Amid a horrific outbreak of cholera in Zimbabwe, my baby son Tadana’s first genuine smile marked a major turning point and came as a welcome reward after the sleepless nights and erratic days we experienced during his first weeks. If I had it in my power I would keep those winning, toothless grins coming all day.
I confess: never in my life did I expect to celebrate my baby’s first smile in a time of cholera. But living in Zimbabwe today, anything goes — nothing is impossible in the country of my birth.
In the past when Tadana smiled, my wife Michelle and I were quick to ululate and exchange notes and comments on their quality and meaning. However, we soon discovered that it was not baby smiles, just Tadana exercising his facial muscles.
But at 10 weeks old Tadana transmuted into a social butterfly; he broke out of his cocoon, so to speak, and began beaming toothless baby smiles that sent waves of love into our life.
While we were wallowing under the glow of Tadana’s smiles, which were as bright as an ancient African sun, our jagged senses were brought back to Zimbabwe’s harsh reality by the cholera outbreak.
The outbreak, of epidemic levels and one of the worst in Zimbabwe’s history, exploded across Harare and other parts of the country and quickly became a major topic of conversation.
So as Tadana showered Michelle and me with his first social smiles, the threat of cholera zinged in our heads like an old greenfly.
Tap water in Harare started to produce black, flaky substances and foamed when brought to boil, increasing our fears of the killer pathogen. But through it all, Tadana smiled innocently and gave us hope and the strength to cope.
Even before Tadana was born, we knew about the bad quality of our water supply. We knew, for example, that because of the prevailing difficult socio-economic circumstances in Zimbabwe, little chlorine was being applied to treat our water.
As a result, Michelle and I made a bold decision to give Tadana bottled water only. I know that for many Zimbabwean parents with newborns the idea of buying bottled water in a place of multi-billion percent inflation is a luxury they can’t afford. So they have little choice but to give their babies tap water.
Michelle and I drink boiled tap water and the constant threat of cholera has made us extra careful about the source of our household food. But Tadana smiles through it all and becomes more responsive to our presence.
Because he can now turn his head at an angle, he makes an effort to aim wide smiles at anyone within his vicinity and then gurgles to catch attention. Other times he will wait for you to smile before beaming back an enthusiastic response. Tadana’s body, legs and arms wriggle about and take part in the smiling act.
Thus amid horror stories of people dying of cholera at poorly manned public health institutions, every time I get home Tadana’s rhythmic grins are like music that soothe my soul of the manifold happenings in our bedlam called Zimbabwe.
One evening after work I got home feeling tired and frustrated from running about the city in search of a quick US dollar deal, but when I held Tadana in my arms and he gave me his classic grin, I felt a sense of warm, if momentary, relief.
I was immediately transported into a metaphysical zone where Tadana and I connected and spoke to each other in muted tones about dreams of a new Zimbabwe that is bold enough to take care of its own sons and daughters.
Each time I embrace Tadana, it’s difficult for me to push thoughts about my country into the far recesses of the collective national mentality where I believe that owing to the junk that now exists there, cholera pathogens can certainly find room to grow, fester and take away the lives of our people.
Every day I say a prayer on behalf of all the children of Zimbabwe living in conditions overflowing with garbage and raw sewage all because of a collective failure of leadership.
While our politicians wine and dine under soft lights and engage in endless chatter in five-star hotels, Michelle and I, like many other Zimbabwean parents, strive by God’s grace to raise a new generation of Zimbabweans that hopefully will not repeat the multitude of errors of our present corruption.
And, of course, the first genuine smiles that Tadana has been dishing out like confetti have been but one of the most heartwarming milestones in our parenthood journey thus far.