Like many women in Zambia, when Ngoza Simwanza was pregnant with her firstborn child, she relied on a Traditional Birth Attendant to address complications. The consequences were dire. Today, she advocates for every woman to have access to safe medical care.
"We must unite as women to make Zambia a safe place to deliver a child."
"Nafwa ine mumala!" I cried out to my grandmother, meaning, "These stomach pains will kill me!"
I was four months pregnant and had for the past two days been experiencing sharp abdominal pains and intermittent bleeding.
Ba mbuya (meaning grandma in my native language) quickly rushed to my bedside, took me in her arms, and looked at me with pity-filled eyes. "I pity you Chipasha," she said to me, "for you are suffering for your husband’s wrong doing." She then handed me a small bowl containing a paste of herbs which she instructed me to insert into my vagina.
A wide spread belief in Zambia is that if the father to the unborn is unfaithful during the pregnancy, the woman will have complications that might ultimately lead to miscarriage. To remedy this, women found in such situations usually seek advice from Traditional Birth Attendants and Traditional Doctors who give them Traditional medicines like those my grandmother gave me.
Four days later, the situation seemed to worsen even though I had used the medicines Ba mbuya had given me as per her instruction. My husband constantly pleaded with me to seek professional medical help. I was reluctant to heed his advice because I did not know for sure whether he genuinely cared for me or if he was just trying to cover up his promiscuity.
After a week of excruciating pain, I eventually went to the hospital. The nearest facility was in a town called Kitwe, which was 30km from my village, Kamfinsa.
By the time we got there, I was bleeding heavily. After examination, I was told I was threatening miscarriage. A few hours later, I lost the baby. I could not believe I had lost my first child; the bond I had lost with my unborn was inexplicable. I felt a rollercoaster of emotions; I was numb, I was in disbelief, I was angry, but above all I was filled with guilt.
I stayed in hospital for two more days for a dilation and curettage to be performed. This procedure is performed in order to remove tissue that is not expelled from the body after a miscarriage or abortion. It was during this operation that the doctor discovered I had undergone genital mutilation. I did not get why the doctor seemed to be against it as that was our tradition. He sighed as he began to talk me through the complications that might have arisen during childbirth because of the mutilation.
This scenario was the order of the day in Zambia in the 1980s. By the late 1990s maternal health related fatalities reduced by 50%. This reduction can be attributed greatly to an increase in literacy levels.
Women learned that they have rights and can speak out against traditional remedies imposed on them by their elders. They also learned about the benefits of seeking professional health care as opposed to traditional doctors.
Unfortunately, this success was only achieved in urban areas. The situation in rural areas is as it was in the 1980s. That’s a problem in a country where the urban/rural divide is high, with around 60% of the population concentrated in rural areas.
Traditional beliefs and myths are a major blow to maternal health. Instead of going to hospitals, people choose to seek help from traditional healers who cite mythical reasons for illness and hence prescribe herbs and concoctions that may be detrimental to health.
More hospitals must be constructed near villages with trained medical personnel. Here, women must be thoroughly taught how to take care of themselves and about the dangers of using unknown remedies.
The campaign to reduce the maternal mortality rate is not an easy one but the biggest step that can be taken is that of reducing illiteracy levels. No one should have to go through the pain of losing a child due to ignorance. We must unite as women to make Zambia a safe place to deliver a child, for our children and our women are our future.
This story was produced in collaboration with the International Reporting Project and World Pulse. In July 2013, Managing Editor Corine Milano traveled to Zambia as an IRP Fellow to meet with experts on global health issues; go on site visits to some of this country’s most successful projects; and to work with World Pulse community members to tell their stories about global health in their country. Special thanks to Tubalemye Mutwale, who helped Ngoza with her story.