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The Clashing of Cultures

While Tammy was enjoying the scenic drives too and from Bukavu-a little too close to the cliffs for comfort- I was teaching the ladies about the almost common reasons for maternal death and what they could do to prevent it. I stated the day by having the women pull their chairs in close, told them we were talking about a very serious subject and that because we were talking about death we would not sing until we were done.

We spent the morning talking about hemorrhage and labor obstructions, then broke for lunch. My appetite had been gone for a few days, so I walked down the street to buy a bignet with Georgette. After lunch the women asked me if I was so quiet because I missed Tammy. I couldn’t believe they asked that-hadn’t I told them this morning we were talking about a serious subject?

So I told them I was quiet because of the subject and how I had learned about the maternal death rate in that area-how it made me cry and that it was shy I was there. I told them the worst part was that the deaths were preventable with the things I was teaching them, and that I hope they cared enough about the lives of their friends and neighbors to tell other women.

They sat staring at me, stunned I think. Then someone asked why the death rate was so much higher for them. I suddenly realized that they didn’t know there was a problem. They have been invisible to the world and for all practical purposes the world has been invisible to them. Death in birth was normal as far as they knew, and for me to suggest that it didn’t happen in my world was amazing to them. We talked a little about the reasons why, that there was no easy fix but that they could fight it.

Then later that day as we talked about babies who are born too small I held up a picture of a mother sleeping net to her baby to keep it warm. One of the women asked what else you could do because the husband will not want the baby in bed. I answered in my typical American that you marry a better man and how we need to explain that it is necessary for the baby. The conversation continued with the women very upset because they said their husbands would beat them if they tried. This time it was I who was speechless.

I asked Georgette, are they really telling me that they do the work to make the money, they do the cooking, the husband beats them and they stay. ‘Where else could I go’ said one of the older women. I was speechless. I took a moment to collect myself-a room of 52 women and only two or three are not beaten by their husbands-but they accept it.

I told Georgette later that I couldn’t understand it. If my husband ever hurt me my sisters would take me and the kids. That as a culture we do everything we can to prevent it. She calmly said that in Congo there is no police to enforce it. I asked if she had been beaten. No, she said, her husband knew she had gone to high school so she knew her rights. She could call a family meeting if he hit her. This is why the women are not sent to high school, she said, because men do not want to marry a woman who knows the law.

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Jennifer Vanderlaan CNM MPH is the author of the BirthingNaturally.net website. She has been working with expectant families since 2000, training doulas, childbirth educators, and midwives. She has worked with midwives in Central America and Sub-Saharan Africa. Her interest in public health grew in 2010, and she is now a PhD student learning to become a producer of knowledge.

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