Novelist | Singer
They brought her to the dispensary in the bed of a white pickup. A herd of men accompanied her to the door, then left her to navigate the last steps to the platform. She could’ve been anywhere between 30 and 50 – it was impossible to tell. But knowing this was her fifteen child forced me to do quick math in my head. She loosened her sarong-like wrap; simply a section of cotton cloth that all the women wore. It fell to the ground, and she stood before us stark naked.
The air was heavy, the room, dark but for the yellow glow from a kerosene lantern Marie-Jean, the mid-wife had brought along. She a huge African woman, daughter of the village chief and caterer at our wedding two months later. Her stern, solemn expression told me that this birth would not be a celebration, and guilt shot through my chest. Why was I here?
I had asked. Two weeks earlier, I had requested to attend a birth in the village where I conducted the field work for my thesis. Nagero is a scattered but tight community of about 400 people, mostly living in the bush, defending their crops every day during the growing season from marauding protected mega-species; elephants, hippos and antelope of all breeds. Now I was not sure I wanted to be here. I felt bad for the woman—although for her, this was undoubtedly a familiar procedure.
The platform was a large inclined board at an angle of 45° perched on a high table, with a perpendicular plank at the bottom of the slope on which to sit. The platform was comically dressed in a red and white striped vinyl cover, giving it a circus tent appearance. At the bottom of the slope, there was a hole about ten inches across where the plank and the platform came together, with a bucket below to catch the life-giving fluids that would issue from the woman’s body. She climbed up the steps that were affixed to the side and crawled up onto the platform, settling herself down onto the plank to wait for the baby that Marie-Jean had accurately predicted would be in “45 minutes” when she had summoned me at my house.
The pain was clear on the woman’s face, and though she must’ve been in hard labor, the only sound in the sweaty room was soft moaning. After some minutes, Marie-Jean barked at her. The woman fell silent. I was stunned.
Golden lantern light threw shadows onto the ochre wall paint mixed from native clay as night descended on central Africa. The labor intensified, and my stomach lurched and started to turn over. I escaped out to the porch for some cooler fresh air. The sounds of savanna night had begun—the impossibly loud cicadas and their electronic chorus, distant woofs of lions deep in the bush, bats squeaking through the air. The men stood quietly alongside the pickup.
“Mbote,” I offered.
“Mbote mingi,” came the answer in one voice. Very little conversation. This was a task of duty.
Back in the dispensary after I had quelled my rolling stomach, Marie-Jean was in the process of assisted birth, stretching the woman’s vagina with her hands, like someone trying to enlarge too-tight clothes. My gut stiffened. I was sure that childbirth was painful, but this looked excruciating.
How long would it be?
Within ten to fifteen minutes, the woman began to push, and like magic, a small blue-white head appeared from between her legs, crowning immediately. Of course, this was her fifteen child. The baby’s head soon popped free, a tight grimace on the tiny face. And soon, in a whoosh, the body followed. Marie-Jean expertly caught her up and cleared her nose and mouth, then hung the infant by her feet, not unlike a bartender toting two bottles of wine. With a fierce hand, she slapped the baby three times hard, I mean hard, smack on the bottom of her feet. Isn’t that a method of torture? Though I don’t remember clearly, the little girl made a sound, but it wasn’t a cry. Marie-Jean sliced the umbilical cord with a pair of scissors, like a seamstress cutting piping. Then she brought the baby to me.
The baby girl was white. Of course, she was covered in the liquid and tissue that had sheltered her life for nine months, safe inside. But she was white. The shock shuddered through my body. Shouldn’t I have known that? I guessed she wouldn’t stay that way for long. The Mongos and Logos living in this area were the blackest people I’d ever seen, so much so that photos taken on bright sunny days revealed just a black circle beneath the bill of the military hats on the heads the guards who patrolled the park.
Marie-Jean gently set the baby on a table next to the wall and turned her attention to the woman. Awe filled my body. This brand new human being newly emerged from her cocoon lay on the table, arms flung out to her sides, eyes wide with astonishment at her new surroundings. She didn’t make a sound.
I turned to see Marie-Jean receiving the placenta and after birth, which she guided through the hole and into the bucket. The woman lay still for a short time, breathing audibly, then sat up and climbed back down the steps to the floor. The two women spoke low and steadily in Lingala, mostly Marie-Jean giving direction, and the new mother answering in brief monotone sounds. She took the towel that the mid-wife offered and wiped between her legs. She gathered her clothing from the floor and wrapped it around her body. I let out a breath. Marie-Jean issued another stern order and returned to the newborn, washing her deftly in the water held in a second bucket on the table. Meanwhile, the mother carried out her assigned duty; she bent to the floor and swept up the fluids that had escaped the bucket. Then she reached up and cleaned the platform of any bloody residue. This chore was conducted not ten minutes after she had given birth.
Marie-Jean swaddled the baby in a white cloth and handed her to the new mother. I looked in her eyes and she peered silently at me, expressionless. This was an unwelcome chore that ended in another mouth to feed. She quietly exited alone just as she had come, not an hour before.
The men outside gathered around her, barely glancing at the new life in her arms. I stood mute while they helped her into the bed of the pickup alongside the other men. Marie-Jean turned to me.
“You have aspirin?”
“Of course!” I answered in shock. There was not a bottle to be seen in the dispensary. I rode the motorcycle back to my house and soon the truck appeared, headlight beams dancing madly against the trees. By the time one of the men came to my door, I had the bottle and gave him a handful of aspirin, for now, for later. They bounced away into the night.
I lay awake for hours, not believing what I had just witnessed with my own eyes. Yes, I had always wanted to attend a birth. I had never had that chance, or since. But it was not the event I had expected. There was no crying, screaming or Lamaze breathing. There were no medications, needles or instruments. There was no oxygen, running water or antiseptic. There were two women, one the mother, one the mid-wife. There was one lantern for light. There was a high, slanted platform covered with Barnum and Bailey vinyl, a bucket underneath to lessen the mess. And the loudest sound in the room; there was no joy.
I visited the family a few days later. The woman, now smiling with the infant wrapped in a sling tight against her body sat just inside the door of their mud house, sheltered by the palm thatched roof. She was cooking rice over a small fire. The baby’s skin was already darkening. I smiled and asked to see her. The mother revealed the infant’s face, but did not offer her to me to hold.
I opened my hand and held out another fistful of aspirins. She smiled and took them graciously. Atolobako interpreted her question: What was my name? I told them it was Barbara, and they looked at each other. I guess Barbara didn’t cut it.
“My middle name is Louise.”
The woman’s face broke into a wide grin. After all, we were in Francophone Africa, and they all knew the name Louise.
So to this day, there is a young woman, aged 22 in Nagero, Republic of Congo, headquarters of Garamba National Park along the banks of the Dungu River who is named after me. I think of her often and wonder if she is married, has children. I hope her life is much better than some that I saw. I fear it is not. I wonder if she is still alive.
Those Africans living in the high savanna of Zaire are the toughest people I’ve ever met. Whenever I have the chance to complain about something unfair in our country, in my life, or the lives of any of my friends or family, I think of little Louise and the way she came into the world. That memory alone is sufficient to silence my tongue.