Brave Woman

Adventures of a future nurse-midwife


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Posted by Lucille on June 7, 2011 at 9:55 PM Comments comments (0)

I've been gradually falling in love with all of my team members. I know I don't write about them a lot because I don't like putting other people's personal information on the Internet, but they are incredibly amazing people and are now some of my closest friends. If I can feel this attached to people after just six weeks, college is going to be no problem.

Wrap Up

Posted by Lucille on June 7, 2011 at 9:55 PM Comments comments (0)

The police left with a guy that was hanging around here yesterday. Apparently he has a reputation. I have no idea if he's guilty or not, and the only thing the police seemed sure of is that they wouldn't figure it out while we're here.

I was interested by the role family played in this. When the police were questioning the owner of the lodge about the suspect, he said, "He is family, but distant, distant. By broken marriage, not by blood. So it is possible."

It occurred to me after that I hadn't really given myself time to process my feelings with all the chaos going on, so I took some time for myself. I've believed for a while that the five stages of grief can apply to any loss, and I went through all of them. Sadness over the pictures, and being pissed off. It feels so invasive knowing a stranger was in my room, feet from me in the dark. I even tried bargaining with him in my head. "If he'd just give me the memory card back, he can keep the camera. I'd buy him another camera!"

When I'd exhausted that line of thought, I decided to recenter myself around what I can do. I can't get the camera back. I can get pictures from other people, and I can take some again. I had pictures from the lodge, pictures from cooking (I've already signed up for an extra shift), pictures from the beach, from the hospital...Here I paused. There were pictures from that first day in maternity, of me holding the first baby I helped deliver, and sitting with the baby and mom. I could take pictures with some other baby, but I'll know it's not the same.

A voice in my head interrupted me. I'll also know how supportive everyone was about promising to lend me their cameras and send me pictures, and I'll know how seeking out everyone that matters to me to take pictures with them again led to more conversations and experiences than I otherwise would have had.

Maybe I'll make a scrapbook.

This Needs To Be Over Already

Posted by Lucille on June 7, 2011 at 9:50 PM Comments comments (0)

We went back from the hospital early and my roommate and group leader were having a meeting with the staff. A man had been brought in who was suspected of being the thief. Our hosts left with the thief to go to the police station. While they were gone, someone else from the lodge found some of my stuff by one of the walls of the compound, where it looked like someone had climbed over. All of it was covered in mud and had clearly been searched thoroughly. The only thing missing was my camera.

When my roommate and group leader got back, they both looked miserable. My roommate must have repeated the story a dozen times. The owner of the lodge then sat everyone down together and scolded her harshly. "I am very disappointed in you that you didn't lock your door. Very disappointed. It is your responsibility to take those preventative measures, and if you don't do it, if you don't think, in a way you are a perpetrator. Leaving your door unlocked! Someone could have come in and hurt you, or hurt her (pointing at me). Someone could have come in and stabbed her, or raped her, and it would have been your fault!" At some point during this my roommate started crying silently, still sitting stoically and meeting his gaze. He went on for a while about how this might hurt the lodge's reputation. Everyone around the table was watching with pained expressions, but there wasn't anything we could do to help her until he'd said his piece.

She's in our room right now. Our group leader was with her for a while but she just came out. I went in but my roommate pretended to be asleep so I think she wants to be left alone. She hasn't eaten. I hate this. It wasn’t her fault. I’m not mad at her, not at all, and I just want all of this to be over. The people from the lodge are pacing around by the gate. So much trouble can come out of such a simple act, all for a couple hundred dalasi.


Posted by Lucille on June 7, 2011 at 9:45 PM Comments comments (0)


When I woke up this morning, my roommate came over and asked if she could talk to me. We almost always use the deadbolt on our door, but last night she forgot. She feels terrible. At 3:20 AM, there was a soft knock on our door. She didn't answer because she thought they just had the wrong room. Then the door opened and someone shined a light inside and flashed it on and off. She figured out what was going on at this point, but stayed quiet for a second to see if she could see his face. It was a young, slim male, wearing jeans and a white tank top. No one we know. He stepped inside, and she yelled at him to get out. He grabbed the nearest bag to the door from my side of the room and bolted. She locked me in and ran after him, but he'd disappeared. She found the guard and asked him to get the men from the lodge, but the guard didn't speak English. She came back to our room and didn't sleep the rest of the night.

