Dr. Guro Stokke is the super woman in charge of delivering all of these babies, looking after them and their mothers until they are discharged. Watching her with the mothers in labor, it is visible how much relief and comfort they take in her knowledge and expertise. In addition to this, Guro takes extra care to comfort the mothers and try to explain what is going on, though there is a significant language barrier as most of the mothers do not speak any English, Guro does not speak much Xhosa, and English isn’t even her first language (being from Norway).
(Side note- the most frequently heard Xhosa word in the labor ward is “tyhala!” In English, “push!”)
This extra effort is so important. I’ve been aware of many of the terrors of birth before now (and the joys), but before witnessing my first birth I never fully appreciated the enormous anxiety that mothers experience, especially new mothers. Lying on a hospital bed, mothers feel all of the pain and do all of the work, but don’t have any view, control, or specialized knowledge of what is going on.
The first mother I watched give birth last Friday started bleeding during her contractions. In fear of the placenta completely rupturing before the baby as born, everyone whirled into action- a clipboard was shown to the mother and she was told that she needed to have an operation to get the baby out and she had to sign. She looked so scared! Immediately wheeled into the operating room where everything was prepared for a c-section, everything changed again once she was there. Suddenly the baby was on its way out, making the c-section unnecessary and the mother was told to push push push instead! Everything went smoothly from that time on, but I cannot help dwelling on how confusing and scary it must be for the mother to know something is wrong (but not what or how severe), be wheeled in for an operation, and then told to push again instead. Even with an effort being made to explain everything to her, I’m sure she did not fully understand what was going on, especially as it happened so quickly.
The second and third births I saw that day did not require (or almost require) c-sections, but both had their own trials as well. Both came almost at the exact same time, and when the second was born it needed the oxygen tank that was still in the room next door. The mother saw her baby whisked away from her in a hurry into another room, where the doctors (rightly) devoted all of their attention to the child for a long while to make sure that everything was ok. During this time what must have been running through the mother’s mind? Even when reassured by a nurse, she still hasn’t seen her baby alive and well for hours after giving birth.
I can’t imagine how scary this all must be or just how important the relationship between doctor and patient is to allaying those fears. Especially in this community, where there is not always a lot of external support for a mother giving birth and many new mothers do not know what to expect when they arrive at the hospital (see the research of two visiting Princeton students on childbirth in the Transkei).
The work that the hospital and clinics do to educate women on what to expect before, during, and after birth is invaluable. Mothers leave Zithulele hospital with important knowledge about caring for their children that they might not get anywhere else. Breastfeeding is promoted (though not always accepted), and babies leave the hospital only when they are at a healthy weight and eating properly. In addition to this, the Zithulele Mentor Mothers (another NGO) then follow up with new mothers to make sure that babies progress in a healthy way and mothers are going to follow-up clinic visits.
The truth is that these tiny babies are the future of Zithulele (as cheesy and clichéd a statement as that is). There is so much research out there demonstrating that achievement and education gaps start from birth. In a place like Zithulele, where we have some amazingly dedicated and inspiring parents, Mentor Mothers, an ECD program, pre-schools, and Axium educators, some of these babies might be very lucky, might be able to excel despite an impoverished community with an educational system that generally fails its students year after year. Who can say though? Peaking into the rooms of happy mothers and babies it seems a shame that they should ever have to leave the safe confines of the hospital and return to their homes and uncertain futures.
Will you be raised by a relative that loves you? Will your mother/grandmother/aunt tell you stories and play games with you? Will you go to preschool and learn to draw and ride a tricycle or go straight into grade R with 40 other kids? Will you eventually learn to read or will you just be pushed through school? How will it all turn out? Babies are a symbol of future hopes and dreams, but the truth is that their future is being built for them now, by the support and options we make available for them from the very beginning.
My morning spent in the maternity ward was exciting, happy, at times frightening, but mostly inspiring. Actually, in those respects, it was a lot like many other mornings in Zithulele.