the entire universe had conspired to paint even the sky, the colour of happiness for this ridiculously adorable couple who seemed to genuinely present us with a perfectly blended swirl of two starkly and culturally different worlds.

sailing blue skiesThe shores of L. Naivasha with the cadets sailing on the Naivasha Yacht Club boats

Days later, it would seem that every news article was tasked with regurgitating every minute detail of the Royal Wedding. But a particular article penned by a Nigerian writer caught my eye. It was a critique intended to inform the rest of the world what Meghan Markle’s racial identity was supposedly symbolic of and why the royal wedding should be of no significance to black people. Evident throughout the piece was an intentional means to disqualify Meghan as either black or white, by repeatedly highlighting her ambiguous mixed race identity. While it is certainly not lost to the world that Meghan is neither black or white, it is what the writer, who identified strongly as a Black British Woman was rightfully protesting, which was the media’s attempt to present Meghan as the token ‘black’ princess inside the British Monarch. Joining the rest of social media’s vessel of noisemakers globally deadlocked in heated discussions about Meghan’s role inside Buckingham Palace, this writer expressed disdain with mainstream media’s insinuation that Meghan would somehow become a source of hope and solace to other black women around the world. She shredded apart any media agenda likely to portray this union as the colonists’ undoing of any past injustices or that by having a ‘black’ woman in their inner circle, other black women, particularly in the UK would come to see themselves as worthy of finally having their rightful seat inside Buckingham Palace, dusted and presented to them in a celebratory homecoming fashion.

While I could not possibly deny feeling infuriated by the sensationalist global media’s gross feasting on the emotional racial scars of the past, I knew it was their intended ‘shock’ and ‘awe’ factor, to constantly remind the world that there exists two superficial worlds based solely on the insignificance of our skin colour. I was however astonished by the boldness of the author, to publicly bear the burden of educating the world about how mixed-race people perceive themselves given that she can only truly, speak for herself as a British woman of African descent, who also happens to be categorized as black. The piece made me hugely uncomfortable, with the sort of elemental negative undertones that point to a deep non-acceptance of mixed-race people by both white and black folk. It also pointed to the false way in which we are all often pigeonholed into identify ourselves based on colour, which in itself is a problematic and inconclusive evidence of our being.

President Obama was not black enough for African-Americans, nor was he ever considered remotely ‘White’ by White America, despite having been raised by his mid-western white mother. The article made me want to scream, “Who speaks for the mixed race?” in the same way that renown postcolonial critic Gayatra Spivak dares Western scholars of Development Education to answer the question, “Who speaks for the subaltern?” when they attempt to write about the postcolonial, indigenous woman.

My own children are half-Kenyan, half-American. They get their kinks from me and their blonde highlights from their blue-eyed father. I shall never attempt to explain their ethnic ambiguity as I would only be speaking from my individual perspective, which is Kenyan-African and not even African-American, which is how they are profiled in US airports, upon entry into their passport country. But I have borrowed this quote to give a direct response to anyone struggling to classify them on the racial colour-wheel:

mixed race quote

Identity of any kind is so complicated, yet I think there is beauty in Harry’s and Meghan’s burden from now on to publicly define their interracial union based on how they share their love with the rest of the world. This is much in the same way that any other couple, whether interracial or from one race, straight or gay, has to define their unique coming together to those in their world. But for the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, their fairy tale wedding is only a precursor to the love story they will forever be tasked with writing under the glaring eye of such public scrutiny, whilst in the process of privately discovering who each other truly is. While Meghan is quoted as identifying as a ‘strong, mixed-race woman’ on the outside, the public is yet to discover the depths of her inner strength which hopefully will go beyond her make-up brand and products for her textured hair.

Before he left the White House, President Obama was interviewed by Trevor Noah and asked to explain how he managed throughout his time in Office, to be both- to sit so comfortably on both ends of the racial divide, navigating this discourse with such admirable ease. In true Obama-fashion he gave a simplistic yet philosophical answer. He said:

“My general theory is that, if I was clear in my own mind about who I was, comfortable in my own skin, and had clarity about the way in which race continues to be this powerful factor in so many elements of our lives, but that it is not the only factor in so many aspects of our lives; that we have by no means overcome the legacies of slavery and Jim Crow and colonialism and slavery, but that the progress we have made has been real and extraordinary. If I am communicating my genuine belief that those who are not subject to racism can sometimes have blind spots, or lack appreciation of what it feels to be on the receiving end of that, but that doesn’t mean they’re not open to learning and caring about equality and justice, and that I can win them over, because there is goodness in the majority of people. I always felt that if I really knew that and I just communicated it as clearly as I could, that I’d be okay.”

That sums up my argument, that humans have depth beyond our superficial skin colour and that if  you are able to represent yourself as who you truly are on the inside, then without any doubt, the person judging you will have to judge you based on other things first before your skin colour.  It is therefore unnecessary to have any woman, black or white, whether living in the UK or not, educate the world on what Meghan’s skin colour does or doesn’t do for black women because identification remains perhaps the only authentic and deeply personal human accomplishment that each one of us must earn. And if we are to be true to ourselves, one very rarely describes themselves based on skin colour. Simply ask any child to describe their new friend at school and they will almost never begin with, “My new black friend” or “My new white friend”. They will describe the experience they had with their new friend, or the cool and amazing things the new friend can do. Sometimes they may mention where the friend is from, but only as an anecdotal evidence of their ethnicity. After having lived in six countries on three continents, I have perfected the art of this social experiment with my own four children.

When my 9 year old son recently said to me, “Mama, do you know that it is virtually impossible to imagine a colour that you haven’t ever seen?” I realized that indeed, the oldest human that was found inches away from where our tent was pitched on that historic wedding day would not have been able to conceive of another skin colour beside his own.

It had occurred to me that day while looking out into the infinity line of L. Naivasha that we were sitting upon the cradle of humanity, where the first human fossil was discovered. The irony is that the first human would not have been limited by his skin colour when endeavoring to claim an extraordinary existence on the world’s deepest and longest valley full of wildlife.

In short, Meghan is not limited by the ambiguity of her ethnic identity in her quest to carve out a life inside the world’s longest living monarch.

Also, neither she nor Harry are obligated to represent black women or white men. Given their public, globetrotting lifestyle, it would be logical to expect that their circle of friends is rich in diversity and cultural experiences. It would not be surprising to hear Meghan and Harry identify as world citizens first and foremost.

I did not watch a mixed-race woman walk down the isle to meet a white prince hopeful that my mixed-race daughters would ‘see’ themselves represented by Meghan’s particular skin colour and wish the same for them.

If there is anything to be learnt about the discovery of the first human fossil on African soil is that black, white or mixed-race are all too simplistic and limiting identifications for any human to fully experience life on this planet, with all its boundless and oftentimes, mysterious possibilities.

Categories: Uncategorized

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