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THE NOVELTY OF WINNIE MADIKIZELA MANDELA: A Male, Feminist Reflection

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THE NOVELTY OF WINNIE MADIKIZELA MANDELA: A Male, Feminist Reflection
Photo: Flickr/GovernmentZA

It is not unusual that when a liberation struggle hero dies, many voices come to the fore, to bear witness, to lament, to remind, to narrate. It is unusual that there is a particularly gendered vitriolic account the kind of which has accompanied the passing of Nomzamo Winnie Madikizela Mandela.

In the cacophony of patriarchy-anchored, misogynistic utterances upon her death; in the outright dismissal of her positive significance to her community, country, continent and the world; in the mal-narration and disinformation meant to occlude, while excusing blatant wrongs done to her primarily by a very male culture, prior to and after the 1994 ‘independence’ of South Africa, it can too easily be with scorn, justified anger, lashing out, and dignified silence that we choose to respond. What I suggest, rather, is that we are at this moment, in honour of her indefatigable spirit, called upon to get to work: to continue her life-long work; to reflect on the gendered aspects to struggle and its representation – any struggle for liberation – and to draw what lessons we can for the future of the work of liberation movements, as continuation or reconstruction, from a gendered perspective.

In such moment, it can also become easy to forget the male feminist voice that could offer more balance and nuance, in part because being male, it can get immersed under the rest of the shrill, insulting salvos; and in part because it has always been so faint within the cacophonous, discordant, Winnie Mandela – and later Winnie Madikizela Mandela – narrative song.

This is not what Winnie Madikizela Mandela would want, I aver. A woman who lived inclusivity, rejected injustice, and fought for those at the margins – male and female – would not rejoice in the silencing of any voice. In particular, Winnie Mandela so believed in the critical role that liberation movements could play that, she would no doubt welcome a balanced reconfiguration of the feminist liberation movement, shaped not by patriarchy’s valorization or vilification, necessarily, but by such clear re-examination towards charting necessary new frontiers, and contributed to by such diversity as is near representative of reality as is possible.

The recognition then, of the sheer importance of such voices as the male feminist requires that we amplify it to better examine it for the lessons it might elicit – and this is what I propose to do in these few pages. I focus specifically on the literary text by Njabulo Ndebele, entitled The Cry of Winnie Mandela. The focus on the literary text is necessary because, ‘underlying literary texts are ideological structures that ‘mediate the transformation of social structures into the thematic preoccupations as well as into the aesthetic structures and styles of the texts.’ To follow this argument, novels and biographies/autobiographies are ideological discourses, better understood if situated within the context out of which they derive. Novels in Africa, publication of the bulk of which coincided with the dissolution of the British Empire in Africa, perhaps much more so.[1]   The literary text in South Africa, and Njabulo Ndebele’s novel in particular then, is not innocent. While it shares the ‘African’ experience, South Africa, the last bastion of white colonial rule in Africa, is often singled out for the particularity of the history out of which it is fashioned, for the lessons it might have drawn from the rest of Africa, and for its relevance in the continuing process of re-fashioning ‘Africa’ (or not).

South Africa attained ‘independence’ with the establishment of democratic rule in 1994. As the last ‘colony’ in Africa, South Africa is often seen as a mirror in which the people of Africa can see themselves: ‘a uniquely bare and ugly vision of the mix of social, economic, political, religious and racial forces which have affected everybody in thepost-colonial dispensation.’ It is also a mirror of possibilities. Rosemary Jolly posits that ‘as critics, teachers, and students, we need to forge a language that goes beyond apartheid; that refuses to hypostasize South Africa as the model in which the colonized black and the settler white eternally confront each other in the ‘ultimate racism’. Authors of The Empire Writes Back, Ashcroft, Griffiths and Tiffin, observe that the frequent re-designations of races under apartheid ‘demonstrated the sheer fictionality of suggesting that these racial divisions were either fixed or absolute, as did the necessity of passing a law against miscegenation between the races’ (the ‘Immorality Act’ aimed at ‘racial purity’). In the post-independence era, calls shifted from ‘a narrow cultural homogeneity’ to more heterogeneity and plurality. For South Africa, a country founded on the back of migration, and for long, characterised by racial division and gender separation, notions of identity, diversity, and interaction become paramount in envisioning the forging of a new nation. How are these configured in the symbolism of Winnie Madikizela Mandela in Ndebele’s post-apartheid narrative?   First, a few, often touted, framing historical facts on South Africa:

1652: The first Dutch settlers arrive in the Cape of Good Hope

1806: The English come to South Africa. They are to later become the economically dominant group

1830’s: The Great Trek (arguably began in 1836) and resultant displacement of the African groups already present; which coincided with the Mfecane wars or Difaqane (as it is often presented in historical texts)

1902: Up to 1910, a period of enforced anglicization

1910: Declaration of the Union of South Africa. South Africa is partitioned between the main white groups, Afrikaner and English

1948: South Africa declared an apartheid state. Racial Segregation institutionalised and subsequently pillared on a series of laws enacted in quick succession

1950: Population Registration Act passed. People classified according to race. ‘White’ was a single category; people of mixed blood were subdivided into ‘Cape Coloured’, ‘Malay’, ‘Griqua’; also ‘Chinese’, ‘Indian’ and ‘other Asian’. White thus became single biggest category under a policy of ‘divide and rule’

Followed by: Prohibition of Mixed Marriages act, The Native Labour act and the Reservation of Separate Amenities act as well as the Extension of University Education act, barring non-whites from universities

1953: Bantu Education act: Dr. Hendrik Verwoerd declares

‘There is no place for the Bantu in the European community above the level of certain forms of labour. Racial relations cannot improve if the result of Native education is the creation of frustrated people who, as a result of the education they receive, have expectations in life which circumstances in South Africa do not allow to be fulfilled immediately.’

1958: 14 June, Nelson and Winnie Mandela marry. Winnie is 22

1959: Promotion of Bantu Self-Government Act: 8 ethnic homelands called Bantustans set up. Effectively, 13 percent of the land in SA set aside for more than 70 percent of its people

1960: Declared ‘Africa Year’ by the UN in support of the principle of independence after a long era of colonisation. Chief Albert Luthuli, leader of the ANC, calls for an international boycott of South African products to protest apartheid

1962: November 6, UN votes to impose sanctions against SA

1962: November 7, Nelson Mandela is sentenced to 5yrs with hard labour: for incitement to strike and for leaving the country without travel documents

1962: December, Winnie Mandela receives her first banning order, restricting her to the magisterial area of Johannesburg, prohibiting her from entering any educational premises, and barring her from addressing any meetings or gatherings where more than two people were present. The media no longer allowed to quote anything she said. Effectively, she would need permission to visit Nelson in prison

1963: Minister of Justice, BJ Vorster, introduces the 90 day law: security police given the right to detain people in solitary confinement for successive periods of 90 days without being charged or brought to court.

Albertina Sisulu is the first woman to be detained under this law. The first death of a detainee under this law recorded the same year, 5 September 1963 (4 months since its inception): Looksmart Solwandle Ngudle

1963: 11 July, Walter Sisulu, Govan Mbeki, Ahmed Kathrada, and Arthur Goldreich arrested

1963:  9 October, The Rivonia Trial commences. 10 accused. Sabotage and Conspiracy. Acquitted on a technicality as Nelson could not have committed sabotage while in prison. Jubilation is short-lived as the accused got promptly imprisoned again under the 90day rule

1964: 12 June (2 days before Nelson and Winnie’s sixth wedding anniversary), Nelson Mandela and his co-accused sentenced to life imprisonment

1982: Ruth First, wife of Joe Slovo, academic and author of several books and editor of several radical newspapers, killed by letter bomb in Mozambique

1986: Winnie Mandela’s banning order finally relaxed. After 8 yrs in ‘exile’ in Brandfort, she finally goes back home to Soweto

1990: February, Nelson Mandela released after more than 27yrs in prison

1992: April, Mandela announces his separation from Winnie Mandela, referring to her throughout as ‘Comrade Nomzamo’ ( Can we have some context to Comrade Nomzamo)

1992: 6 September, Winnie’s letter to Dali Mpofu is published, unedited, in the Sunday Times

1994: First Democratic elections in South Africa. Nelson Mandela is sworn in as president

1996: March, after 38 yrs of marriage, 27 yrs of separation, and 4 yrs of living apart, Nelson and Winnie Mandela’s divorce is finalised at the Rand Supreme Court. ‘The end of one of the world’s great love stories’.

