I was not a huge kid person before I left America, frankly I found most of them to be whiny and obnoxious, thus I thought the majority of my work here would revolve around adults. However, almost by accident, a very happy accident, most of my work here has revolved around children, and thus by consequence, with mothers. I have learned how important a mother is to a child's life, and how dire the consequences can be without one.
Recently a grandmother showed up to my door cradling the tiniest 6 week old baby I had ever seen. The child'd mother had died when she was just 2 weeks old, thus taking away the child's best chance for survival and health, breast milk. The family had no money and no way to continue to pay for formula. In conjunction with my clinic, we are making sure that this baby has formula and is well taken care of. Her grandmother carries around two bags, one will the baby's feeding cup (the dirt of the village set up makes using a bottle unhygienic even dangerous) formula and boiled/slightly cooled water, in the other bag she carries extra diapers and baby powder. Though she has children of her own, her youngest is 9, she has now devoted her existence to making sure this child is fed, bathed, and loved. In lieu of a swing, she rocks the baby by hand until she sleeps, and is excited to see that the child is not only alive, but growing! Last week, the baby, Veronica, was smiling and holding my hand, a positive sign in her development. While it is going to take a village to make sure this child survives past 6 months, the smile on Veronica's face makes it all worth it.
The worst part of this story is that it didn't have to be this way. Her mother gave birth at home, as so many village women do, and for whatever reason died 2 weeks later. She was unconscious when she arrived at the clinic, so she could have died from anything ranging from malnutrition, malaria, or complications from child birth, no body knows. The one thing that is certain is that her death was most likely preventable. If she had just given birth at the clinic she would have been in the care of trained birthing attendants and nurses, and if there had been complications transport to the hospital could have been arranged. However to use the words "If she had just" makes it sound like giving birth at the clinic was an easy task. She lived 25 kilometers from the clinic, and even though I have never been in labor, I have heard enough stories that walking that distance while in any stage of labor would be torturous, if not impossible. Also, culturally it is acceptable to have your children at home, and changing an idea about culture is a sensitive subject to breach. Sadly, her story is not that uncommon.
While the chance of maternal death in America is slim to none, the rate in Zambia is alarming. An infant being left orphaned, or a mother left without the child she carried for 9 months is an an acceptably high rate. Formula is not a feasible option for most families, breast milk is what keeps babies alive and healthy. For Veronica, the option of a wet nurse was not possible. In Zambia, only family members can breast feed family members babies, and the only breast feeding family member at the time is HIV positive. Again, this is not an uncommon story.
I cried for Veronica, but I also cried for her mother, and all the mothers like her, who die a senseless death while bringing life into this world. Being a woman in Zambia is difficult, being a mother is even more so. But I salute these mothers, these mothers who love their children dearly, who derive so much happiness from their children. Who work tirelessly and thanklessly for their children. I also salute mothers every where. My cousin just became a mother for the first time this year, along with a dear friend of mine, and I am grateful beyond words that these birth went smoothly and mom and baby are in good health, and thriving. I also got so share part of my life in Zambia with my own mother this year. Mothers are a wonderful thing, and they have an often thankless job. To the mothers of the world. and in my life, I salute you.
What is the solution to reducing maternal mortality rates? While there is never one answer for complex problems, there is a way forward. Helping women to understand why it is important to give birth at the clinic, why it is important to take care of themselves while pregnant, and why it is important to make sure their child gets the right types of foods and are all key first steps. Also getting the fathers to understand and participate in these habits is vital. What I can do as a Peace Corps Volunteer is little, and I struggle with this fact. I can't build more clinics in more remote areas, I can't pave roads and bring ambulances. I can't train midwives or provide bicycles to those that are trained. I can't go preform the deliveries myself. All I can do is talk, and educate, and reach out to mothers, and hope they listen, hope they understand. I am trying to get a safe motherhood promotion group going in my area. My clinic is trying to take steps to keep a program they instituted going to to be promoted. Right now there are outside funds from the UK coming that is allowing the clinic to house mothers in their 9th month of pregnancy, so that when the time comes to give birth, the birth occurs in a safe environment with trained professionals. So all I can do is to be a voice, to be an advocate, and sometimes that is the hardest person to be, because you never know if you are making a difference, if people are actually listening. You just have to hope that one does, so that there is one less baby Veronica in this world.