One day I turn up to meet Mariama at the clinic and am ushered straight into the delivery room where a woman is in the last stages of labour, having walked over from her house alone while ten-centimetres dilated. I am not sure it is such a good idea for me to be here – does the poor mother, who is too far gone to ask and whom I later discover is called Alia, really want me sitting in? But Mariama and Rabietu insist it is okay and usher me to the other side of the darkened room where I watch with mixed and heightened feelings.
The birth reaches its crisis almost immediately. There isn’t, it must be said, much natural-birth finesse to the delivery – Mariama more or less bullies the mother into pushing the baby out, slapping her tummy to urge her on while also insisting she stays perched on a metal bowl there to catch stray fluid. Once the baby (a girl) is born Mariama, to my alarm, picks her up by the feet just as the doctors used to in the movies. After the baby is cleaned and weighed there ensues a terrible period as Alia’s vaginal tear is stitched up – without any anaesthetic, of course. Probably there is no other way in those circumstances but to plough on ignoring the woman’s cries of agony. Two weeks later I witness the alternative as a teenage woman struggles in, having torn during her delivery at home and not been stitched. Her whole vaginal area is badly infected and she is referred on to the hospital in Tenkodogo by the nurse – she will have to get there on the bus and then pay a great deal to be treated.
Needless to say, watching Alia’s labour brings back a lot of the emotions attached to my own children’s births, and tears spring to my eyes as if they were umbilically tied to this aspect of human experience. But I have sufficient of the ruthless journalist in me to take a photo immediately after the birth – and a few minutes later, when her ordeal is over, to ask Alia if I can take another of the two of them in the afterglow. So here they are: the healthy baby is Alia’s sixth (though two of those died in infancy) and she is named Falilatu in a Muslim ceremony that I attend five days later.
©Copyright: New Internationalist 1995