Shanti Birth House helps Ugandan mothers prepare for pregnancy



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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.

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