Birthing New Hope in Nigeria

1 Jun 2007

Rahilla collapses back onto the thatched mat overcome with pain and exhaustion as the sweat runs down her body before soaking into her dirty clothes. Her limbs are shaking with fatigue and her body is burning with fever as malaria (and possibly typhoid) compounds the effects of her labouring for over 40 hours.

The encouraging coaxing of the Tribal Birth Assistant (grandma of the village) is growing weaker as her concern starts to show. They need to get Rahilla to a hospital before it is too late. Her sister and neighbour help lift her into a rickety bush taxi. Rahilla can now barely lift her head between each contraction. A tear runs down her cheek as she dreads the possibility of losing yet another baby in childbirth. Her groans are drowned by the revving engine and rattle of the car as it bumps down the dusty dirt track. Women from the village gather to pray for God to give her the strength to make it through the labour. This is her fifth pregnancy in four years with only two surviving children

The story of Rahilla is an all too common scenario. Unfortunately, Rahilla’s story rings true as a stark reality for a considerable number of women in the northern half of Nigeria who may face a similar situation. Most of these women give birth at home, assisted only by family or untrained tribal birth assistants. Very few attend antenatal clinics during their pregnancy, so complications go unnoticed and therefore untreated. Some 1.62 million Nigerian women suffer from disabilities caused by complications during pregnancy and childbirth each year, most of which are preventable. This is not helped by the lack of appropriate health care. The availability of maternal health care services is significantly lower in rural regions where 64 percent of Nigerians reside. Even those women who are within proximity of a maternal clinic tend not to attend it due to a lack of finances or the belief that strong women should be able to have the baby at home. Consequently not all the women survive childbirth. Nigeria’s maternal mortality rate is 800 deaths per 100,000 deliveries, compared with 8.2 deaths per 100,000 deliveries in Australia. This translates to almost 54,000 Nigerian women dying every year in contrast with less than 100 Australian women.

Even if Rahilla and her baby survive the birth experience, it doesn’t mean they are in the clear. Poverty and other hardships of village life, such as an inadequate water supply, poor sanitation, a lack of appropriate education and illnesses causes Nigeria’s under-five-years mortality rate to skyrocket to 210 per 1000 births. This is in stark contrast to Australia’s under-five-years mortality rate of only 6 per 1000 births. Sadly, in Nigeria about one-third of children under five are seriously malnourished. Family planning is not a common practice, so women tend to have many babies in a short period of time, making ends hard to meet. It is not spoken about but generally understood that some of the children in such a family will probably not survive to adulthood. This is obviously not the ideal fate that any mother would wish for her family but the majority of women in the rural north of Nigeria don’t expect much more from life. They only manage to hold on to a faint and dwindling hope for a better future as they are surrounded by poverty, hunger, neglect, injustice, suffering and death. Yet, we don’t need to let this hope slip through their fingers. A difference can be made in all these areas if we work together to deliver real hope.

This is the desire of Fiona Jara’s heart and the reason why she as a Pioneers worker (through the Overseas Aid and Relief Fund) is facilitating the Gindiri/Panyam midwifery development project. The project aims to address these issues by gathering local women for the purpose of forming a strategy to impact the maternal and child health in Gindiri and surrounding villages. Fiona is hoping to work in partnership with COCIN (Church of Christ in Nigeria) Community Development Programme, through their established aid and development and strong women’s networks. Although the project will involve Fiona supporting the current midwives who are working in the hospitals and clinics in Gindiri and Panyam, the project will seek to focus more on primary rural health by spending time with the Tribal Birth Assistants (TBAs) or women of influence in the village who help with most of the births. In this way she will be working at the grass roots level up to encourage, educate and facilitate the local women in looking after their families’ health. The project will try to incorporate the best of the traditional practices with the needed Western knowledge to improve the current care available, especially in relation to pregnancy, childbirth and infant and maternal health.

Fiona is currently in Jos at language school learning the local trade language, Hausa. She is also learning more about the culture and some of the old wives’ tales that will need to be addressed by the project. For example, there is a common belief that colostrum (the breast milk that is produced by a mother in the first three days following the birth of the baby) is poison because it is a different colour to the usual breast milk. People who believe this tale refuse to breastfeed their baby for the first few days and instead give them a concoction using unclean water from an unsterile cup. This often results in the baby becoming sick rather than receiving the healthy start that colostrum provides. Fiona (with her husband Rick and daughters Tiana and Emily) will be moving to Gindiri at the end of April and plans to commence working part-time on the project in May.

Prayer requests:

  • For good relationships and contacts and wisdom in gathering a team.
  • For wisdom in gathering information and then how to use it.
  • For good language skills to be able to relate well with the women.

by Fiona J – Pioneers team member in Nigeria

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