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ZIMBABWE: African Mothers Are Brave but Not Unbreakable

Kundai Muringi brings perinatal mental illness out into the open—so women won't have to keep suffering in silence.

We need to challenge beliefs that continue to teach women to hide their blood and be silent about their pain.

When a woman goes to give birth, she goes to war. Whether she is ready or not, she has to fight; she comes face to face with the possibility of dying. When she can hardly lift herself, she has someone else to lift; when she can hardly eat, someone else is feeding off her; when she is trying to find herself again, someone needs her love.

The motivational image of the unbreakable African woman has helped women to survive many unimaginable, mentally and physically wrenching situations. But it has also left many living in survival mode after giving birth, not knowing how to express their pain. They do not ask for help because they have been raised to believe it’s a sign of weakness. Their fight is viewed as a shameful experience.

Through my work providing peer support to women experiencing perinatal mental disorders like depression and anxiety, I see this hidden pain all too often. I have also experienced it first hand.

Birth trauma

I was born and raised in Zimbabwe, a beautiful country that made considerable headway in terms of education and infrastructure at a time when most African countries were stagnant. But unfortunately, mental health has not been given the same attention, resulting in shame and stigma.

When I had my first child at 19, my community, family, and my attending nurses all contributed to making this an embarrassing and guilt-ridden time for me. I have no recollection of the birth of my second child, who came only two years later, or the first year of her life. Had I known earlier that that was a red flag, I probably would've done something about it. But I didn't—and neither did anyone around me.

When I got pregnant with my third child, I was an immigrant in South Africa. It was eight years after my second child, an unplanned and untimely pregnancy. Regardless, I was determined that this pregnancy would be the first that I would actually enjoy and that I would be prepared for this child, free of guilt.

Things were going well for me until a month before I was due. An earlier scan had revealed my baby was in a breech position. Now, my nurse was claiming my baby was in the correct position. I was certain I felt differently, so I challenged her. She blew a fuse, telling me that I wasn't the nurse and had no right to talk back to her.

Too stretched on cash to seek a private second opinion, I decided to calm myself and prepare for my baby's birth. The day I went into labor, as a third-time mom, I was calm. I was timing my own contractions and optimistic.

When I arrived at the hospital, expecting to have my baby in the next two hours or so, I was met with a rude fact. My baby had never turned. I had been right—and worse, the hospital did not have the capacity to perform caesarean births.

This information was followed by a trail of student nurses, one after the other, who physically probed me to see an example of a breech baby. Did I remain silent? No, I expressed that they were worsening my pain. They casually told me that students needed to learn to avoid mistakes like this happening in the future.

An hour later, I was transferred to another hospital, where we were informed that their operating theater was full. They tied me to a bed and did an experimental delivery on me while 10 to 15 nurses stood at the top of the bed gawking like I was some freak of nature. I was constantly told to "push harder" unless I wanted to kill my baby.

Three hours later and bottom first, my little fighter princess was born. My husband, who had been my pillar the whole time, broke into tears, in a way I have never—and doubt I will ever—see again.

Broken, torn, and weak, I was forced to walk across the huge state hospital after the birth, only to be “welcomed” by another nurse who chose that time to ask me why I was in South Africa if I couldn't speak their languages.

The next three days were all part of a nightmare that caused me sleepless nights for months after. Birth trauma haunted me. I was irrationally protective of my baby; I wouldn't even let other family members touch her. If they did, I would sit in deep anxiety, waiting for an opportunity to grab her back. While I understand that birth hardly ever goes as planned, I know it didn't have to be so traumatic and violating.

Battling stigma

My story, as horrifying as it may sound, is not so different from what millions of other African women endure: We are often uninformed, unheard, lost, and confused at a time when we are expected to bond with our babies. My trauma happened in South Africa, but later, I realized the very same thing could have happened in Zimbabwe. My experience opened my eyes to the need for perinatal mental health care to be integrated into African health systems. One in five women in South Africa, for example, experience perinatal mental disorders and only 15% of them receive treatment.

Mental illness is not something new in Africa; it’s just now beginning to be discussed. Still, too much silence and stigma remain.

It is hard enough to be an African today in a world that constantly seems determined to wash you clean of everything African. It has become a conscious daily battle to know yourself, your people, and hold dear what needs to be imparted to the next generation to conquer extinction. As an African woman, this struggle is on a different level. You are second rated as a citizen and silenced in the midst of upholding your Africanism. Being an African woman with a mental illness is akin to a grave. Africa around you treats you like death, unknown, unheard, and invisible while you are on the margins of the marginalized, striving to stay alive.

There is a misconception floating around us that if we ignore something long enough, it will go away; but ignorance is lack of knowledge and lack of knowledge is lack of power.

As Africans, we love to raise our voices and rightfully demand equality to people of other continents and races, yet there are illnesses we still call "theirs" and refuse to accept as a reality in ourselves, our families, and our societies. We do not invest research and resources in these illnesses because they are not contagious.

