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Reflections

Laughter in a time of angst

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Laughter in a time of angst
Photo: Clem Onojeghuo on Unsplash

I wanted to write about sex. My theory was that Kenyans are having more of it. It is one of the ways we deal with the onslaught of political and social trauma to seek out intimacy. That in order to go out and live life every day, we numb ourselves to the pain of what is going on around us. And so we self-soothe. We seek out pleasure. Release. We look for moments where we come alive. Where we can escape. Where we can feel human in a country that too often dehumanizes us.

However, everyone I spoke to about this theory had the same response:

‘It’s the comedy, stupid.’

Yes, we like to laugh. We take pride in our wit. Less than an hour after the latest political scandal breaks, the twitter army unleashes a battalion of memes that swiftly make their way via WhatsApp to parts of Kenya that aren’t on social media. And we laugh. In our offices, shops, roads, shacks, mansions, matatus, cars, boda bodas, we laugh and it makes us feel good.

But do you remember what we were laughing about last?

I think about how laughter has become such an integral part of the national coping psyche that it is now standard practice for radio stations to have a comedian on air in the morning to soothe our commute and distract us from our distress.

When I speak to the comedian and radio presenter Jalan’go (Hot 96) about this, he tells me what we already know; that Kenyans love to laugh about their problems. That we find solace in comedy, but that even as people laugh, the pain is still there. He doesn’t smile. It’s very dangerous, he says, because you drown yourself in temporary happiness but you can’t run away from your permanent situation. He is so different from the Jalan’go I just saw bouncing up on the stage, wisecracks spitting out of every corner of his mouth, laughter bubbling from his belly. He is quieter. I ask him if he thinks we are in a state of angst. He doesn’t hesitate before he says, we are not peaceful, we are calm, but make no mistake we are broken to the core.

If we don’t laugh, we’ll cry.

I remember performing on stage at Kigali’s Genocide Memorial Museum. Five Kenyans exorcising the ghosts of our post-election violence. Our heads down as we recited Sitawa Namwalie’s poem,

Would you wield a machete in Burnt Forest,
Cut a stranger down?
Slash a man as he pleads with you for life,
Lead the crowd baying for his blood
A human being!
He cowered and cried out, bleating like a lamb
Innocent of any crime
Death unwilling to take him,
He died long and hard, way before his time
His blood waters your farm like acid rain
Would You?

The audience laughed. Not just giggles. Outright laughter. And we were confused, us Kenyans would be. How was this funny? How could a country like Rwanda, so intimate with this kind of pain, find humour in it?

But then later, I remember being in the audience at the Kenya National Theatre watching a scene take place in Nyayo Torture Chambers from the Too Early For Birds show. The killer held a knife. He spoke about the unspeakable things he would do with that knife. And people giggled. The laughter spread. And I wasn’t confused anymore. This was a way of taking back our collective power, of laughing as a form of rebellion.

Because if you get the humour, you share the pain.

I remember as a teenager, watching the grown-ups convulse in laughter as Nyambane danced like the man whose name we couldn’t say out loud. How did we go from whispering his name to laughing in his face? It’s the beginning of the end, I heard them say.

Like many in my generation, we had grown up studying the way our parents’ mouths shifted on their faces. The biting of tongues to stop from saying a thing that could get you disappeared. The sucking of teeth as the country’s coffers drained into the pockets of politicians. The twisting of lips in anguish at the humiliation and pain of living in a country that seemed bent on trapping you in perpetual survival mode. But every now and then, reading Wahome Mutahi, looking at Gaddo and Maddo’s comics, watching Redykulass, the closed mouths grew into grins. Then cracked into chuckles. And so we learned, us young ones, that if your country is opening its mouth to eat you up, you too open your mouth and laugh in its face. We learned that when you wake up in the morning, and every morning brings a new wave of crap that sits on yesterday’s pile of crap, rotting and festering into one massive heap of crap that oozes into your skin and starts to dissolve away hope, you find a way to laugh. We learned that laughter was a way of practicing hope instead of hopelessness. Because if you can find humour in a traumatic situation, perhaps somewhere you see the possibility of it changing. And that is hopeful.

