20 years ago, I gave birth to my first son Nathan at North Middlesex Hospital in North London. Right from the start, I had a midwife and made quarterly antenatal visits at which my vitals were measured as well as the new life in my womb. I had Nathan in a well-lit sanitized room, the bright light making me feel shy and exposed laying on my back on the maternity bed in a private room. I had two midwives and an obstetrician not to mention the gas and epidural to ease the pain.
When Nathan came, he had his first personal encounter with science, being strapped to various gadgets, measured and probed before being declared fit and healthy. Even though the Bible and the Christmas carols we all sung so loyally, proclaimed aloud of Jesus born in a manger, not once had I stopped to ponder what it must have been like for Mother Mary.
Not once had I stopped to appreciate the luxury of the birth of my son. Not once had I stopped to count my blessings. My moment was to come in a most dramatic fashion! It was at our Christmas party, indeed celebrating the birth of the same Christ, in Alekilek a remote small village in Karamoja, in the North East of Uganda, 263km from the capital Kampala.
We were 6 hours behind schedule, our invited guest having cancelled on us after a long wait. I had persuaded two Members of Parliament to attend on short notice and they were making speeches. A small tap on my shoulder and a whisper in my ear informed me that Ms. Longole who had come to help with the cooking had gone into labour! Panic and confusion! Babies were born in hospitals with doctors and machines.
We needed to find a hospital quickly. In my confused state, I saw Ms. Longole being led into the bushes behind the house. I followed like a lamb. A traditional birth attendant who happened to be Ms. Longole’s grandma had also come for the party and she immediately took charge. We flattened a place in the thicket with our bare hands and the ladies removed their wrappers and held them up to create some privacy.
She was supported in a squatting position, leaning slightly forward. Her contractions were very fast unlike mine and she was so very strong. 5 minutes later, it was over, the baby was born. A baby boy! His sharp cry announced the good news to our Christmas guests still listening to the speeches.
A reed plucked from the bushes, was twisted and applied to the umbilical cord. It cut like a new razor. The placenta was wrapped in a cloth and put to the side. In keeping with tradition, the new mother knelt and with her bare hands swept up the loose soil covering the wetness in the bush. She then stood up and was ready to go blood still trickling down her legs staining her clothing.
I fumbled in my bag, took out some tissues and made a “sanitary towel” for her. A discussion ensued among the other women and not understanding the language I waited in bewilderment. The birth attendant told me that the new mother could not use my makeshift towels as she didn’t have any underwear……! She comforted me that the bleeding was normal and had to come out as it was “bad blood”. Luckily we had lots of babies clothes that had been donated by the British people to the children of Karamoja of which the new born baby received loads.
Half an hour later she declared she was ready to go, probably anxious to show the baby to her husband. She declined a lift in my car saying that the walk was a short distance and she did not want to make a mess. I watched her walk away. The precious new life cradled in her arms, a bundle of gifts balancing on her head and down her legs, the bad blood still trickled. We named him Joseph Loyolo (meaning Born in the bush). Will he end up begging on the streets of Kampala in a years’ time?
Maureen Mwagale is the founder of Kaana a non -profit organisation working with Karamajong women in NE Uganda