The (re)making of Winnie Madikizela Mandela: Narrating woman in post-apartheid South Africa

The preamble of the constitution of the ‘new’ South Africa drawn up in 1996 states: ‘We, the people of South Africa, /Recognise the injustices of our past; /Honour those who suffered for justice and freedom in our land; /Respect those who have worked to build and develop our country; and Believe that South Africa belongs to all who live in it, united in our diversity.’[2]   In the new South Africa, inclusion was to be the baton for measuring true independence. While most of the literature coming out of South Africa had hitherto focused on the struggle for liberation, beyond 1994, post-apartheid, post-independence South Africa was to be reflected in modes of writing that have often echoed those of post-independence Africa in general.

In the novel The Cry of Winnie Mandela, Ndebele offers us ‘post-nationalist’ black writing ‘that breaks with the stance of “protest”, … advocating a conscious ‘rediscovery of the ordinary’.[3]  Here we are presented with four women during the liberation struggle, who await the return of their men. They are dubbed Greek mythological Penelope’s descendants. Through the women, Ndebele offers comment on the historically inscribed position of the woman across cultures and geographic demarcations? In making the link between the women featured in The Cry of Winnie Mandela, Ndebele points to the commonality of women’s place across class and the racial barrier.

The first of the women, Mannete Mofolo, is left in Lesotho while her husband migrates to the mines of South Africa and eventually does not return.

The second woman is initially unnamed, and we later find out she is Delisiwe Dulcie S’Khosana. To delay naming Delisiwe is to allow for introspection and the possibility of finding her within each one of us. It is to point to the possibility of her universalism; of the possibility of any name suiting her, for she is any woman, unspoken and unspoken of. She represents that many. She is a teacher whose husband goes away to study medicine. Together they cherish the ideal that one day he will be the first black medical doctor in the East Rand township. She ´keeps’ him, making financial sacrifices to ensure that he attains his goal. In the tenth year, she falls pregnant and in the twelfth, the husband returns, accuses her of infidelity and leaves her for another woman. The new woman is a nurse.

The third woman is Mamello ‘Patience’ Molete. After five years of marriage, her husband flees into exile. She had had no knowledge that he was involved in politics. Twenty-five years later, he is a free man who chooses not to return to Mamello. She loses both her husband and herself to the schizophrenic world of post-apartheid South Africa where the ‘enemy’ has instantly become the lover, friend, and partner. He marries a white woman, and they later have children, ‘products of freedom’

A wounded (also initially unnamed) woman, is the fourth, Marara Joyce Baloyi, whose husband is ‘there but not there. I mean, I saw his body around the house, but my husband had left.’ He drinks and sleeps around while his wife keeps house and ‘stand(s) upright and declare(s) her love and loyalty’ to him. Upon his death, she spends a lot of money on his funeral as per the demands of custom.

Ndebele finally presents to us the last and connecting point to all the women: Nomzamo Winnie Mandela. She is the embodiment of the historically constructed waiting woman of South Africa. A symbol of defiance and contradiction. A woman who is presented as journeying, not frozen in her waiting. She shatters barriers and in the conversations that ensue amongst all the women, homo-sociality is born; the women gain a voice and mode of speaking hitherto unavailable to them – even the ‘unspeakable’. Above all, they each seek to find themselves before embarking on a metaphorical journey of the discovery of their racial other and predecessor, Penelope.

Gender is central to the conceptualisation and expression of the nation, and of the future.

In evoking the voice of the silent and silenced, Ndebele re-opens the debate on gender representations in post-independence African literature and the debate on male feminism within the African literary context. Ndebele offers us a glimpse too into the making of post-apartheid South African masculinities in his quest to ‘rediscover the ordinary.’ In doing so, he offers possible opportunity, through the figure of Winnie Mandela, at once diverse, at once singular, always symbolically omnipotent.   He leaves us too with many questions, not least of which is, after such a long-sustained gender gulf, can men and women reconcile – from a point of real knowledge and empathy – and together produce a society free of gender bias?

In the wake of the death of this symbol of hope and in the face of misrepresentations, renewed efforts at educating men and women become urgent, as Spivak argues, not only to be free of gender bias, but to also not consider the consequences of gender-freedom to be demeaning to themselves as men and women, and necessarily destructive of the social fabric.

[2] The Constitution of the Republic of South Africa, 1996. p.1.

[3] Graham Pechey, ‘Post-apartheid narratives’ in F. Barker et al, eds. Colonial Discourse/Postcolonial Theory, (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1994) p.167.

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Pinkie Mekgwe is International IDEA’s Senior Regional Adviser for Africa and West Asia and her work focuses on strengthening programmatic and Administrative coherence and performance

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

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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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