Welcome to motherhood: in Uganda with Students of the World

Reds, greens, geometric patterns and bright tie-dyed fabrics are tangled in a mass on the open walkway. About 20 women are seated on the Mulago Hospital balcony, white swathed bundles clasped in their arms. The wind whips at the blankets covering their seated bodies.

From the platform I can see other parts of the hospital—nurses, doctors, visitors and patients pacing through the walkways. These mothers are listening to a lecture from a Ugandan nurse employed by Pampers. She speaks in Lugandan, holding up diapers and pointing at a poster. The mothers and their newborns will be allowed to leave after the lecture—about 24 hours after giving birth.  I lean against the stair railing in the background. Suitcases, bags, floral print blankets, and empty cartons litter the staircase, making it an impossible exit or fire escape plan.

more than a dozen mother infant pairs sitting on a floor wearing bright colors while a nurse with a green uniform with the Pampers logo stands in the foreground and gives a lecture

A lecture for new mothers at Mulago Hospital. Pampers and UNICEF are teaming up to end maternal and infant tetanus in Uganda

In the next room, 30 beds hold women sleeping and resting. This is the c-section ward, where women rest for at least three days before they are released. Their faces show signs of exhaustion, as do the beds and the infrastructure. Paint is chipping everywhere and we are warned to wash our hands immediately if we touch the ground or any piece of metal. The nurses are concerned we might contract a disease.

I am standing in this Ugandan hospital taking notes on my surroundings, jotting quotes and burning the images of these new mothers into my memory. My six other UNC teammates are bustling about the balcony, filming and photographing the Pampers lecture.

A Ugandan woman sits in a rudimentary hospital bed covered in a colorful blanket. Her two infants, one wrapped in blue and one wrapped in pink, lie at the foot of the bed, sleeping

Underneath my feet a discarded coca cola cap scraps the cement. One woman, resting on a bed in the corner near the door, is lying on her side, her hands clasped together between her thighs. A tub of lip solvent and a hair brush sit on the wood-wall siding above her head. The age of the mothers in the room is ambiguous and basically irrelevant. The average Ugandan woman will give birth to six to eight children during her lifetime.  Benedict Kisa, one of the nurses on staff in the maternal ward said 200-300 births happen daily at Mulago Hospital, and young pregnancies are common. Treatment at the hospital is free. A newborn starts to wail from within a little white bundle and slowly more and more babies chime in.

We walk through the waiting rooms and interview some of the nurses. Countless women with their mothers and friends are lying on the floor waiting to be seen. The fathers, brothers, uncles appear to be missing in action. Instead, there are only lines and lines of women.

The next hospital we visit is Lubago, a private hospital created in the 1970s by a group of missionaries. Unlike our first hospital experience, Lubago is closed-in with light barely filtering in through small windows. We are led into a room called St. Catherine where another Pampers nurse is lecturing a room full of women about healthy practices for their newborns. Bed-like cots are spaced throughout the room and numerous women were sitting on the ends, their babies lying on the same paper-thin mattress, blankets covering their bodies entirely.

I stood in the back of the dark pungent smelling room, in front of a life-size poster of a sleeping baby and in between two beds.  I look down to my right and see tiny little fingers folded and clasped under a tiny chin. The curve of a nose peeks out beyond the edge of a white and brown floral-print sheet, which is folded multiple times to fit the length of the baby’s body. The baby’s mother sits on the end of the bed gazing up at the nurse speaking in Lugandan. As the nurse talks, mothers are frequently called from the room to receive their medical bill. The heat makes my muscles ache. It felt like I had been baked into a St. Catherine pie, dense with maternal care. To my left I can hear the sucking sounds of a baby nursing, as his mother pats his back.

Unlike Mulago, Lubago is not a free hospital, yet its windows are still cracked, its paint is still chipping and countless women are still in lines waiting.

- Isabella

[Isabella Cochrane is a senior journalism major at UNC-Chapel Hill. With support from IGHID, she is interning this summer with a nonprofit media company in Austin, Texas called Students of the World. In June, Students of the World sent Cochrane and six fellow UNC students to Uganda to document Pampers and UNICEF’s campaign to eliminate maternal and neonatal tetanus in the country. This year, they declared success.]

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One Response to Welcome to motherhood: in Uganda with Students of the World

  1. Firstly Isabella, I have to say that you write very well and clearly you have great prospects in your chosen field.

    Reading your piece I realized how much I take for granted in my life and it has given me much cause for thought. I can’t imagine being one of those women in the c-section ward with maybe five or six more kids at home, but I guess if I was born in Uganda it would be as normal to me as my life here is to me now.

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