I want to revisit our adoption story for a moment, because in trying to cram in all the hectic details, I don’t know if I conveyed just how surreal it was to be doing all that running around with a nine-month-old girl strapped to me at virtually all times.
Since she’d spent most of her life in a crib, Maliah was still quite docile and portable then. But it was a logistical challenge to travel around Kigali juggling diapers and bottles and a folder full of important documents and an infant in a Snugli. I changed diapers in some strange places, and I figured out how to do a lot of things one-handed.
From the way people looked at me, I gathered that I might have been the first man in the history of Rwanda to walk around with a baby strapped to his chest. Throw in the fact I was obviously a foreigner, carrying an African baby, and I was a walking circus attraction. Everywhere I went, people stared openly. Picture the reaction you’d have if you were strolling down the sidewalk and you crossed paths with a Mongolian shepherd, dressed in furs, leading a yak on a rope. That’s how people gaped at me.
It’s the most out-of-place I’ve ever felt in my life. Though that’s not necessarily a bad thing. I think being uncomfortable is good for us sometimes—frankly, I think it would do some good if every white, middle-class North American spent at least a few weeks in a place where they were the odd ones out. But that’s a different subject altogether.
And my oddball status led to some interesting conversations, as well as wonderful moments of connection with complete strangers. I hate to make sweeping generalizations, but it’s my experience that most Africans are far more open and willing to strike up conversations with strangers than North Americans are.
I went for a walk with Maliah one evening near where we were staying in Rwanda, and a group of older women approached me and started asking questions. We couldn’t really understand each other, but by the end we were all laughing. A few blocks later I had a whole herd of kids following me.
Twice in Rwanda I had street vendors look at Maliah, then at me, and say, “She looks like you!” Which was both funny and a compliment, I think.
It was the same in Nairobi, where people where even more outgoing and gregarious. At one restaurant, the waitress brought me my food and came back to hold Maliah while I ate. We stayed at a bed and breakfast called Khweza House for a few nights, and the female staff there were amazing. They’d feed Maliah her bottle, walk her around while I ate breakfast or had a shower, and do whatever they could to help me out.
I think they pitied me a little bit, or assumed I was in over my head. I got the impression that men in Kenya don’t do a whole lot of infant-rearing.
“I wish I could find a man like you,” one front-desk clerk lamented. “The men here don’t know what do to with a baby.”
Kenyans were quick to speak their minds too. One day I ran out of clean clothes for Maliah and was down to only a T-shirt and shorts. It was about 15 degrees out—downright balmy for me, a Canadian, but the dead of winter for Central Africans—so I asked our driver to stop at a mall so I could buy her a sweater.
As I was on my way into the department store, a middle-aged woman marched right up to me.
“Excuse me,” she said. “It is much too cold for that baby. You must put warmer clothes on her.”
“I know,” I said. “I ran out. I’m on my way to buy some right now.”
She shook her head. “Oh my Lord,” she exclaimed, and marched off. I might have been offended if it weren’t so funny.
There’s one other encounter I want to share. On our first trip to the Candian High Commission, Maliah pooped and I had to change her diaper on the floor of the waiting area. (I had a blanket for her, just so you don’t think I was being negligent.) Then, 15 minutes later, she pooped again.
As I was getting set up for a second diaper change, I looked up and saw a woman watching me. “Here we go again,” I joked.
“Let me do that for you,” she said. And then she was beside me, tenderly wiping crud off my daughter’s behind.
Now, I like to think I’m a generous person, but I would never offer to change the diaper of a kid I didn’t know. In fact, if I was holding a friend’s kid and smelled a smell, I’d probably politely pass that child back to his mom or dad. But here was this woman I’d never met, doing me this kindness.
She had scars all over her arms, neck and face, as if she’d been burned or scalded with acid. She’d obviously had a much harder life than I had. Yet she didn’t hesitate to jump up and help me. It humbled me deeply.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately as I catch the bus downtown to work. I line up with 40 or 50 other people, and we all pile into a bus and sit shoulder-to-shoulder and pull out our iPods or BlackBerrys or books and do our best to pretend that none of the people around us actually exist.
Can you even imagine offering to change a stranger’s kid’s diaper in North America? They’d probably assume the worst, that you were some kind of weirdo with a fetish.
I don’t want to romanticize Africa. I’m not that naive. But it has been my experience that the people there who have the least are often the most likely to reach out. They understand the value of community in a way that many of us have forgotten. With all our technology and our conveniences and our lifestyles of independence, we’ve deprived ourselves of the blessing of receiving the kindness of strangers.
And that, I think, is a bigger loss than we realize.