Policing Childbirth and Risking Women’s Lives

Woman breastfeeding her newbornImage: Feature Shoot My first experience with childbirth was when my youngest sister – Sadiya – was born. I was seven years old then. I remember my mum trying to put on a brave face as she was aided to the car. In all honesty, I didn’t understand what was going on, but my aunts and uncles seemed to be in a panic. I can’t remember what my father’s demeanor was, but I know we didn’t see our mother until the next day when we were introduced to our newborn sister. There was happiness, excitement and an air of love all around. If my mother was frazzled after the birth, she didn’t show it or…I didn’t notice. I gradually began to see women around me give birth to babies and carry on with their lives. They didn’t pause to take a break or stop taking care of their families. Life just went on.  Then sometime in 2013, I went to visit a friend in Garkida, Adamawa State. I was a serving corps member then and my friend – a doctor – had been posted to that community for his service to the nation. I went on his ward rounds with him and as usual, was depressed by the smell of the sick mixed with pungent anti-bacterial detergents and caped off by the stinky attitudes of nurses. But the most unnerving thing I saw was the sad look of dejection on the face of a frail woman who was carrying a child on her back, with a branch of leaves hanging from the side of the baby. Without being told, I knew something was wrong. I asked my friend if carrying her baby with the leaves like that was healthy, and if he could do something about it. ‘The baby is dead. The leaves is to let everyone know.’ I looked at the woman again and felt a wave of sadness wash over me. It wasn’t that she was crying; because she wasn’t. Beyond the air of brokenness around her, she seemed so stoic in her resolve as she walked out of the hospital and into the surrounding hills. When I asked my friend what was wrong, he explained. ‘She is a nomadic Fulani woman. From my experience with them, their culture demands that they give birth with the least fuss possible. When they go into labor, they usually look for a corner and squat. They then begin to push as quietly as possible until the baby comes. Many of them are so weak by the time the baby comes and it is not unheard of that a great number of them die in the process. And in many cases, the children do not survive either. In that woman’s case, the baby came out sickly; jaundice. If she had given birth in the hospital or had come in as soon as the baby was born, something may have been done to save the child. But they wait until almost nothing can be done and by the time they make the long trek to this hospital – which is the only healthcare facility that is in this town – the baby would have died.’ I was heartbroken. Not only did the baby not have a fighting the chance, the mother also had to trek a long distance after newly giving birth; when she herself had not even healed from the traumatic experience that she had gone through. And what was the cause? A culture that said Fulani women were strong; that these women should give birth at home; that giving birth should be done silently; and one that only sought the hospital when things had gone awry. The memory of that woman walking into the hills with her dead baby strapped on her back stayed with me for a while. Soon though, the thought of childbirth went to the far recesses of my mind. A few month later, I fell ill and had to be admitted to the hospital. It was a private hospital and by the time they were ready to give me a bed, there was only one space left; the maternity ward. Two incidences happened in my brief stay in the hospital that brought the childbirth conversation back to my radar. One woman came in about ready to pop. She kept pacing up and down with barely any sign of the contractions wracking her body beyond the occasional wince. Soon, she was called into the delivery room where she had the most quiet delivery possible. When I say quiet, I mean she didn’t scream, didn’t shout, and barely even moaned. The only time she cried out was when – in my opinion – she was being stitched up after the delivery. The nurse kept saying she was such a strong woman. Less than an hour after she gave birth, she was dressed and ready to go. As soon as she entered the ward, everyone started praising her; ‘strong woman’, ‘Hebrew woman’, ‘real woman’. Even though I was weak from the receding plasmodium in my system, I couldn’t help but give a small clap when everyone did. She smiled slightly, basking in what I had come to see was the ultimate praise. Hours after she left the hospital, people were still talking about her and how ‘strong’ a woman she was. But we didn’t stay on her case for long. Another woman came in to deliver her baby and she cried like hell. She shouted, screamed, yelled and any other word that connotes expressing agony. The nurse – same one who delivered the first baby – screamed right back at her. ‘Abeg no disturb us with shout here. When you dey fuck, you no shout. Now, you wan tear our ear. Abeg! No shout for us here. Na we cause am?’ I was desperately shocked. Why the hell was it okay to shout at that woman?! Why was it okay to insult her?! Did the nurse

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