Shanti Birth House helps Ugandan mothers prepare for pregnancy

By Amy Fallon on March 21, 2013
Sixteen women die every day in Uganda from complications of childbirth. This statistic may be shocking to us but it is a harsh reality for many moms-to-be in the east African country.

Fortunately it’s a different story for women who arrive to give birth at the Shanti Uganda Birth House in a rural Nsaasi village, set up by a Canadian charity. Here they are reminded of the powerful words of American writer Laura Stavoe Harm, painted on the reception room walls in the local Luganda dialect: “There is a secret in our culture and it is not that birth is painful but that women are strong.”

When Juliet Kimuli came to the home in advanced labour by herself (as is often the case in Uganda) and on the back of a motorbike taxi known as a bodaboda, she was already scarred by several experiences.

I met with Juliet at the modest café where she works, about two hours from the Ugandan capital of Kampala. Wearing a long dress of brightly coloured fabric with her hair divided into neat braids, she tells me her story.

Her first child, Edgar, was born when she and the father were only 18 and still at school.

“It was scary,” she says. “The midwives and nurses asked for a lot of money – 300,000 Ugandan shillings ($110 CAD). My parents paid for everything.”

When Edgar was nine months old, he developed a sudden fever and died. Her next pregnancy ended in a miscarriage.

When she became pregnant in 2011 at age 33 she was thrilled. Three months before her due date she went for a checkup at the government hospital in Kasana, where resources are scarce and the midwives are overworked. There, she was subject to verbal abuse.

“They say ‘Am I the one who impregnated you? You have to deliver the baby. No one is going to help you. We are not your husband,’” says Juliet.

“So many women, they are afraid. They fear to go to the hospital. That’s why they decide to deliver at home and there’s no one to look after them. They end up dying.”

A local driver and regular café customer told Juliet about the Shanti Birth House. The clinic is run by the Shanti Uganda Society, which was founded in 2010 by Vancouver mother, yoga teacher and doula Natalie Angell-Besseling.

Shanti Uganda’s project co-coordinator is Salam Jeghbir, a doula originally from Toronto. She describes a “huge, huge contradiction” in the services offered by Shanti and those of the local facilities.

“It feels like a home at Shanti. At Kasana, it feels like a grave, almost a morgue. There’s a lot to be said about the care we offer. It’s really an alternative, a progressive organization.”

Women who come to the home pay a small fee which encourages them to “have ownership” of their health. Besides educational workshops, they’re provided with everything needed to give birth. Today 15 to 20 babies are delivered at Shanti House each month.

“They taught us many things, even how to look after the baby,” says Juliet, whose daughter Rahma was born there a year ago.

“When you’ve finished delivering they wash the baby. I’ve never seen such a thing here.”

Shanti is believed to be the first organization in Uganda, possibly in all of east Africa, offering prenatal and postnatal yoga classes to local women, and they’re led by Canadian volunteers. Every Thursday, Ugandan women roll out colourful yoga mats under a bamboo hut. Many women find the stretches so useful they keep them up post-birth.

As they perfect their poses, other women, many with HIV/AIDS, busily work on sewing machines making yoga mat bags from traditional African wax print cotton. In Uganda, HIV prevalence among women is 8.3 percent and 65 babies are born infected every day, according to the country’s Ministry of Health. Shanti women are offered free HIV/AIDS testing before delivery, and STI testing, along with their partners.

Led by the formidable Sister Mary Namusisi, the charity’s team of Ugandan midwives and Traditional Birth Attendants have learned labour and prenatal massage techniques. Staff even offer herbal teas to women in labour. In conservative Uganda this could be considered a controversial move, but it’s been welcomed.

There’s also a doula training program at the birth house, taught by American midwife, doula and author, Jane Claxton Drichta. It teaches “cutting edge techniques” to women from overseas. Participants learn from Shanti’s local herbalist about the use of traditional medicinal plants and if they’re very lucky, witness an African baby come into the world.

Australian-Canadian journalist Amy Fallon is based in Uganda and has written for international publications. She spends a large part of her day hanging off the back of a bodaboda.

Originally published in ParentsCanada magazine, April 2013.

By Amy Fallon| March 21, 2013

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