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The Galloway Farm

by Stephanie French



Chanson d’Automne, Paul Verlaine, 1866

Lent et rêveur

Les soirs illuminés par l’ardeur du charbon

Et la bruine en fleur

Que nos disaient, mon coeur, 

ces passantes d’automne

San joie et sans couleur?

Que nos disaient ces pas monotones et lasses

Sur le pavé mouillé

Sinon qu’il faut pâlir et mourir sans traces

Dans l’oubli du sommeil?


Autumn Song (Stephanie French translation)

Slow and dreamy

The evenings lit by burning coal

And the mist in bloom

What were they saying, my heart,

Those autumnal passers-by

Joyless and colorless?

What were they saying, those slow and weary steps 

On the soaked pavement,

If not that we must fade and die without a trace

into the forgetfulness of sleep?




Windhoek, Namibia, June 2011

After my newborn daughter died just seventeen days after being born, I never returned to the short-term rental apartment we had been living in. I do not remember discussing it with my partner. Did I tell him I did not want to go back to that cookie-cutter space scattered with burp towels, lotion and lanolin? Somehow he and his family knew that the only thing that made that place ours was the baby, so now there was no reason to go back.


My partner and I went to three pharmacies after leaving our dead daughter behind in the hospital. Prescription medicine to stop breastmilk production is not commonly stocked in Windhoek. Then we went straight to his parents’ house. His mom gave me a cup of tea and offered to put a tot of whiskey in it. I accepted. Then my fog of shock and I retreated, like Pig-Pen from Charley Brown, to the guest bedroom that had been my partner’s as a child. I lay down on the heirloom single bed and stared at the potato prints he had made when he was five and that his mom had framed and hung. My daughter will never make potato prints


I suppose I fell asleep. Sometime that day, my partner and his dad did go to the apartment and empty it of all of our things. They packed away the baby clothes into a suitcase that his mom whisked away and stored on a high shelf in a hall closet. 


Every day a few well-wishers would pass by, stay a measured amount of time and leave before it was awkward. Some brought flowers or cards. I found a manila envelope and started stuffing the cards in there. My partner’s uncle called from South Africa and shared a quote from a poem: “I don’t know what the greater pleasure be. That which I gave to you, or that you gave to me.” My partner’s mother wrote it down on a floral notepad and gave it to me. Chat GPT tells me the quote seems to be from the French Romantic Alfred de Musset, possibly about his relationship with George Sand. That, I stuck in my wallet. I can’t keep track of my driver’s license, but that has passed successfully through at least three wallets. It disappears for months then resurfaces when I clean out the business cards and receipts.


Every night we sat on the back stoop sipping whiskey in front of a fire my partner’s dad made. Someone dropped off a lasagna. I remembered that I had one in the freezer at the apartment. I had made it, along with a host of other freezable meals, at the behest of mothering websites with all sorts of solutions for making the first weeks of a baby’s life less stressful. I would bet a lot of money that my partner and his dad didn’t clean out the freezer and that the cleaning lady enjoyed that lasagna. Not that I asked. 


It was the beginning of winter, and it was cold. Sometimes meat was grilled on the fire, but extra wood was always thrown on after the plates were cleared away. Namibians like to call a fire “bushman TV.” It’s a catchphrase in reference to the San people who used to freely roam the Kalahari Desert as hunter-gatherers, and at its origin was certainly pejorative, but most Namibians I know say it with a bit of admiration. Indigenous tribes, French romantics—we are all seduced by flames, of an evening illuminated by burning coals. I was no exception.  


What was my partner doing those days? What was he feeling? I could not tell you; I could not see through my fog enough to see him. I remember breaking down in the shower one day, sobbing so loudly he could hear me over the water. He came into the bathroom and held my dripping shaking body until the cold brought me back to myself and I could get dressed. Besides that, I have little recall. It was a solitary time even though I was never alone. 


I got a phone call from the pediatrician. After I answered and we exchanged courtesies, he asked me if I would like him to talk to me as he would patients when he worked in Britain, or how he would talk to them in Namibia. 


“I’m sorry. I don’t know how that would be different, so I can’t tell you.”


“In Britain I would be much more direct with them, more straightforward, than here in Namibia.” 


“In that case, as if you were in Britain. I want honesty.”


“I was just informed by the Ministry of Health that my must conduct a forensic autopsy. As part of an investigation.” “Excuse me?”