When she first told me he'd taken the bag closest to the door, I thought he might have grabbed my bag of dirty underwear, which would have been hilarious. That's the only thing I usually leave down there, but last night I left my backpack at the foot of the bed. It didn't have my money in it--I'd left my money and passport on the nightstand. But it had my camera with every picture I've taken.

As soon as my roommate told me, I grabbed my shoes and went to tell the group leader. She went to find the person in charge at the lodge, then checked on everybody else. Someone had shined a light into someone else's room, but she rolled over and they left. The guys' room had been open, but no one bothered them. All the other rooms had been locked.

The man in charge at the lodge left to wake his family and our group leader stayed with my roommate and I. Our group leader was really upset. As sorry as she was about my camera, she kept repeating how glad she was that was all they wanted. What if they'd broken in with a different goal? What if there'd been more than one of them? She said she wished we'd woken her up and spent the rest of the night in her room, but of course we can't all sleep in there. Even though no one else had anything stolen I could tell everyone was really shaken. My roommate felt so bad about not yelling when he first opened the door, so I kept repeating that I didn't blame her at all and was just glad she'd seen what happened, but I don't think it made her feel any better. Yes, we should have locked our door. There's always some preventative thing you should have done (and trust me, we're locking our door from now on) but I've just never found victim blaming to be a constructive tactic. Locked or not, people should not be breaking into our rooms.

Everyone from the lodge was very upset about what happened. My roommate and group leader stayed to talk to them. I'll find out in a few hours if they learned anything. Meanwhile everyone's been super nice about promising to take lots of pictures of me. I can probably retake some of them.


Posted by Lucille on June 7, 2011 at 9:45 PM Comments comments (0)

Now that we know most of the people that hang out along the road every day, we've relaxed security so that we can walk through the main parts of the market without a buddy. It's nice, instead of traveling in a pack of white people with cameras, to be able to explore without drawing attention to ourselves. Strolling through the market with a basket on my head, chatting with the shopkeepers in Mandinka on my way to make benachin, I felt like a local.

Silly American

Posted by Lucille on June 7, 2011 at 9:40 PM Comments comments (0)

I got back from an outreach trip, bought my omelet sandwich from across the street, and went in the lodge to see if anyone wanted to go to the Internet later only to be told that they had just left. So I took my sandwich and started speed-walking after them. It only took a few steps for me to realize that something was distinctly weird, but it took a few minutes for me to figure out what it was. I had not eaten while walking, indeed, while doing anything, for over a month. It occurred to me then that I didn't want to lose that part of the trip. I resolved not to make a habit of walking with food while I am here, but I needed to catch up with my group, so I kept going.

People along the road started pointing at me, some giggling, some looking worried.

"Look at that silly American! Why is she walking with her food?" someone said.

A few children started doing impressions of me, marching and eating with exaggerated gestures.

"I think she is one of the tubabs from the hospital," another person said.

"Maybe there is some kind of problem."

"I hope not. My sister is at the hospital!"

"Maybe we should go and help."

"Quick! Everyone! Help to the hospital!"

"Maybe a fire? A flood?"

"Children, the buckets! Bring them!"

I wish I was exaggerating, but I kid you not. Me eating a sandwich while walking caused a panic. At this point there were about a dozen people rushing after me. I needed to deescalate things, and although I could understand most of what they were saying, I knew my Mandinka was not good enough to explain properly. So I improvised. I reached into my pocket and pretended to pull out a phone and answer it. I smiled with relief, stopped, and put the imaginary phone back into my pocket. Then I found a place on the side of the road to sit.

The group milled around me in confusion for a minute. The one man left to check on his sister, but most of the adults agreed that things were okay, and turned to go back home. I ate my sandwich slowly, and shared with some of the children who had stuck around to play with my hair.



Posted by Lucille on June 7, 2011 at 9:40 PM Comments comments (0)

I took my last roll of fabric to the tailor to make a dress, and tried to explain the concept of a V-neck. When I got it back, it was a slightly pointed crew neck. I tried again, by drawing a picture, and then holding the dress against myself and pointing to where I wanted the bottom of the neck to be. The young man that was working that day looked horrified. "But your boobs will fall out!"