The purveyors of hope when we were growing up were armed with biting pencils and gnashing pens. The work of those satirists opened our eyes. It was dangerous work. They criticized the politics of the day in a way that nobody else dared to do. They spoke the things we couldn’t. And I began to understand how powerful comedy was. Because when the ridicule was exposed, in between our laughter, we too saw the situation for what it was, ridiculous. Not infallible but Ridiculous. And when something ceases to be infallible, it can start being broken down.

Yet things didn’t transform the way we expected them to when the big man fell. There were other big men. Always so many big men. And in the moments of helplessness, when they were stealing everything, including our freedom, there was one thing we refused to let them steal. Our sense of humour. The one that belongs to the Kenyan people. The one that is rooted in such deep pain, inherited trauma and in such perpetual angst, that all we can do is hide it in memes and gifs and lols.

But there’s a difference between using humour purely for entertainment and using it as a way of exposing truths. I worry sometimes that we’ve got stuck in the ridicule. In the slapstick and accents. Because how do you satirize a country where the absurd has become the normal? Yet for every meme or routine that soothes and temporarily heals, we also need to pay attention to the humour that digs deeper, that excavates, that investigates who we are and reveals how we got here, humour that tears down so that we can begin to build.

Scientifically it makes sense that we are so desperately drawn to the mindless laughter. When we laugh, endorphins and dopamine are released; the chemicals that make our bodies feel good. And so we stay chasing the next high. But maybe it’s more than that. I read about how the use of humour literally calms down the amygdala, the part of our brain where fear sits. How it helps us change the way we see something threatening, to reframe it so it doesn’t seem quite so dangerous. And yet perhaps that’s where the greatest danger is. Maybe we need to be alive to just how dangerous a time we are living in, and not to let that go.

Elsewhere, I read how laughter is perhaps simply a release of nervous energy. I think about how living in Kenya feels like being in a pressure valve. And with each laugh, we let go of a little-repressed emotion, we release a little of that tension. So important national conversations become a punch line. And the politicians know it. They take advantage of it. They wait for us to crack the joke, so we can process the situation in the way we know how, and then accept and move on. Until the next scandal emerges, the next meme makes its rounds. And the outrage is diffused. Yet I suspect it is only our outrage, not laughter that will save us in this time of angst.

Man is the only animal that laughs and weeps: for he is the only animal that is struck with the difference between what things are, and what they ought to be. ~ William Hazlitt

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Aleya is a writer, reader, storyteller and performer.

Reflections

Just Do It!

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Just Do It!
Photo: Joanna Nix on Unsplash

This ‘Brazen: Reflections’ series was born out of a desire to continue the conversations springing out of the ‘Too Early For Birds: Brazen’ theatre performance in Nairobi in July 2018. TEFB-Brazen was a mix of straight-up scripted theatre, narration, poetry, music and dance that featured the little-known stories of six fearless women in Kenya’s history – freedom fighters like Field Marshall Muthoni wa Kirima, Mekatilili wa Menza and Wangu wa Makeri; democracy activists Philomena Chelagat Mutai and Zarina Patel and even one iconoclastic yet nameless woman warrior who brought down Lwanda Magere, the legendary ‘Man of Stone’ in Kenyan folklore. The story of each hero was narrated by a corresponding mirror character on stage. The ‘Brazen: Reflections’ series seeks to explore the idea of brazenness, what it means in our daily lives, whom the idea of brazenness privileges or erases, and the place that brazenness has in imagining freedom. 

 

* As told to Christine Mungai

 

A few months before Too Early For Birds: Brazen was due to be performed, the writers of the show – Aleya Kassam, Laura Ekumbo and Anne Moraa – invited a number of women for a pre-show reading of the script, to see how it landed and what could be improved. I attended the reading, and brought my mother along.

The reading got underway, evoking frank conversations about the struggles that women face – at home, at work, everywhere really, as we fight to stay alive and sane in a society that constantly works to degrade and diminish us. My mother listened, patiently as she always does, and then said something that surprised the group – that she was struck by the fact that women in 2018 were facing the very same struggles that she was battling forty years ago.

My mother, Lucy Wanjiru, is now is her 70s. She told the group how she raised my four siblings and I as a divorced woman in the 1970s. Which, as she pointed out was not the kind of thing done at the time. But she was different. She’s the kind of mother that had the “sex talk” with us openly, and answered all our questions as best she could. She was the first to take me out, to teach me what alcohol did to my body, and how to handle it. She bought me my first miniskirt.