“They need to determine if you were at fault or did anything to precipitate your daughter’s death.”


“But, but, why?”


“Because it was very sudden. And she was on a ventilator and you chose to turn off the ventilator immediately. And you chose to cremate her body after the autopsy. That can lead to suspicion.”


No wonder he wanted to treat me like a Namibian and not tell a grieving mom, whom he had watched baptize and hold her dead baby, that she was suspected of wanting her child to die. 


Somehow, I ended the conversation. I sat on the bed where I had been staring yet again at the potato prints, now staring at my phone. A forensic autopsy? They thought I killed my daughter because I turned off the ventilator when she was brain dead, rather than waiting for her to code yet again? Because I chose to burn her body into ashes I could keep on a shelf because I couldn’t bear the thought of a gravesite I could not visit? 


I walked to the kitchen and found my partner’s mom. She was probably making tea. I told her, and she was incredulous, offended. “Whaaat? How could they? I can’t believe it!” 


I don’t know what they looked for that the doctors would not have seen. Brain swelling to know if she had been shaken to death? Poison? The initial fear and panic were overwhelming, but soon they too merged with all of the other feelings that swirled and spun in my head and in the fog surrounding me. There was no follow-up call to that one. That was the only way I found out they didn’t find me guilty. 


The radiologist who had done the ultrasound that found no blood flow to her brain also called me. He said, “I just wanted to call to see if you have found anything out about your daughter’s cause of death. I hadn’t seen a case like that before and it’s been on my mind.” When I told him we hadn’t heard anything yet but that we would let him know once we did, he told me he did not bill us for his services. I thanked him for his kindness. Then he tried to comfort me. “I know it’s painful right now. But don’t lose hope. You are young, you can have more children.” I thanked him again. And I swallowed the words on my tongue that told him I wasn’t all that young and that the thought of having more children was even further from my mind than the cost of radiology consult. 


After a couple of days, my partner’s parents encouraged us to go somewhere. “Why don’t you get out of town? Get away from the house and all the visitors for a few days?” Over the years I would come to recognize the family’s formulaic approach to tragedy. Surround yourself by loved ones, and then seek solitude, preferably far from the trappings of urban life. We didn’t have enough energy to organize the gear and food to go camping, so we booked a bungalow at a lodge near Waterberg Plateau Park, a national park and reserve in central Namibia. After we checked in, we collapsed on the two single beds pushed together that serve as king sized beds in all Namibian lodges and slept until dinnertime. We woke up to darkness and got ready for dinner. 


“Babes, come check it out.” My partner called me out of the bathroom.


A white rhino was grazing in our garden, blocking the door to our bungalow. I walked closer to the window. My partner put his arms around me from behind and we stood for a few quiet moments. 


Then he said, “It’s hard to feel sad when there’s a rhino just outside your window, isn’t it?” 


“Mmmmm.” I murmured noncommittedly. I could. I could definitely enjoy the rhino and feel sad.


At dinner that night, we made small talk with the German couple staying in the bungalow next to ours. There was, of course, a fireplace warming the dining room and another fire cooking meat outside. The Germans talked about their college-aged kids. We talked about our jobs in Angola, said we were visiting family in Namibia. We did not talk about our dead daughter. It felt weird to pretend we were just on vacation, yet I knew people do not want to hear about a dead baby. After dinner, they pulled up their chairs by the fireplace for a drink and we went straight to our room. 


The next morning, we had breakfast with the same couple, their faces streaked in sunblock. They were decked out in their zip-off fast-drying pants and long-sleeved moisture-wicking shirts, their sun hats and day packs resting in the corner so they could head off immediately after eating. I did not have hiking clothes that fit; I no doubt was in a fleece and stretched out yoga pants.  We decided to hike up the plateau; we did not want company yet we wanted even less to sit in the room staring at each other. I put on a pair of sneakers; my partner undoubtedly stayed in his flip flops. We grabbed one of the disposable bottles of water placed in our room for Germans scared to drink the tap water and headed off. About 40 minutes into the climb, I felt a sharp pang in my lower abdomen. I ignored it and kept walking. Soon there was another, and another. Suddenly, I remembered: I had a c-section three weeks ago; I was not supposed to be doing heavy exercise yet. It was too late to turn back, so I plodded on, imagining my incision splitting open internally. We reached the top and replayed the scene from the night before, my partner’s arms around me, voicing marvel at the view, pointing out the oryx in the distance, and me murmuring my faux agreement. I could intellectually appreciate the beauty, but in my body I felt only pain.


