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I remember my aunties coming home after having a baby – they always wore white beautifully designed slit and kaba – the traditional outfits in Ghana. Then seven days after the baby is born, there’s a naming ceremony where the baby is ‘outdoored’ or formally introduced to the world and given a name. Before that the baby is referred to as ‘it’. Everyone is in white at this ceremony and there’s a lot of celebration – drinking, eating and dancing. One day, I asked my grandmother why we wear white after a baby is born and why we wait seven days before giving a baby a name. Her response was that the white symbolizes victory – victory over death. As the laboring mother had faced death and prevailed. And we wait seven days to give a baby a name because we wanted to make sure the baby had decided to stay among the living before we gave it a name.
As a girl, I never understood the full impact of my grandmother’s words. It wasn’t until several years later working in global health that I came to understand the perils of childbearing in Africa – and why it is indeed true that every time a mother in Africa comes home with a new baby, she has indeed faced death and triumphed. The WHO has named maternal deaths in Africa as “Africa’s silent epidemic” and Africa has the highest rates of maternal deaths and infant mortality globally. The sad truth is, for every woman in Africa who dies giving birth, there are 30 more who live with debilitating diseases like fistula due to complications during the birthing process.
There are a number of factors driving this: lack of adequately equipped health facilities, lack of trained medical birth attendants, lack of medicines like oxytocin. There are also simple solutions that have proven successful such as working with traditional birth attendants to identify risk factors, quickly referring mothers to trained birth attendants, using community health workers to follow up on pregnant mothers in rural communities, and using cost-effective and sustainable techniques like Kangaroo care to provide needed warmth to low birth weight babies.
Africa’s story often starts and ends with the challenges, but today on International Women’s Day, I want to wear a white slit and kaba and celebrate with all the brave women I meet on the continent every day: The HIV positive mother in rural Malawi who walks over an hour to get to the hospital each week to make sure her baby is receiving the ARVs needed to ensure that the disease is not passed on, the grandmother taking care of the double-orphaned child and tending the small garden so she has enough food to feed the child, the midwife who delivers five children a day with gloves she has to reuse because she doesn’t have a choice, and the pediatrician in Kumasi, Ghana working around the clock to save neonates. I salute all these women because it is their commitment and dedication that ensure that countless women in Africa who face death every day in childbirth can leave the hospital wearing white. So today, I wear my white slit and kaba too.