I laughed. "No, look. If it was down to here, yes, then it would be a problem. But just to here, only four inches lower, see?"

He shook his head. "Your boobs will show."

I've seen women running around shirtless every day here, so I wasn't sure what the deal was. Maybe it being Ramadan makes a difference.

I started to explain, but at that point another tailor came over and said, "What's going on?"

"The tubab wants us to cut it so her boobs fall out."

"No, I-"

"She what?" he said, facing me with a look I didn't want to decipher, and it once again bothered me that you can't control other people's mental images. Don't picture me like that, please. He finally covered it and looked stern. "Ma'am, we can't make that. It's indecent."

Not sure if I wanted to laugh or scream, I tried one more time. "My boobs are not going to show. Look, I only want it down to here. No further. Just to here, see?" They both shook their heads with the same scandalized expression, but consented to take the dress. As I left it occurred to me that I should have told them I was wearing a tank top under it.

When we made it onto the street, everyone else burst out laughing. "Everyone ready? Backpacks on? Boobs tucked in? Alright, let's go!" The joke lasted the rest of the trip.

A Day in the Life of a Gambian Midwife

Posted by Lucille on June 7, 2011 at 9:30 PM Comments comments (0)

There were a couple of pregnancy tests early in the day and a couple of UTIs. The pharmacy was out of antibiotics, so those women were told to come back in a few days. I hope they live close by.

One woman came by with a baby in a blanket. "There's something wrong with the baby," she said. "

The midwife examined it. "Yes, it's dead."

"Oh. Well what should I do with it?"

"We can take care of it if you want."


And she left.

A younger woman came in with a person I assume was her mother and a conversation developed including most of the midwives in the room. One woman who was not participating told us we would not understand the discussion because it was about tradition, but we asked what it was about anyway. She said that when they removed the clitoris, they let the blood drain into the vagina to seal it. Before she is married, the woman is supposed to go to the health center to have it cut open, and then have sex right away so it will stay that way. (Keep in mind I'm not editing this for medical accuracy, I'm just reporting what I heard.) This woman waited a week before getting married, and, whatever the cause, things didn't work. He accused her of not being a virgin.

I watched the young woman during this discussion, which, by the way, was going on over and about her but did not include her as a participant. At first she was stoic and expressionless, then as the conversation grew more heated she looked like she was trying not to cry, and as the debate went on she started to look distinctly bored. When someone finally asked for her input (I looked over to see what she would say. Confess an imperfection? Beg them to believe in her virginity?), she looked up and said simply, "It didn't work right, but it wasn't me. He wasn't functioning."

A quick exam confirmed that she was 'open' and the women agreed that she should assure her husband of her virginity and try again to see if the problem would resolve itself without further compromising the marriage.

That discussion ended there, but there have been other conversations about genital mutilation that I haven't recorded here. I was amazed by the breadth of different beliefs. For example:

"You have to cut off the clitoris because otherwise it will keep growing until it is three inches long and it's so sensitive that women can't walk without being stimulated."

Someone said something to the effect that that doesn't happen, and he said, "No, really, I saw it in a porn movie. You don't believe that clitorises come in different sizes? Penises come in different sizes. Besides, have you ever seen a naked woman?"

As women who have all been naked at some point in our lives, none of us knew what to say to that. A group member gave him an article on genital mutilation that she had in her bag, and the rumor is that he read it. Definitely one of the weirdest conversations I've been in in a while. Other views:

"I always thought everyone did it, like circumcising boys. My daughter is almost of age...I want to learn about it before I decide what to do with her. Can I borrow that article when he's done?"

"This is terrible." This was a midwife in maternity, who was examining a ten year old. She said this in front of the girl, pointing between her legs for emphasis. "This is terrible, terrible, terrible. Circumcised women cannot be satisfied by their husbands and are always chasing other men, shaming themselves. This is absolutely terrible."

"It is our custom and I will do it. It makes the woman clean."