Someone asked my mum whether she knew any gay people “those days”. She said yes, we knew men who did “women things”. And that there were girls who “disappeared into some corners with other girls”.

Was there a backlash? Were they ostracized? Was there the same stigma as today?

“Not really,” she said. “It was understood that those girls were not ‘for marriage’.”

And then my friend Nini asked my mother, “Did it occur to you that you could be in a relationship with a woman?” She answered: “Unfortunately I’ve never been attracted to women, but if I was, it would have been a great arrangement.” That blew everyone’s mind, and they all burst out laughing. But my mother meant it.

For Women Who Are Difficult To Love

Read also: The Brazen Edition

I’ve been thinking about that conversation in the weeks after TEF Brazen, about the things that time changes, and what it doesn’t change. My mother sharing her experiences from forty years ago mattered to the people present that day – it reassured them that they were not alone, that others have passed this way before. But it was also a reminder that the forces against us as women are resilient, frequently shape-shifting into more modern versions of the same old oppressions.

I ended up watching Brazen with my mother, as well as Martha Karua, who’s had a distinguished career in public service, Justice Martha Koome, judge at the court of appeal and Marilyn Kamuru, advocate fighting for the implementation of the two-thirds gender rule. It was a veritable cross-section of women representing different generations of Kenyan brazenness.

It made me realize that we need those cross-generational spaces that allow us to access those memories, that let us know that this too shall pass. And for those who have gone before us, it matters that someone is listening. That someone will read the Hansard and retrieve what you said, like they did for Chelagat Mutai in the performance. That someone will quote you, will re-tell your story to little ones one day.

At what point does a girl become a woman in her mother’s eyes? I was lucky that my mother spoke frankly to us, gave us an anchor to hold on to, and helped us find a way to make sense of the world. For too many women however, it is happens too late, too abruptly, or too tainted by the contradictions of life.

I asked my mother that day, “At age 35, you were running a business, running a home, and raising five children by yourself. With all of society’s forces against you, how did you do it?”

She said: “You just close your eyes and get your work done.”

That’s Brazen.

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Reflections

Gonna know we were here

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Gonna know we were here
Photo: Eloise Ambursley on Unsplash

This ‘Brazen: Reflections’ series was born out of a desire to continue the conversations springing out of the ‘Too Early For Birds: Brazen’ theatre performance in Nairobi in July 2018. TEFB-Brazen was a mix of straight-up scripted theatre, narration, poetry, music and dance that featured the little-known stories of six fearless women in Kenya’s history – freedom fighters like Field Marshall Muthoni wa Kirima, Mekatilili wa Menza and Wangu wa Makeri; democracy activists Philomena Chelagat Mutai and Zarina Patel and even one iconoclastic yet nameless woman warrior who brought down Lwanda Magere, the legendary ‘Man of Stone’ in Kenyan folklore. The story of each hero was narrated by a corresponding mirror character on stage. The ‘Brazen: Reflections’ series seeks to explore the idea of brazenness, what it means in our daily lives, whom the idea of brazenness privileges or erases, and the place that brazenness has in imagining freedom

 

I recently found myself in a room with the mother of my auntie’s husband who we all call Cucu. Having lost my biological grandparents, this sweet lady—who, at 98, has always been old to me—was fascinating to observe. Cucu sat in a corner, singing gospel songs with her feet elevated. She was snug and warm and aged in that good way; seen the world and sure of her bedtime.

I thought about the Kenya she met in 1920. A colony filled with fear, hunger and violence. Though I can almost hear Ciru’s character in TEFBrazen chime in, “kinda like now”, I wonder what uncertainties coiled in the belly of Cucu’s mother as she looked down at her daughter. As a woman, I feel certain the same dread extends across each generation facing a hostile world that needs unmaking: Will they survive? Will they thrive?

Not enough to make it.

This is where we need the radicals and their rage.

They find the words, the exact colour and stroke, the perfect verse and tempo, the opening, the safety, the fearlessness, the cunning, the voice needed to challenge the world. March 16th, 1922 was Mary Muthoni Nyanjiru’s time to be Brazen. She rallied a crowd of 7,000 agitating for the release of Harry Thuku, a political activist fighting against the colonial government.

