A baby for Mariama*

The Franciscan Sisters of the Poor Foundation

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By Julie Rattey


Mariama, 28, let out a guttural scream from within her family’s straw hut in Senegal. Usually at this time of the morning she would be helping her husband’s three other wives prepare breakfast and care for the eight children. As fourth wife, Mariama could hardly claim special privileges to lie around on her back. But Mariama was in her final month of pregnancy, and her baby was coming. Right now.

One of the other wives — Mariama was too distracted to notice which — held out her hand, and Mariama seized it like a drowning woman. Suddenly the room was all sweat and straw and her own indelicate cries. My first child, she thought amid the pain. I hope he survives. I hope I survive. Neither was for certain. Here in this isolated village, many women died in childbirth, and many children died soon after. This very day, she might share the same fate. Perhaps there would soon be a new fourth wife for Babacar, esteemed medicine man and one of the spiritual leaders of the village. He would continue to wear his embroidered robes and offer sacrifices and prayers at the mosque. He would continue to have children and wives, though Mariama would be gone.

“Aie!”

Mariama cried out as she struggled to release her baby into the world. She wished Babacar had agreed to her request to go to the Village Maternity Center run by the Franciscan Sisters of the Poor in the nearby village. For years the Sisters had been working to improve medical care in the area. They even had a special room for women needing prenatal care or who were bearing children. Like 95 percent of the people in her area, Mariama was Muslim, not Catholic, so the Sisters and their ways were unfamiliar to her, but she knew other women had gone to the clinic and been well cared for. It was comforting seeing a friend or a neighbor go to the clinic and return with a squalling or sleeping child in her arms. Healthy. Happy. Alive.

 

***

 

But there was tradition to contend with. Pregnancy and childbearing were private matters, Babacar had calmly reminded her, not things to be shared with strangers. Their child would be born at home. Besides, he had added, he was a marabout, a saintly man in the village according to his position as medicine man and religious leader. Did not the villagers come to him when they needed healing? Did he not prescribe rituals of prayer and sacrifice? Did she not believe in his wisdom? Did she not trust that he would know how to reach God on her behalf?

Mariama knew that Babacar’s prescriptions for healing did not always work. Sometimes people had come to Babacar for help and, when the recommended rituals or prayers failed to heal them, gone to the medical clinic instead. Sometimes they were saved. But often, they had come to the Sisters too late. Mariama did not want that to happen to her, but faced with her husband’s words she felt she could do nothing but murmur respectfully in reply. Of course she trusted him. Of course he could take care of her. He was the marabout. He was her husband. She was his wife, and she would obey him.

 

***

 

Mariama groaned as the handcart jiggled along in the dirt to the medical clinic. Hours had passed. Her prayers had been answered: She had a son. And she was not dead. But for how long? Instead of resting, sweat-stained but radiant, with her first son cradled in her arms, she was suffering from severe pain and bleeding. Something was terribly wrong.
Babacar had offered prayers on her behalf, but nothing was working. Two women from the village had bravely offered to take her to the medical clinic in a handcart. It would be a rough, hot, and uncomfortable business lasting at least five hours. But if she did not go, she feared she would be dead by nightfall.

“Try,” Babacar had said to the village women, his wise face looking strained and sad from the failed attempts to heal his newest wife. “Try and we will see. It is our last chance.”
Babacar’s words echoed in Mariama’s mind as she arrived at the center and was put in the care of Yvonne, a nurse from the village and assistant at the center. Yvonne’s face was grim. “She hasn’t delivered the placenta,” she said to Mariama’s companions. “We need to deliver it right away.”

Mariama was scared, but she was also relieved. This woman knew what was wrong with her. If she knew that, maybe she could fix it.

 

***

 

“Mariama, I have some news for you,” said Yvonne. She had been gently and quizzically pressing on Mariama’s abdomen after the delivery of the placenta. She clearly had something serious to say, and Mariama tried to steel herself for the worst. What more could she handle?

“Mariama, you have another child inside of you.”

“What?” Mariama gasped. Emotions flooded her: Disbelief, confusion, jubilation. Then the thought of another birthing hit, and exhaustion set in. But she couldn’t rest now. For the sake of her child as well as herself, she had a job to do.

 

***

 

Two days later, Mariama awoke late. Her body was weary. Her heart, too, ached, and yet it also felt joy. Why was that? As she opened her eyes and the familiar hut appeared, she remembered. Two days ago, she had given birth to her second son; yesterday she had returned to her village in the handcart. Babacar, her family, and the neighbors had gaped in astonishment at the child cradled in her arms. A second son? How was this possible?

Mariama remembered this joy; so, too, she remembered grief. Already, so soon, her first son was dead. She sat up carefully and drew her second son to her, cradling his warm body against her own. Breathing in the warm smell of earth and straw, and of her precious child, she felt both torn from life through tragedy and so closely enmeshed with it that her heart felt too full to remain intact. This was life, in all its messy majesty. Her life. This was her husband, her family, her hut. And this was her son. Like her, he was not the first. She was fourth wife; he was second son. He would be everything to her. And it was thanks to the clinic and to God that she could hold him, warm and wriggling and wonderful, in her own, healthy arms.  CD

*All names have been changed for privacy. Based on the story of a young woman in Senegal. Information for this feature was provided by Sister Laura Cantello, SFP.

Photos by Jim Alund, courtesy of the Franciscan Sisters of the Poor Foundation

Managing Editor Julie Rattey

Julie Rattey is a Boston-based writer and editor. She is the author of If I Grew Up in Nazareth, available from 23rdPublications.com.