"I have two daughters, four and one and a half. I do not want it done to them. I am a Mandinka, so it was done to me, and I know what that is. I want my daughters to enjoy sex. I am also a nurse, so I see that women who were not changed have easier labor. I want my daughters to enjoy being with their husbands and to have many healthy children. My husband is also a nurse, and we agreed not to do it, and told all our relatives that if they try to do it to our girls without our permission, there will be bad things for them."

Every time it's come up, the people we've been with have continued talking about it and sharing their views long after we've moved on to something else. I gathered that the nurses in maternity hadn't talked about it before because they all seemed shocked by the diversity of views and eager to discuss it. Maybe it's naive, but I like to think that if you get people talking and seeking accurate information, the truth will work itself out.

Meanwhile in maternity, a woman came in and lay down on a table, and I could see that she was already crowning. It didn't look like a head though, more like a whitish balloon, because the baby was being born in the caul. I was closest to her and a nurse threw me some fabric. I didn't know what to do with it, so I sort of held it between her legs, and just then the bag popped and liquid went everywhere and the baby fell into my hands. (My clothes smelled like maternity for days. Apparently it’s good luck.) I didn't try to catch it or anything, it just kind of happened. By then the nurse had come over and the placenta came out a few seconds later. I helped clean and weigh the baby, and the mom wanted to hold her right away and left excitedly to show her family.

Better than the Roof

Posted by Lucille on June 7, 2011 at 9:30 PM Comments comments (0)

We just passed people lifting a live ram into the trunk of a taxi.

It took me a minute to remember that in America, that would be weird.


Posted by Lucille on June 6, 2011 at 12:30 AM Comments comments (0)

The head of the maternity ward told us that she had asked to take her one week annual leave after her wedding. The head of the hospital said he'd think about it, but when she asked about it on Friday, he said no. They argued about it for a while, and several other midwives tried to argue on her behalf, but he wouldn't budge. Neither would she. "I'm not coming," she told us after he left. But then she smiled. "You all know how to get there, right?"

We got there on time, and she looked beautiful, of course. We were led into a living room and served a bowl of the spiciest benachin I've ever had. All of our noses started running after the first bite. The Gambians (who were devouring it) laughed at us, but they were fully forgiven afterwards when they gave us each a piece of chocolate.

Parties in Gambia seem to follow a certain pattern. Groups come wearing the same fabric (everyone from maternity wore orange), people sit outside in lawn chairs, there is usually benachin, and speakers blast music way too loud. There's a sense that using technology makes things official, so people will use microphones even if they don't need it and it's causing feedback, and play music at maximum volume just because they can. I started feeling dizzy and then my head started pounding. A man invited me to come and dance. "Jainaba is too shy to dance in public," he said. I danced for four years in a professional troupe that toured internationally, but instead of telling him that I nodded and sat down with my head in my hands.

Before we left we passed the head of the hospital and gave him our gift to give to the bride.

"So are you giving her next week off?" a group member asked.

"No," he said, "Don't tell her, but if she comes I'm going to give her three months off next year."

"And if she doesn't come?"

"Then she gets her week off, and she is happy. I should probably pretend to be mad about it for a day or two. But maybe not. It's bad luck to give the bride a hard time, don't you think?"

For as much as those two go back and forth over things, I can tell they have a lot of respect for each other.

I got in the van feeling like crap. I kept thinking I was going to pass out on the way home. The light from the headlights on the road seemed blinding. When we got back to Brikama, I was stumbling like a drunk person (walking over uneven ground in the dark probably didn't help.) I borrowed money from someone and went over to the nearest stand for an omelet sandwich. I didn't bother going back to the lodge, I just sat down there and opened it, and as I was getting ready to go I imagined an older version of myself smiling down at a younger version of myself and shaking her head in exasperation, saying, "Lucille, there's this thing called eating, and it tends to make you feel a lot better."



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Sometimes I have the privilege of being a part of intimate, powerful moments in other people’s lives. I cannot and would not share these stories, because they are not mine to tell. However, they touch my life and become part of my own story. When I share these moments here, you can trust that I have not broken anyone’s confidentiality. The characters are invented. They are not real, but could be. I take creative license to communicate the essence of my experience while respecting the privacy of others.