On a crisp, bright morning, the contractions start. Mulu is expecting her fourth child, so she is not concerned. The other three babies were all born at home with the help of a traditional midwife from the village and her husband.
At the time when Mulu got married, her husband lived alone with two children. There was always plenty of work to do, and there still is. Luckily, the older children help Mulu by fetching water and wood now that her belly is growing bigger and bigger. Mulu got married at an older age than most women. Before she met her husband, as the only daughter, she had always taken care of her parents. When they died, she was left all by herself. Thankfully, someone in the village introduced her to a nice widower. After meeting once, Mulu moved to his village to live with him and his children. Getahun, her husband, is a kind and calm man. They are poor but Mulu doesn’t mind and they never have any serious problems.
Mulu’s contractions come and go but she notices that it does not feel the same as it did during her other pregnancies. They last too long. Mulu worries about this but does not want to cause panic. So far, things have always turned out well and besides, what else could she do? The old midwife from the village came to check on her earlier but left without saying much.
The next morning, Mulu lies completely exhausted on her thin straw mattress on the clay floor of her home. She feels cold. The contractions have stopped but she now has a very strange feeling in her stomach. She calls for her husband and quietly tells him: “we should try to get to the clinic”. Getahun nods and runs outside to warn as many men in the village as possible. He knows they will need many people to help carry Mulu to the clinic. For a healthy person, it takes about two hours to reach the clinic by foot.
The only thing commonly owned by the entire village is a stretcher made of wood and ropes. Thirty minutes later Mulu is strapped to the stretcher, and a large group of men take turns to carry her in order to get her to the clinic as quickly as possible. They make a short break at a small clinic where a healthcare professional quickly examines Mulu and inserts an intravenous. He tells them that this is all he can do for Mulu and advises the men to bring her to the hospital in Woliso. With every step, Gethanun feels the small stack of money he has in his pocket. He knows he will need the money to pay for the driver who will bring them from the road to the hospital. And who knows what else he will have to pay for in the hospital.
Getahun has been saving the money over the past months, just as he did during the previous pregnancies. He never discussed this with his wife because he didn’t want to scare her. Does Mulu know the story of his first wife?
“Stop thinking about this and keep on walking!”, Getahun tells himself.
Finally, after four hours, they reach the main road. There aren’t many cars at this time of the day and it takes them a while to find someone who is willing to take them to the nearest town, Woliso.
Mulu is very weak and feels every bump in the road as she lies in the open trunk of the car. Getahun supports her as much as he can but he is exhausted and incredibly worried. After traveling for almost a full day, they finally reach the town when evening falls.
As soon as the car parks at the hospital gates, doormen rush towards them to assess the situation. They call for a stretcher and before Getahun knows it, Mulu is on her way to the emergency room.
It surprises him that he does not have to pay at the gate, neither does he have to pay for the stretcher. In the emergency room, a doctor has already been warned. With a concerned face he examines Mulu. He nods to the nurse next to him.
“We will take her directly to the operation room”, he tells Getahun as they leave. Getahun runs alongside the stretcher, trying to hold Mulu’s hand. When they enter the next building, he has to let her go. The stretcher is rolled into the operation room and Gethaun just manages to kiss Mulu goodbye.
“You can wait here”, a nurse tells him. “I will let you know as soon as I have more information”, she assures him.
That is where I meet him a while later, on my way to the delivery room, on one of the benches next to the entrance of the operation room. A tall man with a friendly face and a long scarf wrapped around his head in a turban style. He looks tired. When I greet him and ask him if I can get him a tea, he gets up and tells me his entire story…… What can I tell him? That I hope his wife survives the surgery?
I tell him that I will get tea from the cafeteria. When I return, the sky has turned completely dark and I see many small bonfires on the grassy patches between the low buildings. Visitors and other people are gathered around the fires. Together we drink the warm sweet tea in silence.
We both get up when the nurse comes outside and listen to what she has to say. The surgery went well but Mulu is still very weak. It would be best for Getahun to wait outside and the nurse will inform him as soon as his wife is brought out of the operation room. She nods at us to tell us we can sit down again.
“The baby didn’t make it”, Getahun whispers, more to himself than to me. When he catches me looking at him, he continues: “this also happened to my first wife, she died when she gave birth to our third child”. He looks at me with soft eyes and explains: “this is why I have been saving money, I did not want that to happen again. I hope Mulu survives this”.
This is Woliso, Ethiopia, East-Africa, May 2009.
This is Mulu’s story, a real story.
Mulu’s story has inspired me to establish a small Foundation that provides scholarships to young people from poor families who wish to be trained as midwives. After completing their studies, they will return to their home towns in rural areas, in order to bring trained healthcare professionals closer to mothers and children.
Mulu is now the ambassador of the ‘Adopt a midwife’ Foundation. She is at the very heart of this story. Mulu’s story can serve as a voice for all women, including the ones we never knew because they died during childbirth.