We returned to Windhoek after two or three nights. The following weekend, the whole family—my partner and I, his parents, his sister, his brother and girlfriend, went to the farm of family friends outside the town of Okahandja, about 45 minutes north of Windhoek. It is a place of splendor—as long as you are comfortable with Cape Dutch colonial architecture and being served by rotund women who speak Afrikaans, Otjivambo and a few phrases of English. It’s a bit like the 21st century version of Out of Africa, played on the other side of Africa.


The farm belongs to longtime family friends. It does not generate any real income for them; the father of the family joked that day “I had to work as a civil engineer for over 20 years to afford to maintain this farm.” A factory on the edge of the farm that produces sustainable charcoal by burning invasive brush wood provides supplementary income. It is not a game farm, but this being Namibia, there are game on the farm. And of course horses, chickens, ducks, dogs and cats.


Even in winter, the afternoon sun shines warmly in Namibia. It is often warmer outside than in; many houses are built to stay cool rather than the contrary. After we arrived and had the requisite hugs and greetings, I claimed the lounge chair beneath the syringa tree—think lilac bush in tree form—and only moved to go to the toilet, refill my wine glass, or go to the table for meals. Everyone allowed me to do that and frequently filled my wine glass for me, so I was spared even that. They claimed their own chairs in the garden and told stories around me. 


There is a watering hole about 300 meters away from the house, and I watched the day’s activity. Plenty of springbok (of course), an impala or two, a few oryx. A baby ostrich and its mother approached. The baby got stuck in the soft mud at its edge. It flapped its wings and shook its head. Its mother wasn’t able to do much it help it; wings aren’t so good for pulling. I thought, “oh honey, I know how it feels to be helpless. I’m sorry.” She panicked when a kudu came too close. Watching this, the four men began concocting a plan to distract and draw away the mother ostrich in order for one of them to dislodge the baby safely. They had begun to approach the water hole, spreading out in different directions, when the baby managed to free itself. Everyone applauded and they returned to the garden.


As our attention returned to the gathering in the garden, the owner of the house looked at me and said, “you know, that syringa is home to a boomslang.” He pointed up and sure enough, there was the venomous tree snake, coiled in some branches just a few meters above my head. I quivered despite his nonchalant assurance that “the boomslang is very shy. He would never come down when there are people around.”  


Then he broke into a story. When his daughters were young, perhaps 5 and 7, he heard them screaming from their bedroom. He ran to them, and found them standing on their bed, grasping one another. A huge zebra snake was under their bed.


Zebra snake is the informal name for the naja nigricincta, a type of spitting cobra. They are not so shy as boomslangs, and they are sneaky. Also venomous. They like to enter houses while people sleep, and in rural Namibian many children and adults sleep on the floor in huts made of mud or corrugated sheeting. A slumbering person feels something and brushes it off unconsciously, and the snake responds defensively. 


At the main public hospital in the capital of Namibia, there were 721 snake bites reported between August 2015 and July 2016.  Of the 33 ensuing deaths, 21 were children under 6. Some people might not consider 21 deaths such a big deal, but tell that to the mothers of the kids. It is also pretty impossible to know how many more children died at rural clinics or in homes, who never made it to the state hospital. More frequently the outcome will be paralysis, loss of limb function or loss of the entire limb. I learned of a case of a man who was sleeping, felt something on his shoulder and instinctively brushed it away. In retaliation, the snake bit his uncovered penis. Fortunately, he did not lose that appendage, but he did have to receive a skin graft to replace the necrotic flesh that had to be removed. When I inquired about his prospects of a functioning penis, the response was “his penis should function, but it’s going to end up being rather hairy.”


This father had to kill the zebra snake that had his girls trapped, of course. He recounted the event step by step. He knew that if he approached it too quickly, it would dart under another, lower piece of furniture, making it more difficult to kill. He proceeded to remove every piece of furniture from the room, including the bed on which his girls were still clinging to each other. Finally, the snake was left with only the bedside table under which to hide. He took a six-foot-long assegai—a wooden spear used by Africans before firearms; you’ve seen the photos—and stabbed it in the head.  


I wish I could say I remember him telling us all of that, but of course I don’t. I was traumatized and tipsy. I got the full story by asking his daughter 11 years later. Had I written the story from memory, he would have shot or decapitated the snake with a hoe. Neither of those options was feasible of course, given that it was hiding under furniture, on tile floor. The assegai was, kind of incredibly, the most practical way to deal with the beast. 


