We’re multi-cultural in my household. I speak English and Swahili. Lucy speaks Swanglish. And my dearest Adoti speaks Chinese. It’s an early Mandarin dialect only understood by children below language-speaking age. No offense to the billions of people who speak real Chinese. All I’m saying is that when the child speaks I don’t understand her. And predictably, she’s a talkative one.
She will come and sit next to me on the couch and launch into a conversation, presumably about her day, what she did and who she met. The curious thing about this communication is that she looks me dead in the eye, modulates her tone when she’s making a point, and gesticulates to drive that point home. The child is completely engaged.
I’ll catch one of the few English words she knows here and there, but other than that, I really do not have a clue. And yet, I find myself enthralled by this little human who is waving her hands in the air, putting her head in her palm, laughing out loud and standing akimbo like a character in a Mexican soap.
When this, ‘Ma’, let’s talk’ ritual first started, I would try and respond in Chinese (in my baby voice) but then the girl-child would look at me in bewilderment as if to say, “What on earth are you on about Ma’ … speak English!”
So now I talk to her normally, just as if she were an adult. And she appreciates that, even if she has yet to return the favour.
She carries on as if communicating with Mama is so low on her to-do list, it’s about to fall off the page. And one might be tempted to think that she sees no instruction and hears no instruction, but I’m on to her. You think you’re smooth baby dearest, but I’m on to you.
My sassy, lil’ miss loves to run circles around her Mama just for pure sport. If she’s playing with my earrings and I say, “No Adoti! Leave those alone,” she’ll pretend like I’m speaking Greek. Or that she hasn’t heard me.
The child will carry on as if I was a tree in a deserted forest with no one around to hear me fall. Even when I walk up to her and wrest the earring from her fist, she will still behave as if making abstract shapes out of Mama’s jewellery is the most acceptable thing in the world. And as soon as I turn my back, she’ll be back with her fingers in the box, rummaging for new treasure.
“Adoti … no for playing with earrings!” I yell, frustrated.
This time she turns her head casually and gives me ‘the look’. It’s a wry look that stops just short of a smirk. A look that says, “Hey Ma’ … one would think that you would have seen the pattern here. Why don’t you just save your breath and find something more productive to do.”
So I pick her up and remove her from the scene of the crime.
We head over to the kitchen where Adoti has a designated ‘all plastic everything’ drawer. Like a dutiful daughter, she begins to bang away on her plastic implements; taking them out and putting them back in. But the minute I go out the kitchen door to throw something in the trash, an ominous silence descends. Nothing good ever happens with the girl-child is silent. For some odd reason, I decide to give her the benefit of the doubt this time around, but just in case, I issue a warning: “Dots, don’t play with unga … okay baby? Okay.”
Less than 45 seconds later, I walk back into the kitchen to find the child standing in a sea of flour.
She looks up at me, her eyes sparkling like Diwali fireworks and goes, “Ma-mee! Ooowee!!”
Her palms are turned upwards, her shoulders slightly hunched in a stance that says, “Woops! Who knew that would happen?” And I would fall for the show of innocence; really I would – if it hadn’t happened many times before.
Realising that I had to style up before getting completely bamboozled by a toddler, I bought some kind of child-proofing contraption that purports to keep drawers tightly closed and as such off limits to small children.
As soon as Lucy saw it she laughed. “Adoti ako na akili mingi … hii kitu atatoa tu sasa hivi,” she said.
Undeterred, I affixed one sticky side to the drawer and the other sticky side to the counter above it. There was a special latch that only an adult could unlock. “Ha!” I thought. “That will show the little imp!”
But alas, when I came home late that night and walked into the kitchen for a glass of water, I found the offending object dangling miserably, one sticky side irreversibly ‘unstickyfied’. The drawer itself was slightly ajar.
The next morning Lucy said she had preserved the crime scene just in case I needed to see the evidence.