Like most women of her class and time, Ma had little formal education. She relied on sheer gumption to achieve her goals of helping the community. Ma ran a home for unmarried Ismaili Muslim mothers in Ngara. The two story red brick building with a lush garden was a sanctuary for pregnant women. The girls would come to Nairobi to study or work in the big city from small towns and hamlets all over East Africa: away from home for the first time, some of the young women would inevitably get pregnant. Some of the girls may have been assaulted, and they had nowhere else to go.
In the 1950s the Shia Ismailis’ spiritual leader, Imam Sultan Mohammed Shah, was heavily promoting adoption as a way of taking care of the babies from such pregnancies. So the home was set up under total secrecy. The girls would be fed and looked after in their last three or four months and have their babies, but it was understood that they would give up their babies for adoption. All their expenses were taken care of.
Some of those babies had dark skin and African blood, but as long as the mother was one of us, no questions were asked about the unknown father. Ma would find an Ismaili family for the child, and it would be adopted. There was no such thing as open adoption in those days, and the mother would never see her child again. She could, however, go on to get married, her reputation unbesmirched. Hundreds of babies were born at home and adopted at that time. Abortion was illegal in Kenya, and anyway, Ma believed every single baby deserved to live.
One afternoon when I was five in 1967, my ayah was sick, so Ma took me with her to the home.
“You must be a good girl. Don’t do any masti and don’t trouble the aunties,” she said. She sat in the large office and went through receipts with the matron who ran the place. I saw young, pregnant girls walking in the fenced back garden or sitting on the swing. Then a pretty, heavily pregnant girl in a loose dress waddled in to see her. Her hair was tied back in a ponytail, and even to my eyes, she looked too young to be having a baby. She sat clumsily on the chair next to Ma.
“How are you, Shirin? Are you keeping well?”
“I am fine, Ma, the baby keeps kicking; I think it will be a girl. Have you found a family for my baby?”
“We found a very good Ismaili family for her; they will make your child happy and look after her.”
“Who are they?”
“Shirin, you know I can’t tell you who they are. I am not allowed to. One day you will have other children,” Ma said as Shirin began to cry. The two of them sat silently for a while, with Ma holding Shirin’s hand as Shirin dabbed her eyes with Ma’s hanky.
“Is that your granddaughter?” she asked, looking at me as I played with my doll in the corner of the room.
“Shaza, come here and don’t suck your thumb beta,” Ma said. I came forward to say hello to the young aunty. She looked longingly at me and touched my face gently. After she left, I asked Ma why she had been crying.
“Shaza, it’s hard to explain. She is far from her family, and she is all alone here, so she feels sad…” Ma didn’t want to explain that the mother would soon be giving up her baby and would never see it again.
“Well, when she has the baby, she can play with it like I play with Tara, then she won’t be sad,” I said. Ma didn’t say anything.
What made the women grateful to Ma is that she never judged them or made them feel guilty about their situation. It was over and done with. Her attitude set the tone for the other women who ran the home, so the young mothers didn’t have to deal with scorn at such a vulnerable time.
My mother came by at four to give us a lift home. “So, who did you have to rush off to meet today? Did Shaza behave herself?”
“Raazia, don’t ask me who we have in the Home. You know you are not good at keeping secrets, and these girls must keep their izzat, their honor,” Ma said. “If no one knows about them, they can get married when they go back home. You know some of our girls have got married.”
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