Our time so far in Ethiopia has been really busy; we have been to a number of projects and heard from a wealth of amazing and inspiring people. My challenge now is to tell their many stories of success. We were told before we came that our trip was about Living Proof – seeing international aid working on the ground – and boy has that remit been fulfilled, and we are only half way through.
On the days when we have made two visits I have found it pretty hard to be able to take in everything that I wanted and needed to. After our wonderful visit to the FashonABLE site had me bowled over and when I heard that we would visit the Hamlin Fistula hospital in the afternoon I felt I probably would not be able to blog about that visit too, there is only so much you can take in after all.
I was wrong. When you go to somewhere like the Hamlin Fistula Hospital there is no way that you can miss writing about it. This piece of tranquillity and beauty set by the river in the city of Addis Ababa is a real oasis. Somewhere for the women to recover with dignity and rest after their intimate operation.
Let me explain about fistula. You might not have heard of this injury before, I certainly never had. Naively I thought Fistula was just part of the name of the hospital. I now know it is the medial term for a rip or hole in the birth canal. This can be on the side of the bladder, or the bowel or even both. This injury is sustained from a child being trapped in the birth canal through prolonged labour. And when they talk about a prolonged labour here, they are not joking: they could be looking at 4 – 7 days. Think about that for a moment. Seven days is 168 hours of active and excruciating labour. No midwife. No gas and air. No medication. Oh yes, that’s a reality for women giving birth over here.
With this kind of pressure in the birth canal it is no wonder that the delicate inside walls can deteriorate and rip. Do you know what happens to a woman when she has fistula? She becomes incontinent, either of the bladder, the bowel or both. This can lead to much shame and even her being ostracised from her family and village. In most circumstances the baby is stillborn, I learned from some amazing surgeons that we met, that often the skull will finally collapse within the baby and allow it to pass through and be born. So now there is this lady exhausted after childbirth, unable to control her bodily functions and grieving her baby. I think perhaps that is more than I could cope with.
But hang on, this is not about doom and gloom, this is about the hope and that is certainly what I saw at the hospital. It was beautifully clean and airy; the grounds are divine with the healing sound of birds cheeping, and the maternity ward brings joy across the site. The hospital can treat up to 5000 women a year, and it is all free to the women. We were told that most women who come here come from rural areas and are extremely poor, that is the reason they end up at the hospital.
I was confused as to why I had never heard of fistula before; I am really well read in the subject of maternity. I learnt that in developed countries like the UK we would never be allowed to labour for that kind of time, we would have an assisted birth or a C-section and thus avoid this awful injury.
When women in the rural areas of Ethiopia are in a prolonged childbirth situation they may be 24 hours walk from the nearest public transport, ambulance, or healthcare centre, but even then there are not trained professionals in those out of town areas who can help. So the women will be walked by 5 other men or women by stretcher for a day to a bus stop, they will then have to bribe the bus driver to take the lady in labour to Addis Ababa to the Hamlin Fistula, this could easily take another day, you get the picture? Unheard of for us but a reality to so many in Africa.
And why is it happening in Africa? Well firstly as I said you have the vast size of the land and how difficult the terrain is to cross, steep hills and deep valleys. Next is the lack of medical facilities outside of the major towns. Followed by the effect the general lack of nutrition has and the famine had on many of the people of Ethiopia. We may be near 20 years post famine but there is a legacy of small women with stunted and under-developed bodies, bodies that cannot cope as they should in a childbirth situation.
Then you have the last reason, one I find so sad and it brings a lump to my throat just to think about it: there is still child marriage here and women can be having babies as young as 12. Yes it is now illegal to marry in Ethiopia before 18 and that is a good thing, but misguided families still believe they are protecting their daughter by marrying her off early. A 12 year old’s body is not developed, an 18 year olds body is often not fully developed. One of the surgeons told me that at age 20 our bodies are fully developed and ready for childbirth, and it is even more important to wait when you have not been well nourished all your life.
I could go on and on and tell you about the wonderful work that they do at the Hamlin Fistula. About all their satellite centres across Ethiopia, about their midwife training program they have set up, about their pioneering vision and no-nonsense but determined attitude. But actually I need to end here as I’m about to board a flight for the next instalment in this life changing journey.
If you have felt touched by what you have read here then check out the Hamlin Fistula website, this will give you lots more insight. They also have partner organisations in many developed nations that fundraise for them; you are welcome to give if you can. At a more basic level you could send them some gifts for use at the hospital; they are yearning for simple MP3 players and headphones so the women can listen to spiritual songs (their words, not mine) and also incontinence products. Get in touch with them directly if you would like to provide in this way.
Once again, thank you for reading and taking the time to learn about the people of Ethiopia. I am here as #ONEMum and these women are my comrades, they are one Mums with me too. Mich x
If you think others will enjoy taking this journey with me, then please share this and my other ONE Ethiopia posts and don’t forget to sign up to ONE and offer your voice. I am taking this journey with Jennifer Howze of BritMums, so do follow her journey too and follow #ONEMoms #ONEMums on Twitter.