Call Mama Doctor

Chapter 10. Mothers

By Louise Jilek-Aall, M.D.

Sometimes I could not stand them anymore, the mothers with their sick babies hanging there on their backs in a sling around their shoulders. Wherever I went, they were always there, waiting patiently but persistently for my attention. I could feel their presence when I talked to somebody else; I knew they were there in the mornings waiting for me to open the dispensary. I saw them running along the road, crossing the yard to intercept me when I was on my way back and forth from work. I could hear them chatting in the shadow of the trees waiting for me to come out. At any given moment a mother might step in front of me. With a movement of her shoulder she would swing the child to the front and open up the cloth that covered it and protected it from the blazing sun. A smell of sickness would fill my nose and the child, suddenly exposed to the light and to the strange sight of a white woman, would let out a wail. “Mama Mganga, mtoto ana homa”-- the child has fever--how often did these words hit my ear!

I could not avoid the mothers; they were always asking for help, never questioning my availability, never thinking that it could be too much for me. Of course, each mother knew only her own worries; I had to know them all. With bitterness I thought that only if I dropped dead would they leave me alone. How tired I felt of washing out infected eyes and cleaning up little faces. The children seemed always to have a cold. The mucus from their noses would smear all over their face and inflame their eyes, making the eyelids swollen and painful. I used to dip a piece of cotton in the water with which I had rinsed the penicillin bottles and wipe the pus from under their eyelids. Painful as it was, one such treatment often sufficed to clear the infection. If only the mothers had cleaned the noses of their children, most of the eye infections could have been avoided. The people even grew cotton in their fields. I remember once after having gone through the smelly procedure with lots of sweaty crying children, I finally shouted in exasperation at the mothers, “Why can't you clean up the faces of the children yourselves?” They looked at me startled. A long silence followed. “But Mama Mganga,” said a gentle voice, “nobody ever told us to do so.”

One day at noon when I was just closing the dispensary at Igota one of the mothers came running with her sick child bundled up on her back. “No, not another one,” I thought and avoided looking at her. She tried to stop me on my way to lunch. She was panting and pleaded with me to see her child at once. But I was too tired. I had to draw the line somewhere. If I stopped now, other mothers would come and I would soon be too tired to eat. Everybody in the tropics is entitled to a little rest during the hottest hours of the day. If I continued to work now, my strength would be gone. How should I then face the long work hours of the afternoon? So I told her she had to wait. She sank down beside the door with her child.

When I returned to the dispensary in the afternoon, the mother was still sitting there by the door in frozen resignation, holding a lifeless child on her lap. I refused to see that the child was dead. I seized it, carried it into the treatment room, cooled the overheated body, shot a needle into the limp arm and listened to the silent chest. Life was irretrievably gone. Death had not waited for me to eat and rest.

I was still working on the corpse when the child's father entered. He gave me a quick, hostile glance before he lowered his eyes and picked up his son. He did not say a word to me but turned around and left the room, his dead child in his arms. I followed him outside. His wife sat there immobile as if made of stone. He spoke to her in a soft voice. Suddenly she leaped up with a howl and buried her teeth in his shoulder. I could see the blood trickling down his arm. He freed himself and gently sat her down. I could not bear the sight any longer and left them with their sorrow. But my hands were shaking as I continued my work. I thought I could feel the mothers' disapproval and see reproach in their soft eyes as they stood there waiting for their turn. The woman's sobs could be heard through the door and the sad scene burned on my mind. I worked frantically to wipe out my feelings of guilt. Finally the mission's landrover drove up in front of the dispensary and the Father announced that the car was ready to take me to my next assignment.