They say that right there, outside Central Police station, Nyanjiru stripped naked, faced down the bayonets and yelled, “Take my dress and give me trousers! You men are cowards! What are you waiting for? Our leader is in there. Let’s go get him!”

For author Grace Ogot, being Brazen was deciding to publish work in both Luo and English when she realized there was a dearth in work by East African women writers at the 1962 African Writers Conference. Her fellow attendee, Rebeka Njau went on to write a one-act drama that unequivocally condemned female genital mutilation. The Scar was published in 1965 and is the first ever play written by a Kenyan woman.

A decade later Rebeka would rewrite her award-winning debut novel Alone with the Fig Tree into Ripples in the Pool with a queer protagonist, Selina, a married woman who falls for her husband’s sister. In a moment of reflection Selina reveals her motivation: “I have discovered that a woman must fight her way in this cruel man’s world. This is what I’m doing now.”

And women needn’t be pioneers to shake things up. Daring to be different and refusing to be cowed or shamed is just as empowering. It is evident in how musician Akothee, the self-proclaimed ‘president of single mothers’, has made her Instagram account an island of ungovernability. That honesty with which socialites such as Bridget Achieng – featured on a recent BBC Africa Eye documentary – speak candidly about their lives and the cost of choices they make.

Brazenness is in the very bones of the Bar Hostess Empowerment & Support Programme. This organization is a haven for Kenyan sex workers. It also incorporates women who have sex with women (WSW), women using drugs and, bar hostesses. What’s fantastic is that they offer training to sex workers as paralegals which helps them in defending themselves on the streets, in the back of the council vans, and in the courts.

When women refuse to be made invisible, they are able to question status quo. It is a struggle but there is glory in being alive this way. When transwoman Audrey Mbugua challenged the Kenya National Examinations Council to change the name on her certificate, she demanded to be seen for who she was. She won.

For Women Who Are Difficult To Love

Read also: The Brazen Edition

When filmmaker Wanuri Kahiu took the Kenya Film Classification Board to court for banning her film Rafiki, she wanted to give Kenyans a chance to see two young people—who happened to be female—fall in love. She won and made over three million shillings to boot.

But it isn’t about winning. It’s about having the audacity to point out an injustice and not back down. In 2016, lawyers Marilyn Kamuru and Daisy Jerop together with the Center for Rights Education and Awareness led a petition against the Chief Justice and the National Assembly to dissolve Parliament. The Constitution is clear. Everyone ought to be sent home for non-compliance with the two-thirds gender rule. The petitioners openly declared “there is no democracy without women’s meaningful representation in the national legislature.”

How powerful is that?

Yet and still, not enough make it.

Nyanjiru was the first to be felled by bullets that day.

*Liz was gang-raped on her way home from her grandfather’s funeral.

Jackline Mwende’s husband chopped off her arms.

This is still the world we live in. Where our bodies are viewed as disposable, our fate inevitable and our triumphs erasable. That is why I enjoyed Too Early for Birds – The Brazen Edition so much. It hit all the right notes: truth, homage and genius. We need this kind of inspiration. We need our joys and pains documented. We need to grieve. We need to imagine new ways to be free. This is how we survive. This is how we thrive.

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Reflections

EMPTY ARMS: The story of Kenya’s broken maternal health system

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EMPTY ARMS: The story of Kenya’s broken maternal health system

This ‘Brazen: Reflections’ series was born out of a desire to continue the conversations springing out of the ‘Too Early For Birds: Brazen’ theatre performance in Nairobi in July 2018. TEFB-Brazen was a mix of straight-up scripted theatre, narration, poetry, music and dance that featured the little-known stories of six fearless women in Kenya’s history – freedom fighters like Field Marshall Muthoni wa Kirima, Mekatilili wa Menza and Wangu wa Makeri; democracy activists Philomena Chelagat Mutai and Zarina Patel and even one iconoclastic yet nameless woman warrior who brought down Lwanda Magere, the legendary ‘Man of Stone’ in Kenyan folklore. The story of each hero was narrated by a corresponding mirror character on stage. The ‘Brazen: Reflections’ series seeks to explore the idea of brazenness, what it means in our daily lives, whom the idea of brazenness privileges or erases, and the place that brazenness has in imagining freedom. 

