Last week, on Thursday, I was sitting at my desk in the schoolroom when I saw Baba Nikiss’ head just pop into my view in the window and then back out again. This is secret Yawo code language for, “Mama, I really need to talk to you.” Cam was away for the day taking some friends to the hospital in Malawi. I went outside and we greeted and then he said to me, “I have to go to the hospital, my brother’s granddaughter * gave birth to a baby and then she died.” I told him how sorry I was and that it was fine that he went.
* To be honest, I caught that it was someone related to his brother who had died after childbirth but it took a few of us quite a few days to nail down the exact relationship. For people who love to get the details right, family connections here are a little confounding.
I sent Bek a message letting her know what was happening and that we would probably be asked to go and pick up the body from the hospital. Scott had gone to Malawi along with Cam, so it was just us women holding down the fort. Sure enough, within a few hours, Baba Nikiss had returned and gone up to Bek’s house to ask her to go to the hospital, pick up the body and take it to the village nearby. Bek was totally willing to go but being already prepared, finished school for the morning and having older kids who can take care of themselves for a bit. I said I would go.
I changed my clothes, put on a headscarf and made my way up the hill to Bek’s house to take her car. There was some confusion at this stage, even with some of our other workers who had spoken to Baba Nikiss, about whether or not the baby has also died… it seems we’re not the only ones who find it difficult to catch (or maybe ask) the details of a story.
Baba Nikiss had gone ahead on his motorbike so I drove to the hospital alone. When I arrived, a group of men and women had gathered and they directed me to park the car near the maternity section of the hospital. I reversed in, opened the back of the car and then went to stand well away from the men, together with the women who had all been temporarily cleared out of the small birthing room.
After a short time, a group of men entered into the room and soon emerged carrying the dead body, wrapped in capulanas, together with the hospital mattress. They placed the body, along with the mattress, into the back of the car on a diagonal but it was too long to shut the back. I considered suggesting they fold the end of the mattress a little so that we could close the back, but I was worried that my terrible Ciyawo would result in some highly appropriate suggestion to fold the body in half, so I kept my mouth shut.
At this stage, I wasn’t really sure whether the baby was alive or not? I wondered whether it was bundled together with the mum’s body in the mattress?
It was decided that one man would sit at the back to make sure there were no mishaps. The mother of the lady who had died was at the hospital with another lady and they both climbed into the back seat, along with another man. There was some confusion about who was leading the way, I think there was great concern that I wouldn’t be able to locate the village or understand instructions. There was visible relief on people’s faces when I told Baba Nikiss, in perfect Ciyawo (I think?), that he should go ahead and lead the way.
I hopped in the car, ready to pull out when I realised there was still some commotion at the back. Clearly worried that one person in the back wasn’t enough to ensure the safety of the body, they had told the man who had hopped in the car to sit in there too.
With everyone in their places, we set off. Baba Nikiss and another man were riding their motorbikes in front and then as we got a bit further down the road, Baba Nikiss moved to follow behind. I moved at snail’s pace over the bumpy road, through the small village and out to the main road. To get to the village, we had to head up the very steep hill just out of town. I was praying like crazy that the body wouldn’t just slide on out the back of the car… thankfully, it was all fine.
All the while, inside the car, the two women were wailing for the entire trip back, crying out, “my child, my child has gone, she’s gone, it’s like she was snatched by a lion.” It was just heartbreaking.
The village that we were going to ended up being not too far from our house. There was an almost comical moment at one point in the trip where I had to brake quite suddenly for a pothole, Baba Nikiss was both riding his motorbike a little too close behind and talking to a passer-by and he almost ran in to the back of my car, but thankfully we avoided disaster.
When we got close to the village, the man on the motorbike in front violently waved his arms signalling for me to follow him off the road and onto a smaller path running in towards the village. We snaked our way through the mud brick houses, past a tiny mosque and around to where the family had started gathering.
As the car pulled to a stop, women flooded out of the largest house and towards the car. I opened the back of the car and then went to stand with the women. They were all crying and holding each other and I joined in. After the men had taken the body into one of the smaller huts, the women all went to sit back in the larger house.
Not knowing quite what to do with me, one lady directed me to sit on the mat outside the larger house but I was all alone and feeling rather conspicuous so I sat for a moment and then once she had gone, moved around the corner to sit in the shade with some other women.
I waited for about ten minutes or so and then took my leave. As I walked back to the car, Baba Nikiss was rolling up the mattress, ready to take back to the hospital. I farewelled him, awkwardly reversed out between the mud huts and the motorbikes and headed back home.
Heartbreaking.. but good to glimpse the reality and fragility of life for these precious people.