The myths that have long been shattered about other illnesses remain rooted where mental health is concerned. Mental illness is still labeled as witchcraft, demons, and curses. Despite developments in all sectors across Africa, my mother, myself, and my daughter were all born in an environment that stigmatizes people battling mental illness.

Suffering in silence

Girls in our societies are still socialized to equate their worth with getting married and having children. They are still abused and raped by relatives that they can never name. It is still the girl who has to carry and give birth to a baby she isn't ready to have; still the girl victimized by her family and in-laws when she gets pregnant; still the girl who is called a name for having a child out of wedlock; still the girl who has to carry the shame in a judgmental society; still the girl who is forced to leave her family when she needs family support.

These girls grow into women who wage daily battles against economic instability, unemployment, violence, lack of support from home, HIV-positive diagnoses, and migration—all of which are common triggers for perinatal mental disorders.

Some women experiencing mental illness cannot even begin to imagine what might be wrong with them. Some are aware but remain quiet. And then there are those who speak out and are met with ignorance: heartless advice to just be grateful to have a baby or assumptions from partners that abnormal behavior is merely attention seeking.

Women are suffering in silence to fit an ideal of African women as strong maternal goddesses. But every woman is no more a maternal goddess than every man is an adequate financial god.

A Way Forward

Perinatal mental disorders are treatable and a considerable amount can be done in prevention, but first, we must acknowledge mental illnesses like any other illnesses and familiarize ourselves with them. Until we do, women will continue to break and die, marriages and families will become dysfunctional, and children will continue to suffer.

We need to challenge beliefs that continue to teach women to hide their blood and be silent about their pain. We need to challenge the beliefs that discourage a man’s presence while his partner gives birth and dismiss the fears that a man’s desire for his wife will be tainted by reality. African men's oblivion to what happens in a labor room leaves them insensitive to women's experiences and recovery.

We need to reject the propaganda of maternal goddesses and embrace the heroism of mothers! Heroes fall too; they bleed, they feel pain, sometimes they have scars—and sometimes the scar is a traumatized mind.

Selfishly, many people refuse to acknowledge perinatal mental illness because they believe it will not affect them. Not experiencing something personally does not make it unreal. Women’s mental health challenges are very real, and Women’s mental health challenges are very real, and African women need to dig the shame out from under our fingernails and speak of our realities. 

We will find healing in hearing our own stories and being pillars for other women. Everybody has a voice, but the freedom to use our voices requires the braveness of individuality. We must raise our voices—not for those who have never listened—but for the worlds of souls who have waited to hear our melodies.


STORY AWARDS

This story was published as part of the World Pulse Story Awards program. We believe everyone has a story to share, and that the world will be a better place when women are heard. Share your story with us, and you could be our next Featured Storyteller! Learn more.

Topic Health
Story Awards: Freedom of Voice 20Send Me Love

Comments

Dear Like The Sun,

Your name is so apt for your message here, shining a big beautiful light on a hidden and unspoken form of discrimination that can only be changed by being described and hopefully understood differently by those who read. You have taken us on a giant leap forward by telling us about the many ways that you yourself have been subjected to ignorant health care practise, and struggled with norms of societal pressure to dismiss, hide, misunderstand, expect the impossible of women giving birth. As I read I thought of friends and family here who have been met with the expectation to hide mental illness, some who like you have stood strong and created new public awareness, now with an annual March in my city to raise awareness. Your determination to shed light on the silence and judgement of women facing mental trauma in relation to giving birth, and your naming the many ways in which it continues, will no doubt create a path to peace of mind for many other women, and create a deeper understanding of the importance of and breadth of this issue for all of us. I hope that many women find solace in your words, and that medical training incorporates all you have offered here.

Wow

Thanks for sharing my sister. I have three children and when I was delivering my third child, it was such a traumatising experience for me. I was not told that I was being induced. The doctor I found at 6am in the morning was about to sign off since he had been in night duty. I was glad that I found a doctor just in case of any complication. But I was not told that I was going to be induced. I was managing my contractions very well and I was progressing  well. The induction made me almost run mad. On top of the normal contractions the induced pain was out of this world. It was very traumatising pain. And up to today that whole experience is still fresh in my mind. I had about 6 midwives in the room. They were all discussing work politics white looking at me. The pain was too much that I kept kicking the midwife subconsciously and she was getting mad. I managed to deliver well after one hour of crazy pain. I have never felt so violated like that before in my life. But all in all I am grateful to God that my child is well and am well. There is a lot that needs to be done with our health systems in Africa.  There is need for counselling and talking to the expectant  mothers about what to expect. We are so vulnerable when we are in labour  and need all the care which we are denied. Many midwives don't have the passion for the profession so they don't love their jobs.

Thank you my dear for your story and I stand with you in this fight.

Stay blessed

Mrs. Anita Kiddu Muhanguzi Head of Legal and Advocacy Centre for Batwa Minorities a.kiddu@gmail.com cfmlegal@gmail.com Skype: mrs_muhanguzi

Dear Mrs Muhanguzi,

I am sorry that you experienced what you did. I also hope that you are able to access counseling, despite how long ago it may have been. Some become midwives with passion but burn out, due to staffing shortages and extreme economic conditions is also weighing on many of them. The whole system needs healing.

