It was almost dark when we called the midwife.
“Come now” was the only response we got.
We arrived in the lightless health center, our patient reclined on the bed table stationed in the room for moments just like this, groaning in pain as the African sunset stole what was left of daylight from us. Logging trucks bumped along the road outside, their cab lights twirling and casting our shadows on the wall behind us.
“Ashia”, the Cameroonian word meaning anything from “I’m sorry” to “Congratulations” was all I could manage to say.
From there it was a waiting game. The laboring mother climbed down from the birthing table, then back up, trying to find a comfortable position. She swayed her hips and practiced short hissing breaths, which seemed to do nothing to negate the ultimate pain coming from the arrival of her first-born son.
The father was nowhere to be found, we were told. She was only twenty. Her labor had been especially long, as is typically with first-time pregnancies, and she had been here for over twenty four hours, just waiting to finally end her nine months of anticipation. Soon her aunt, appearing to be no more than a few years older than her challenged charge, arrived as well. In tow, a baby in a sling named Gracious, who reached out wide-eyed and touched the milky and perplexing skin of the foreigners whenever she was able.
The women in the room recounted their own pregnancies, three for the mother of Gracious, just one for the midwife, who later lost the child in infancy. Having no children of my own, I continued to sit in wonder at how anyone could be expected to do this, and how anyone could ever manage it more than once.
Finally, two hours after our arrival, the water burst and pushing began, coached on in pidgin English. I peered over the shoulder of my postmate holding the kerosene lamp, the only source of light in the room. The mother-to-be drifted in and out of consciousness, taking cat naps that we were told would produce her ‘fire’ for pushing once she awoke. The kola nuts she chewed on earlier had long faded in the midst of seizing, exhausting contractions.
A head made its way into the world, followed by the rest of a new bouncing baby boy. Born at 8:30 in the evening, he was whisked away to the countertop and rubbed with oil after cutting the cord that linked him to his mother for the better part of the last year. Mother heaved with sobs as the hormones rushing around her body finally caught up with her. She prayed, she thanked a deity, she asked for water…but never for her new son. Instead I was called over to dress him while she napped again.
My gloved hands tested his Babinski reflex, causing his feet to splay outward, a trait that will disappear by next summer. Tested next was his rooting reflex, his tiny lips fumbling around my pointer finger, disappointed that it wasn’t his mother’s breast. I spared him the testing of his Moro reflex, a response to falling suddenly, and instead moved onto bestowing upon him his first outfit, a knit jacket and booties, along with a cap, seemingly inappropriate for the African heat. I sang him Happy Birthday under my breath, and welcomed him to this crazy place called Earth.
As the midwife cleaned up by lamplight, I couldn’t help but notice what a stark contrast this African delivery had against the American births I had seen on television. The mother had no analgesics and despite this let out no screams or cries, only the occasional pained moan. The stark white of the Western hospital was gone; instead a room cattycorner to the midwife’s office would have to do. No fetal monitors, no sonograms, no I.V. pitocin drips. Only the quick flutter of the baby’s heartbeat heard through a conical stethoscope alerted us to the baby’s health.
We left four hours after our initial arrival. Using my best
Cameroonian hiss, I called over an okada for my postmate, who lives too far from town to walk home alone in the dark. The motorcycle would be sent, after dropping her off, to the new mother to carry her and her little papoose to his new home. I cradled my own newest addition in my lap on my porch as his sleepy puppy eyes eventually gave way to dreaming. I stayed there until the electricity in town cut off, causing the stars to take center stage in the sky. I’m sure the infant and I were both sharing a thought that night
“So this is Africa…”