A Malawian Birth

The following is an excerpt from a journal entry I wrote after my return from Malawi, Africa, as a health volunteer with the U.S. Peace Corps. This experience directly impacted my decision to write my novel Vuto. Enjoy!

***

I had been in Malawi, Africa, for just over two months. At the time, I had already seen a slew of images I had never so much as imagined before: coffin-making shops, one after the other, down a village street; barefooted children playing with plastic bags and hangers in the dirt; albino beggars littering the roads of the country’s capital.

But this day, in August of 2007, I was given the opportunity to experience a live birth in the middle of an African village.

I had never seen a child being born in the United States, let alone in a Third World country with the bare minimum of medical care. The nurse at the clinic was younger than I was at 23. The mother was even younger. At 17 she had already had one child before who had died within a week of being born. Her skin was dark and coarse from years of tending the soil, pumping endless buckets of water, and walking the hard dirt roads without shoes. She was already six hours into her labor when I showed up to observe.

“Will she mind that I’m watching?” I asked the nurse.

“You are white. She will think you are a doctor,” she told me.

“Where is her family?”

At this, the nurse laughed at me. “There is no family. She must do this alone.”

In Malawi, and other parts of Africa, the birthing process is a journey the mother must make by herself. It is a test of strength. Even though this woman – or girl, rather – was calling out for her mother, the nurse told me she did not really want anyone to come to her aid. If a blood relative was there, it would be a sign of weakness. Not even a friend was allowed at her side.

She squirmed and moaned on a makeshift gurney, a sarong the only thing covering her. Within another hour, the nurse told me she was ready to push.

My mouth fell open and I strained for a closer look. The crown of her baby’s head emerged from between her legs. Within minutes, the head was out, then the shoulders and, finally, the entirety of a brand new baby girl entered the world.

The umbilical cord was cut by the nurse with a rusty razor the mother had brought with her. The baby was swaddled in a sarong, also brought by the mother for this purpose.

The placenta was pushed out and, five minutes later, Mom was up, cleaning herself of blood, amniotic fluid and feces. She was preparing herself to bring her daughter home.

Still in shock, I asked, “Why isn’t she happy?” I was the only one in the room with a grin on my face.

“Nobody knows how long she’ll live,” the nurse told me. “They will not name her for another week. If she dies before, the father will not consider her his child.”

The alienness of this world enveloped me then. A potential miracle turned tragedy to me was only reality to the Malawians.

**

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