Sister Irene, David (driver) and I sat in the front of the ambulance, while Sr. Modesta rattled around the back. First we drove to Chemolingot, a town consisting of 2 intersecting roads, each with shops for about 2 blocks. At 10 am, it is a quiet, dusty down with a few dogs and fewer people about. Then it was another excruciating 9 km to the district dispensary, where the back was loaded with equipment—baby scale, microscope and a few beat up tables and chairs— and supplies, child immunization record books, various medications, etc.
Then off we went to the middle of Pokot land. It took more than an hour of very tough driving to arrive at a lovely shaded glen near a river that was dry as a bone 2 days ago but today was flowing with brown, muddy water.
My first need was to find a good bush to squat behind. Having taken care of that we wandered about looking at the landscape and waiting for the people to show up for clinic. Slowly, one by two they came, mostly pregnant women and nursing mothers. Interspersed with these arrivals were old women, whom I later learned, are the local midwives.
We sat around for awhile before Sr. Irene began talking to the group, explaining who would get portions of the sack of maize we were carrying. First priority was the frail elderly, both men and women. Sr. Irene had gathered a list of some 20 folks, most of whom showed up at sometime during the day. Next would be the pregnant mothers and those with nursing babies. Pregnant moms only got maize if they had a prenatal exam. Nursing moms got it only if the baby was weighed, examined and immunized.
The moms all sat in a row on a downed log, holding their sleeping babies, nursing them if they fussed. Sr. Irene showed me a device used like a bottle. It was a small gourd in which they collected their breast milk. She giggled when she explained the covering was a goat scrotum. People are very creative!
They’ve also devised baby backpacks made of goatskin to which arm straps have been attached. They’re quite adept at putting even very small babies on the skin, placing the arms and legs inside the straps and slinging it onto the back.
Everyone who came was stick-thin. Arms and legs seemed to be only small bones with no muscle. Yet they walk many miles everyday, the women to fetch water and wood for cooking, the men tending the animals. The old walk slowly, but the young women stride off briskly, baby on back. Everyone carries a stick to ward off snakes and the men (ONLY) carry a small stool, maybe 6 inches high, with a 6 inch square seat. I wish I had taken a picture of one.
Most of the women wore typical broad beaded necklaces, but one lady had a necklace that loosely wound around her neck. I could see a wire protruding from one end. She carried a knife and a stick from which she cut identical beads, then stuck them on the wire. She must have added several feet to her necklace as she sat during the day.
I wasn’t quite sure how to be helpful, but did some baby weighing for starters.
Then I noticed Sr. Modesta talking through an interpreter to the midwives seated off far enough away so their discussion couldn’t be overheard. When I joined them they were having a lively talk about FGM. It turned that many oppose it. They claimed the men insisted on wives being circumcised. Sr. M was very straightforward, telling about the problem of infection as well as major problems when giving birth. Many utero-intestinal fistulas occur as a result of FGM. The women know this but have been afraid to confront the men. They explained that the fathers are not around when the women are giving birth so have no idea how painful and serious it is. After much discussion they said they thought the older women had the right to tell the elders (men) more about it to enlist their help in discouraging the practice, which is outlawed in the Kenyan constitution, but the rural people ignore that. It was quite an animated discussion, with one woman, clearly a leader in the group, eyes flashing, pointing her long fingers, making her points, with the evident agreement of the others. They talked about herbs they use for various problems, getting the milk started, constipated babies, etc and I thought about my favorite book, The Red Tent, in which the main character was a midwife with an impressive knowledge of birthing and herbs. These ladies have knowledge that could be used in the greater world.
They also held some very odd beliefs, one being that a mother should be denied water for a week after giving birth. ACH! I explained to the translator that sufficient water is necessary to replace the blood lost in childbirth as well as for milk production. To my surprise, they listened. Sr. Modesta said later they appreciated my information. I do know that advice from the aged is prized and while I never told them my age, it’s pretty evident. Even the oldest was not as old as I am, but they’re bodies are worn out at 40, so they all looked very old indeed.
Afterwards, we talked about training the midwives so they’d be more aware of the signs of impending problem births. Because women begin giving birth as early as 12 in this society, many died along with their babies. If they’d had better care, many would survive. The women had asked that a hospital be built in their area. We suggested the people should build it, a simple place, and that the nuns who attend them could be trained, even to do cesarean sections. As it stands, the nearest hospital is to far, and the roads so bad, they can’t get there and the mothers die.
Love to all