 

The pain

The morning of 3rd November 2013 is still so clear to me, almost five years later. I remember waking up at 2:11 a.m. in so much pain I could barely stand. I remember waking my husband who was sleeping next to me. I remember how calm his voice when he said, “dress up, let’s go to the hospital”. I remember what I wore – a green dress with black floral patterns. I remember touching my belly and wondering why it felt so hard. I remember my husband driving like a crazy person, ignoring every red light on the way to Nairobi Hospital. I remember how the emergency area of the hospital looked dreary and depressing. I remember the relief I felt when I heard my daughter’s heartbeat but then a twinge of anxiety when the sonographer said her heart rate was higher than it should. I remember the next nine hours clearly, up until noon, when my water broke and I pushed my baby girl into the world. I remember seeing her tiny body on a tray and hearing the doctor say “I am so sorry she didn’t make it”. Then everything from there is a blur.

The people that came to visit us in hospital were very kind, but for the life of me I cannot remember any of the conversations we had. A few pastor friends stopped by and prayed. I had trouble closing my eyes though. I was sure if I closed them, the darkness in my heart would overwhelm me. The only thing I remember about the days that followed is my first shower. I stepped out of my bed, legs shaking and eventually made it to the shower. And I touched my belly and there was nothing where my baby bump had been. And I sobbed in the shower, wishing I could die. But I didn’t. And at first, I was deeply disappointed with God for letting me live. But I went home and experienced so much love from friends and family. I remember Timo and Lo (a couple who lived near us) coming to our house with food. That was the first night I laughed since my daughter died. And my journey of healing began.

Seeing in colour

A month after coming from hospital I wrote about losing our daughter on my blog. I had resigned from my job. So here I was, unemployed, with no baby to look after. The blogpost was my way of trying to understand what had happened to me. Then, I felt, if I just wrote it down, it would stop having so much power over me. And the writing helped. I felt lighter – the kind you feel after a good cry. But soon after I received numerous calls, emails and messages from people who had lost a baby or knew someone who had. I don’t know why I did it but I reached out to these people. Here I was, still raw from pain, listening to other devastating stories of loss. For some reason, holding hands with these parents, crying together and encouraging each other started me on my healing journey. Somewhere along the way my heart was strengthened. At some point I started to see in colour again. And though some nights were long and teary, there was a new hope in my life.

I started Still A Mum officially in October of 2015. It is a not for profit that provides psychosocial support to parents who have gone through miscarriages, stillbirth and infant loss. In the three years I have been doing this I have met over 850 men and women beaten down by the death of their baby. Broken by the lack of support from their family. Angry because of the myths their neighbours have about why the baby died. I have met couples that have lost an eight-week pregnancy and people dismissed their loss and called their baby a “mass of cells” not knowing that they had been trying to get pregnant for six years. I have met university students who were terrified when they found out they were pregnant, and even considered abortion, but decided to keep the baby. Then sadly lost the baby. And this baby, not wanted at the beginning, but loved over time brought them such sadness when they were no more. Every year we plant trees to mark Pregnancy and Infant Loss Day in October and my heart is so full to hear a man tell me, “Thank you for giving us a chance to plant this tree in memory of our baby. This is the first we are speaking about our son since he died.”

For Women Who Are Difficult To Love

Read also: The Brazen Edition

Sure, my life took a detour I am so grateful for – from a career in tech to running Still A Mum. Half the time I feel like I have been thrown to the deep end because I am not a counsellor, yet I am here to offer comfort to grieving parents. Of course, I often feel boggled down by the high numbers of pregnancy and infant loss. We are barely scratching the surface and it breaks my heart to know there’s a woman who has lost a baby and has no one to walk with her. Yes, I have missed the glamour of employment life, and the security of a paycheck. But that passes when I meet a mother I have counselled and she’s laughing again. When I run into a mum who tells me that they have recovered from a loss and are even thinking of having a baby again, I get overwhelmed with joy. That’s being Brazen.

***********

The broken health care system

That being said, every day I come face to face with Kenya’s broken health system. Perennially, I see how much more work needs to be done. Did you know that Kenya has 23 stillbirths for every 1000 live births (the rate is 10 for Mauritius and Seychelles, the safest places to have a baby in Africa, and just ten in the US and UK)? Did you know that in Kenya we define stillbirth as the loss of a pregnancy from 28 weeks while developed countries it is from 20 weeks? That means that in those countries a baby born at 21 weeks can make it?

