The Orphaned Baby

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Status: In Progress  |  Genre: Memoir  |  House: Footsteps, yarns and little fibs
A mother dies in childbirth so arrangements need to be made for the infant.

Submitted: July 28, 2016

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Submitted: July 28, 2016



As we unloaded cement at the school, a senior village member spoke to Loti, my co-worker in their local dialect.

‘A village woman has died while giving birth,’ Loti translated for me, ‘but the baby survives. We request that Mzee help us by taking the child to the Nkoaranga Orphanage.’

‘Mzee’ is a polite Swahili title for an ‘older’ man, and because my name was difficult for most Tanzanians to pronounce, ‘Mzee’ was among the names I was regularly called, especially in the villages.

The request seemed unusual to me at the time, as I understood there were always family and extended family networks within the rural villages. So I asked for the request to be repeated in Swahili, so I could get my head around what was said.

The woman had gone into labour the previous evening, had given birth about 6:00am and she died shortly after.

I had no issue in assisting in any way that I could, because the orphanage was only about fifteen minutes up the hill from where we lived, so taking the baby there was no trouble to me. But taking a baby from the village seemed to me to be a mighty big step.

I asked Loti and he did not see a problem.

‘Ok,’ I said, ‘we need to quickly finish unloading the cement, and I want to talk to the builder briefly, then we can go.’

I was thinking as I spoke, and before they hurried off for the baby, I told them there were conditions.

‘Has the baby had a drink since it was born?’ I asked.

The answer was in the negative.

‘It is a minimum four hour drive back to the orphanage; so it will be 6:00pm by the time we reach there. I fear that without a drink the baby would dehydrate in the afternoon heat and possibly die!’

The men nodded agreement.

‘There will be several lactating women in the village,’ I guessed [the likelihood of a bottle would be remote], ‘the baby must have a drink before we leave here.’

There was some discussion and someone knew of a woman who would help.

I had no idea of the cultural implications of doing this, but I deemed it necessary to mitigate risk to the infant.

It worried me though, because I remembered reading that an infant has a forty percent chance of contracting HIV through the breastmilk of an HIV positive mother. There was no time to calculate the status of the donor and because it was up to me, I decided that the risk be taken.

‘My other condition is,’ I added to those remaining, ‘that two village elders come with the child, prederably a man and a woman.’

This caused some animated discussion and I insisted, ‘We don’t go until two people are selected.’ 

‘You will have no trouble at the orphanage.’ Loti promised as I dropped him at Usa River.

I was known by the gatekeeper and drove into the orphanage compound, but the woman in charge would not accept the child!

‘The formalities must be followed!’ she insisted. Meaning that I must take the baby into Arusha, some twenty-five kilometers away.

‘The authorities in Arusha, whoever they are, will have closed and the officials gone home by this time,’ I argued, ‘the baby will not survive the night!’

The woman was unmoved. To be fair, I guessed, she may well have been censured by her superior for acting alone in a matter like this.

Nkoaranga Hospital is just down the hill from the orphanage and very fortunately I found my friend and colleague Dr. Nanyaro still on duty! I explained the situation to him as we walked up the hill.

Back at the orphanage my doctor friend instructed the woman in his quiet way that survival must come first and the formalities can come later. So we were allowed into the orphanage where the village elders provided the required information for the baby to be admitted.

With the baby accepted at the orphanage, I now had the two elders from the village to make some arrangements for because at this hour I was not going back to the village nor was there any other way for them to return save walking!

I took them home for a meal, and then into Usa River where they could be accommodated. Of course the pair came with no cash, but I considered they had done their bit, so the accommodation was on me and I left them with sufficient funds to find their way home via the tortuous route through Kikatiti.

The child survived, thrived and was later returned to the village in the care of an extended family member.

I ask no questions, I am happy the child survived and was educated in the school that I had a hand in getting built. Perhaps, just perhaps that child sat in the shade of the trees we planted there.

Footnote: There was nothing sinister about the removal of the newborn. Transport is difficult for this remote village. The village leaders were taking advantage of our expected visit. Their concern was squarely for the welfare of the child.



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