When I was sitting in the car ready to leave, another mother approached me, this time with a smiling baby on her back. She too smiled and stretched out her hand, maybe to thank me? “Savadi Mama--give me a present.” Something exploded in my head. “Go away!” I shouted at the top of my voice. All the tension and the agony of the day was in that outburst. The woman backed off and the Father quickly started the car and drove away. I was shaking all over. The Father glanced at me from the corner of his eye. He waited until I had calmed down a bit. Then he began to talk. He told me about a friend of his who had come to Africa to work with him. He was a strong and healthy man. Eagerly he had taken on more and more tasks, not heeding the Father's warnings. Convinced that he could not become ill he carelessly accepted the invitation to stay overnight with the Africans, to eat their food and drink their water. Of course he contracted malaria, typhoid fever and who knows what else. Before the year was over he was a dead man. The Father paused for a moment and then continued, “In the African bush we have to learn to know our limits. We must be humble and not think we are like God, able to do anything we want. We must show self-discipline. Enough sleep, enough rest, enough food, caution about where we go and what we do, all this is part of keeping ourselves fit and capable. Only in this way can we be efficient and give our best to those we want to help.”

I understood the message and after a while my troubled mind and body relaxed as I looked out over the beautiful landscape. As we drove along in silence ideas slowly formed in my mind. Children here, I thought, are not necessarily born to grow up and become adults. Maybe children are born just for the sake of being children, to fill our lives with their laughter and their cries, to be cherished and embraced with love, to gladden our hearts and soften our minds. The sweetest little ones with laughing mouths and sparkling eyes may wither away in times of sickness or famine. Other children will take their place; they come and go like the seasons of the year. Just as the dry earth will give new life to plants and animals when rain is falling, so mothers will give birth to new children, generously and patiently, twelve or more during their reproductive years. But only three or four may grow up. To a mother the baby is only a possibility, not a full human being.

I had heard how mothers jokingly called their little babies nyama. Nyama is the term for animal, meat, body or matter. The phrase warns the mother not to attach herself too much to the baby. I remembered also that babies born with teeth already in their mouth, or twins, are killed right away because they are “too much like animals.” They are strangled to prevent the dangerous animal spirit from leaving the baby's body and harming the mother or other family members. Thinking of it, I could now understand why a mother, having cared for her sick baby, faithfully following all my instructions, would sometimes turn suddenly away from her child and lose all interest in it. Long before I recognized it, she knew the baby was going to die.

The healthier a child is and the older it gets, the more interest a mother takes in its care. When the child starts to talk it demonstrates that it is a full human being. Only when a child is four or five years old and healthy, so that it has a good chance to survive, will the mother permit herself to love it unreservedly. The mourning period for a baby is only three days; a mother might sing her kilio--“song of sorrow”--for about one week if the child was already walking and for up to one year if the child was grown up, the same length as for her husband or other close relatives. The length of the kilio time is a matter of self-discipline, and a mother has to restrain her grief for the sake of her other children. To mourn longer than the prescribed time is considered bad taste and neighbors and friends will not support it. The child I had seen that day was at least two years old--a strong looking child. If only I had. . .

Towards the evening we had to cross the Kilombero River. On the ferry an old woman caught my attention. She was sitting on deck covering her face with a black scarf. She was rocking slowly and singing faintly with quivering voice a kilio. From time to time she wiped her face with a corner of the cloth, sweat pearls and tears rolling down her wrinkled cheeks. People treated her with respect. They whispered that up the river a young man had been mauled by a crocodile. The old woman was his mother. Everybody went with her to a place on the other side of the river further up from where we landed where the young man's friends had bedded him in the grass. The handsome youth was lying motionless. His eyes were closed and from several large wounds blood trickled to the ground. When the old mother saw her son lying there lifeless she tore her clothes apart and threw herself backwards, hitting the ground with an awful thud. She pulled out bunches of grass, filled her hands with sand and poured it over her head. She sprang up and would have thrown herself down again had friends not caught her and held her firmly.

We stood there spellbound in the setting sun. We had just witnessed a strange and beautiful scene; an archaic expression of human emotion, an ancient gesture of grief and sorrow.

Copyright © 1979 Louise Jilek-Aall
Reprinted with permission

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