When our friend finished his story, everyone laughed in subdued admiration. I did too, but on the inside I was making a decision: “I can’t live here any longer. I cannot raise kids in Africa. What the fuck was I thinking? There is danger in every tree, in every bedroom. I have got to leave this place.” 


Then I looked at the water hole. A sounder of twelve or so warthogs—yes, that’s really what a family of warthogs is called—pranced away into the bush. It is impossible—for me at least—to watch warthog piglets and not smile at the real-life Pumbaas running with their tails straight up or drinking with their front legs bent, basically kneeling so their bottoms poke in the air. Warthogs delight me. 


Then I looked at the empty expanse of bush, brown under Namibia’s ever-present sun but far from dead. So much space. I looked at the family scattered around the garden, basking in the sun but mostly in the friendship that had passed from parents to their children and was now being passed to me, no questions asked, no effort required to earn it. I could not see it from my lounge chair, but I knew that on the stove in the kitchen was an oxtail stew that had been simmering since the day before. I smelled it every time I went to pee. 


The setting was seductive. And so the debate began.


USA Stephanie: “Stephanie, you have family and friends in the US too. Without the dangers.”

Africa Stephanie: “Yes, but if you move to Baltimore and get a desk job, you will be bored to death. What kind of childhood will you offer your kids? Sheltered and boring. Your kids will not travel and will only speak English.”

USA Stephanie: “They can learn Spanish.”

Africa Stephanie: “Africa is so much freer than the US.”

USA Stephanie: “There is no malaria in the US.”

Africa Stephanie: “No, no malaria. But so many rules. So many rules.”

USA Stephanie: “The US is safer.”

Africa Stephanie: “Really? What about all the guns?” 

USA Stephanie: “The US has good health care.”

Africa Stephanie: “Africa has roadside stands selling roast goat.”

USA Stephanie: “America has taco trucks.”  


And so it went for the rest of the day and night. If I left Africa, I would be judged. If I stayed, I would be judged. If I left, I would leave defeated. If I stayed, was I nothing but a fool? 


No one knew what was going on in my head. They were sipping wine and exchanging stories of kids stepping into campfires or getting stung by catfish on remote camping trips and the lengths taken to get them to a doctor.  Later that night, all 10 or 12 of us would sit at the Galloway’s massive dining room table that night and eat and talk and laugh. That stew—still the best oxtail I have ever eaten—would undoubtedly have been followed by a malva pudding with custard sauce or a lemon cake, maybe even both. Then we’d turn to the massive fireplace, our wine replaced with whiskey, and talk and laugh some more. That night we “kids” would sleep in the back porch, tucked into sleeping bags on the wide benches lining the walls, no different from countless slumber parties hosted there decades previously. The stars would burn so bright through the windows I would need no light to go to the toilet in the middle of the night. 


Africa was winning the debate by the time I fell asleep—after I made sure the doors were properly closed.  


Three years later, the family friend was killed in a motorcycle accident. He received a call that a rhino had wandered onto the main highway in Okahandja. He immediately jumped on his motorcycle in order to try to save the rhino—there are a lot of trucks on that road and they drive fast. Our friend was hit by a truck himself, one who neglected to stop at the red light of the intersection. Namibians don’t like red lights and motorcycles are often overlooked; he was killed instantly. 


It does not surprise me that this man dropped everything to try save an animal. I always wonder if he grabbed a helmet first; I kind of doubt it. Not that it would have likely saved his life in this case. 


I wrote his wife. I told her how much the way her family had embraced me when I was grieving had meant to me. I told her that her husband’s stories and love of Namibia had imprinted on me. The love of the space, the air, the flora and fauna. I did not tell her that he scared the shit out of me and almost made me run away and turn my back on the continent forever. The land and freedom and his love of them both may have led to his death eventually, but he would have had no regrets. The same things tethered me to the continent, but I had not given up trying to loosen the knots.



 


Stephanie French is a humanitarian aid worker who has lived in various African countries for the past 20 years. She’s writing a memoir exploring how growing up in a funeral home in rural Iowa shaped her approach to and experiences with grief and death, including the death of her first child. Her micro-essay "Mom's Chocolate-Sheet- Cake Spatula" was recently featured on The Keepthings (Instagram).

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