U.S. News & World Report featured this article from our longtime friend and partner, Dr. Hillary Mabeya. Writing in recognition of International Day to End Obstetric Fistula, he tells the story of his journey— from young medical resident to renowned fistula surgeon and leader. May 23 is International Day to End Obstetric Fistula, and I’m…
Mary A.'s Story
Mary is from Teso, a very small Nilotic community in Busia County, in southwestern Kenya, near the Ugandan border. Born in 1944, she is the eldest child in her family. “Being the first born, I knew my biggest challenge was to set pace for my 12 siblings. Especially being a girl child, I needed to set a good example for my eight sisters when it came to matters to do with relationships and marriage. As soon as my two front teeth were removed at the age of 17, I was ushered into adulthood and therefore this meant it was ripe for me leave my family and start on my own. It didn’t take a month before I was married off in a very colorful Teso traditional wedding where you actually meet your partner for the very first time the day of the wedding. Even though we had an age difference of 17 years, we lived happily together in our round grass thatched hut.”
Days went by, months and then years as Mary waited and prayed to become pregnant. She remained hopeful, but soon five years had passed – a very long time in an African setting. Her hope slowly started to fade away as her mother-in-law openly started calling her “Mama zero.” Her husband began to distance himself from her, and eventually she became a laughingstock.
“I have faced every manner of humiliation and mistreatment in this life because of the inability to bear children. I have never understood how other women terminate a pregnancy because it’s unwanted, while others desire to carry pregnancy even just for a month!” lamented Mary, her eyes filled with tears.
After an incredible wait of 30 years, at the age of 47 Mary finally became pregnant with her first child. But by this time, her husband had already brought in a second wife who was to bear him children, and he had since become a father of three.
“This was the best news. It was a miracle. It was my only hope, and I was finally vindicated. The heaven was smiling at me again,” said Mary.
When it came time for her to deliver, her labor pains started at night. She was alone in her hut, as her husband was away in his other wife’s hut. With no phone, she could not call anyone. “I couldn’t reach out to my mother-in-law because she stopped recognizing me as her son’s wife. All my neighbors believed I was a witch, so none of them came to my house. By morning, I had become unconscious due to excessive bleeding, and by the time my husband came to check on me, he found me helplessly lying on the floor.”
Her husband was able to get her to a local hospital for help. When she awoke, she learned that her stillborn baby had been delivered by C-section. Her husband had abandoned her at the hospital and she was told by the nurse’s desk that her mother-in-law had left a message to tell Mary to never show her face in her home again. She also learned that the prolonged unrelieved labor had resulted in an obstetric fistula.
“Why is life being unfair to me? Was I born to suffer?” Mary said she asked herself. “I went back to my hut, but life became so unbearable. For 26 years, I have never known any other thing in my life apart from pain, humiliation, and loneliness. I have been called names, and when I accidentally meet any of my neighbors, they actually have to conduct a cleansing ceremony. I have lived like a demon in the midst of people. I am the saddest woman! I forgot what people call laughter! Tears have been my only companion.” Tears flowed down Mary’s wrinkled face as she recalled her pain.
Finally, at the age of 73, Mary’s story has a happy ending. She learned about fistula treatment with the help of a village elder, and made her way to Cherengany Nursing Home, where she received a successful fistula treatment surgery supported by Fistula Foundation’s Action on Fistula program.
“I have found a family here,” she said. “I have been reminded how it feels to be a human being again, am at peace with myself again. I will live again.”
- Population: 45,010,056
- Average Births per Woman: 3.54
- Female Literacy: 84.2%
- Population Living in Poverty: 43.4% (less than $1.25/day)