IN AMERICA THE LIFETIME RISK OF MATERNAL DEATH IS 1-IN-2800. IN CERTAIN PARTS OF AFRICA IT IS 1-IN-16.
Zaria was 19 years old and she would soon be giving birth to her first child. Having spent her entire life trapped in extreme poverty she had suffered relentlessly. Now, in what should be the happiest of times she was filled with fear and dread. Medical care was over a hundred miles away and the midwife that struggled to serve her village had become gravely ill. She was alone.
Nine months earlier Zaria had been raped by four men in the militia. The attack had been brutal. At one point she had been choked so hard that her throat had been damaged. Her vocals chords did not heal properly and she had been left with only a hoarse whisper when she spoke. The people in her village knew her pregnancy was the result of a rape, and Zaria’s damaged voice only reminded every one of her “unfortunate situation”. Although the other women felt pity for her since she had no family, they still kept their distance because she was pregnant without a husband and rape carried the stigma of shame no matter how helpless the victim had been.
When she first realized she was pregnant Zaria didn’t think she could love the baby because it only reminded her of the horror she had been through, but when she felt the first stirrings of life everything changed. It would be the first “good thing” she could remember in her life. She knew how important it was to have medical attention during her pregnancy but there simply wasn’t any available, and she certainly couldn’t afford to travel. Like many other women in her area, she had been afraid to pick out names for a boy and a girl. In her country babies frequently didn’t survive more than a month, so naming them only intensified the bond between mother and child which in turn increased the level of pain and heartbreak when the infant died.
As the day for the delivery grew closer she began to feel worse. She had been spotting heavily and suffering chronic pain. It seemed like her strength was draining away and she had been having terrible headaches that made her sick to her stomach. She fought through these discomforts without medicine, but with the firm conviction that God would watch over her and her baby.
For most of Zaria’s life it had been a battle just to stay alive. She was only nine years old when she lost her mother to bacterial meningitis, and although her father tried to keep the family together her older brothers soon left home in the hope of finding work. Zaira’s father died four years later from an infection after being injured while digging a well. A simple antibiotic could have saved his life. Although she missed him tremendously she was secretly glad that he would never know what the soldiers had done to her. The attack and resulting pregnancy would’ve been more than he could bear.
Zaria had struggled through constant illness all her life which was compounded by chronic malnutrition. At the time of the rape she barely weighed 90 pounds. Hunger had always been a constant companion, and there were times when she had been forced to go several days without food. During her pregnancy she knew it was important to eat properly for the sake of the baby’s health, but that was rarely possible. Good nutrition was a luxury in her world.
It was several hours after sundown when the stabbing pain suddenly struck. The severity of it drove Zaria to her knees, but she managed to crawl over to a mat on the floor of her small hut. She immediately knew she was bleeding too much. She felt panicky, and she cried out for help but her already damaged voice was even weaker from the pain. No one heard her.
She realized that her baby was about to be born and that she had to do everything possible to ensure its safety. She knew both of their lives were at stake, but the intense pain made it hard to concentrate. She struggled to get on her back and spread her knees apart but every movement was excruciating. Her breathing was frantic, and she was aware of her heart pounding hard and fast. The contractions continually gripped her abdomen and sent spasms of agony through her body.
Her labor lasted for hours. Slowly the steady blood loss began to cloud her mind. She continued to call out for help but her voice was gone. From time to time she cried from the pain but there was no sound. She was terrified for her baby – the very thought of something going wrong made her tremble with fear. She began to pray. She prayed with every fiber of her being for God to have mercy on her child.
Suddenly she felt the baby moving so she pushed as hard as she possibly could. Again and again she desperately pushed with every bit of strength she had left. Exhaustion was overwhelming her and the bleeding was increasing but she knew she couldn’t stop now. She prayed for divine strength to come to her in her hour of need – and then she pushed one final time.
For a moment the pain eased and her mind cleared. She realized that her baby had been born. She could hardly catch her breath. Her prayers had been answered. The joy that filled her was the most intense feeling she had every experienced. She struggled to lift herself up on her elbows to see her newborn. The sight of her own blood covering everything did not affect her. She focused through the tears and sweat and gazed down in rapture at her son – but what she saw convulsed her. The umbilical cord was wrapped tightly around his neck. The color was draining from his body – he was not making a sound.
She stared in disbelief at her dying infant as her mind struggled to comprehend what she was seeing. Within seconds absolute terror filled her as she frantically grabbed him and struggled with the cord. She had nothing to use but her bare hands. For several seconds she pulled and twisted furiously but then a sudden violent pain deep in her body made her let go and clutch her stomach. Zaria looked down and watched in horror as she began to bleed out. The hemorrhaging was uncontrollable. At that moment she realized she was going to die, but she was determined to save her baby. She gathered what strength she had left and again began to tear at the umbilical cord that only a short time before had been his source for life but was now killing him. Strangely in the midst of her panic and confusion she began to feel a profound sense of sorrow over the fact that her baby might die without a name.
She continued to struggle against all odds to save her child but then a final searing pain struck Zaria. This time it felt like her skull was splitting open as a blood vessel exploded deep in the right side of her brain causing a massive stroke…At last the misery of her life was over…All awareness left her as the world went dark. The left side of her body became limp as the stroke ravaged her. The dying baby dropped from her arms, and she fell back on the mat. All the years of abuse her body has been forced to endure had now taken its final toll. Within minutes Zaria quietly bled to death as her newborn’s heart rate slowed and then stopped – the umbilical cord still wrapped tightly around his neck. Complete silence filled the tiny hut as extreme poverty claimed two more innocent victims.
Several hours after sunrise two passing women heard the unmistakable drone of flies coming from inside the hut. They hurried over and opened the door, and although both were hardened by years of suffering, they were not prepared for the horror within. The scene of the heroic life and death struggle was grotesque. The ghastly amount of blood was so shocking that both were overcome by emotion, and because of the incessant heat the stench of death was already overpowering. One sobbing woman looked at the baby and cried out to God, the other stared at Zaria and then turned away and vomited.
By mid-afternoon the simple grave was ready. The unnamed baby boy was gently placed on Zaria’s chest, their bodies were covered with a cloth and they were lowered into the ground to spend eternity together.
HOW MANY MOTHERS AND INFANTS HAVE TO DIE BEFORE WE ARE WILLING TO HELP?