Dear Sister 

Your story was really eye opening that how women are suffering in our world and specially in Africa but thanks to world pulse where we can raise our voice so that other women in our societies can be heard.

you are such a brave lady , please keep doing your great work we need incredible women like you 

Sister Zeph Founder & Chairperson ZWEEF

Winner of World Pulse Lynn Syms Global Prize 2014

First, I am so sorry that you suffered so much through your challenging childbirth experiences and that you were treated so poorly without an advocate or encouragement. Second, and equally important, I am inspired by your determination to turn your experience into something positive so that other young women do not suffer alone and have access to the medical and metal health resources they need!  You have opened eyes to a problem and I hope also opened hearts and minds...

With gratitude and encouragement,

Phinnie

Thank you Kundai for highlighting this issue. it is global. and it is worse wherever "western (patriarchal) medicine " has imposed itself.

being a midwife, attending the international confederation of midwives triennial congress a decade ago. after one particular lecture of "getting women to squat" by a danish midwife. i was walking with the lead midwife of Ghana who had been at that same lecture. she was sooooo very funny in her antics. claiming Ghanian's were squatting until the dutch showed up and put women tied down on their backs, now the dutch are telling them to squat again....................

i consider western medicine to be the illness perpetuating system. how we are born effects us for the rest of our lives. 

i offer two references for hopefully furthering your assistance to women, and knowing you are not alone in your "fight" for compassion within maternity system.

http://www.postpartumprogress.com/postpartum-ptsd-risk-factors-symptoms

https://birthpsychology.com/

Blessings to you and your family. May you find peace and wholeness within your soul.

Rahmana Karuna, Dance leader for DancesofUniversalPeace, Nurse Practitioner Midwife evolved to Spiritual Midwife, Arvigo Therapy, Walking the Sufi path of Hazrat Inayat Kahn lineage, a path of the heart

Thank you Rahmana!

It is sadly true that how children are born has an impact on them forever, also on the mothers who never heal psychologically. There is always a root and a story to all the bitterness out there.

Dear Kundai,

This is such a well written story and an account of what actually happens in our hospitals.

I relate with your story but differently, I had twin babies a year ago and someone who had never heard of a culture that discriminates twins I was shocked that even nurses made the most hurtful comments ever about having twins as firstborns some even told me I was too young to have twins, they were a bad omen etc...I braved through these harsh treatment, but emotionally and mentally tortured. It was worse for me when I lost one of the twins to an accident. You cant imagine what I faced...To date I still don't understand why African women have to go through this in this age.

Thank you for your bravery in sharing your story and tank you for raising your voice and supporting other women we need this everyday. I used my experience to help empower young girls because they need to know their sexual health and reproductive rights. No woman should go through such heart wrenching experiences. Mental health and Sexual Reproductive Health is something African governments need to invest in.

Together we will speak up against these harsh treatment.

Keep Inspiring and Changing lives

Love

Immah

Immah, I am sorry about your experience and for the loss of your baby. It is appalling that these beliefs continue and the scars they leave are deep. Yet, it is upon those who know to teach those who do not, as difficult as it is, even if one in a hundred hears...another life and another being may be saved. Whenever I share my story, I hear experiences that are heart wrenching, that show me how many souls are scarred out there. May you also find healing, Immah. Thank you for sharing.

Dear Kundai,

I loved your post and read the whole thing so eagerly, glad to find more and more paragraphs to read. I learned a lot from you about both your own personal experiences with child birth (you have my respect and admiration for handling everything so well, especially having a vaginal breech birth!) and about African healthcare systems and approaches to women and post-childbirth in general. I also found an echo in much of what you wrote in my own society, however, as postpartum depression has finally been given more attention. Women are now given more information about postpartum depression and I've read that doctors are now told to be on the look out for it. I believe that issues that specifically affect women will only get the widespread attention they deserve when more women speak out and have the courage to tell their stories. I learned a lot from you, and I thank you for sharing.

Best wishes,

Julia 

Thank you Julia,

Organizations like Postpartum Progress have done amazing work in awareness. Mental well being or lack thereof affects every part of our lives as individuals and as societies. Thank you for hearing

Dear Kundai,

Thank you for sharing your story and being really a brave and inspirational women. Mental health is one of the very important/crucial area we have to work for women's sound reproductive health.

Best regards,

anjana

Dear Kundai,

A sad but also uplifting story of your resilience and determination to see and advocate for positive outcomes out of a desperate situation. This resilience exists in every woman as they deal with all sorts of issues that only they can bare. I know illnesses that are deemed for other people in the guise of failing to acknowledge that they are a reality and that people are dealing with them in silence. 

May your campaign gain traction and keep bring these issues to the fore to the point that we do not shun reality!

LVB

Dear Kundai, Thank you for sharing your story. Mental health after a baby can sometimes creep up on women even though we know it's there. It is never expected or we never think it could be "me". Good luck.

JM

Dear Kundai

Thank you for your courage to share your painful experience and most importantly to raise above your suffering and be an advocate for other women who face similar situation.Bravo.