Do you know how many hospitals in Kenya can handle a birth emergency? How many health centers have incubators? Or even a theatre for a basic caesarian section birth? Did you read about the mother who lost quintuplets in Kenya last year? I went to visit her in Oyugis and saw how devastated she was to bury five babies. Five babies! And why? Because she could not go for antenatal clinics because the nurses were on strike, and so assumed she was pregnant with only one baby. On the day when labour started she thought she could handle the birth at home, with a midwife. Until she delivered two babies and the midwife saw there were more. And she was rushed to a hospital in Oyugis where she delivered the other three. Who had to be moved to a hospital in Kisii because the first hospital did not have incubators for the preemies. Eventually because of the movement and the cold the three babies died. And just like that a woman lost five children! That is our health care system.

But that is not what riles me most. I am most angry about how Kenyan hospital staff treats mothers and fathers after the loss of their baby. During the support group sessions I have heard some of the most devastating stories I’ve heard in my life.

I went into labor when I was 23 weeks pregnant. The nurse that came to my bed said “mama, huyu mtoto akizaliwa atakufa tu”. She said that because the baby was too young their chances of survival are almost nil. All I could hear was that “atakufa tu” statement. It was so callous. I didn’t know I would be experiencing a lot worse. As soon as I pushed the baby out, the midwife lifted my son and threw him in the trash can as I watched. Soon after, I started to throw up because my blood pressure was really high. Without missing a beat, the midwife handed me the trash can she’d put my baby in so I “stop messing her floor”. Can you imagine how I felt throwing up on my baby?! I had nightmares for months. – Joan*

I lost my baby at 36 weeks of pregnancy. My daughter died in my womb about 24 hours before I came into hospital. “Mama, hapa hakuna heartbeat” The sonographer said while staring at the monitor. Then I was sent to the maternity ward and nobody explained anything. I just saw nurses setting up the drip and putting it in my hand. A few hours later I went into labor. After delivery when I asked if I could see my girl I was asked why I would want to see a dead child. Then I spent the night in the maternity ward – I could not sleep hearing all the babies crying yet mine was dead. It was the most traumatizing thing I’ve ever gone through. I demanded to be discharged the very next day. – Ruth*

I stayed in Newborn ICU (NICU) with my son for 6 weeks. Every day was fighting a new battle. Some days were good, some were tough. One day he’d be doing well the next he’d be fighting a new infection. Because of the bill that had already accumulated my husband and I had decided I would be commuting instead of sleeping in the ward. Most days I just slept in the car. Six weeks in I was exhausted both physically and mentally. I had cried until I didn’t think I had more tears. I had prayed, desperately asking God to take my life instead and spare my son. I didn’t know if I could take more bad news. Then on Thursday May 4th 2017 I walked into NICU and saw a group of doctors and nurses surrounding my baby trying to resuscitate him. Not more than five minutes after I walked in, the machine stopped beeping. Immediately they set my son aside and put another baby into the incubator. They didn’t even wrap him up. They just left him there naked and cold. – Cynthia*

I hear these stories so often and each time it breaks my heart. I meet women who doctors have ignored their calls for help, or the midwife disregarded information they gave that would have saved their baby’s life. I listen as fathers narrate how they paced the corridors outside the theatre only to be told their babies died. And how painful it was for them to break the news to their wives. Our bereavement care is almost non-existent. Our health care is totally devoid of compassion. Medical practitioners leave medical school knowing how to diagnose a patient’s illness and prescribe medicine. They know how to conduct difficult surgical operations. But they are caught flatfooted when they have to break bad news to a patient. They are devoid of empathy. And I understand that most are overworked and already doing more than is required, but a little compassion is required. Saying “I am so sorry for your loss” goes a long way.

I know we can do better. The situation definitely feels bleak but we can start to fix it. Every day we can change systems that don’t work and introduce some new ones that do. Every day we can get feedback from patients and see ways to improve. We don’t have to have world-class facilities to start seeing change – we can be more compassionate and humane and not belittle the loss of a baby. We can start where we are and visit a bereaved parent. And hug them. That’s Brazen.

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