The Birth of Fire                                  

For decades, my grandmother’s dreams have warned our family about one disaster after the other. When she dreamt of a flood, we would reinforce our buttresses and fix existing leaks. When she dreamt of crops, we knew it would be a difficult harvest.

Her dreams always involved the elements: earth, air, fire, and water.

This time the dreams involved fire, but not in the form of a blazing inferno wrecking our home, or a wayward forest fire spreading to our crops. It was my unborn child that Gogo was seeing in her dreams: a ball of fire coming out of my womb.

I did not ask too many questions the first few times she had had the dream about my baby. I asked the ladies in my prayer group to intercede for me and left it at that. But when Gogo insisted that we name my son Mlilo (fire) to appease the ancestors, I knew it was a more serious fight than any of us could have imagined. We were battling with the spirit world.

My mother and I often argued about Gogo’s dreams.

‘Mmawe, this could mean anything. It could mean my little one will bring warmth and light to his generation. Fire does not always have to be an omen. Besides, the ladies at church bayathandaza, we have no options except to keep praying.’

Mmawe’s response was to shake her head in disapproval and walk away, giving my protruding belly a gentle tap as she went.

The day that I went into labour, my husband insisted that Gogo travel with us to the hospital. I told him that if Gogo was going with us then we would have to fetch Mmawe too. My mother taught sewing at the local community centre and kept her phone on silent mode as she worked, so my husband would have to interrupt her class.

‘Thuli, uyeza umntwana?’ Mmawe exclaimed breathlessly as she got into the car, settling in next to me in the back seat. My grandmother sat in the passenger seat humming to herself and rocking back and forth.

My son finally made his way into the world at midnight. The pain seared through me like a butcher’s blade. My husband drove my mother and grandmother home to rest as the nurses tended to me and the baby.

Later, I saw my gynaecologist and paediatrician in an adjoining room having what looked like a serious conversation.

When the nurse handed my child to me, I knew that something was not right. I looked carefully at Mlilo and saw patches of skin discolouration on his tiny neck. The reason for the two specialist doctors’ hushed-toned meeting next door became clearer.

In an ideal world, I would have taken Mlilo home with me, swaddled carefully in his yellow blanket, a family heirloom. Instead, my husband and I sat anxiously in Dr Thuso’s office, with the characters from Tselani, a children’s fable, colourfully decorating the walls.

I could see the doctor’s lips moving, but I could not make sense of what she was saying. My mind transported me to the land of Tselani, a child who had been tricked and subsequently abducted by a monster who drank a honeyed concoction to change his voice into that of Tselani’s mother.

Here I was, both mother and monster. Honeyed and horrifying. I wanted Mlilo to heal, but I also wanted to take him as far away from here as possible. I wanted to run.

When the paediatrician finally walked out of the room, I looked at my husband quizzically. ‘Mlilo has congenital vitiligo,’ he said, gently squeezing my hand.

When Mmawe and Gogo came back to the hospital, they found me rocking Mlilo to sleep after a feed.

Gogo took one look at my son and said ‘Umntwana lo ushiswe ngomlilo wamadlozi.’

This child has been touched by the fire of the ancestors.

She said this matter-of-factly, as if reinforcing what her dreams had shown her. Gogo sounded almost relieved that it was over, and it slowly dawned on me that Mlilo’s condition was not a curse in the eyes of my grandmother. It was a blessing. Why else would she have asked me to name my son Mlilo?

Some of us were born with only the embers of the fires our ancestors had set in order to give us life, manifesting as a glint in the eye or a stubborn streak. My baby had been born with the flames of his lineage on his skin.

Before we could respond to Gogo’s declaration, she had taken out a matchstick and was setting a herb alight. When the smoke alarm rang, sending a nurse dashing to my bedside, my grandmother had hidden the evidence and we all redirected our attention to the miracle in the room.

Mmawe and I had spent countless hours arguing over Gogo’s dreams when all she had wanted was to make an offering to the gods. To thank them, to appease them, to reassure them that we had seen and acknowledged the seasons of ash and embers, and that we were grateful for their new offerings of tinder, kindling and softwood. Sibonga okuncane; sibonge okukhulu. Sibonga umlilo omusha.

We are grateful for big and small blessings. We are grateful for the renewal of fire.

Mlilo stirred in his cot, kicking his tiny legs as the warm and woody aroma of Gogo’s impepho slowly dissipated from the room.