Between babies and their ‘containers’

By Casmir Igbokwe

Published: Sunday, 18 Nov 2007

My mum was at it again. When I met with her recently, the first thing she sought to know was the condition of my wife. From her tone, I immediately knew where she was going. But I wanted her to explain what she meant. She lowered her voice and asked, “Is your wife pregnant?” I answered in the negative even as I told her that I didn‘t intend to have more than the three children I already have. “My son,” she began, “a child-bearing woman does not wait that long. If she does, getting pregnant again may become difficult. You should have five children at least…”

Many Nigerian couples face this type of pressure from friends and family members. A typical African society adores children. Any woman who has not had a child a few years after marriage feels highly distressed. Nothing matters to her anymore. Out of frustration, she, sometimes, resorts to visiting prayer houses and native doctors to find solutions to her problems.

Even in some Western societies, there are people who also cherish children. Some of them may not want to endure the pangs of labour. But they still have children through adoption or other means. For instance, in 2004, Lisa Montgomery reportedly strangled a pregnant woman in Missouri, US, ripped open her womb with a kitchen knife and took away her baby. She had apparently lied about being pregnant. And part of her alleged fear was that her ex-husband, Carl Boman, would expose her lies. Before she was arrested the following day, she had shown the baby to people as her own. Last month, jurors in Missouri convicted her of the crime.

Many Nigerians will frown on this. But inadvertently, some of us also behave like Montgomery in a way. A woman just gave birth in my neighbourhood the other day. She had two girl-children and desperately needed a boy. She did all she could in terms of visiting prayer houses that advertise signs and wonders. Unknown to her, another woman she had quarrelled with, prayed and swore that she would never have a baby boy. After hours of painful labour, this woman had another baby girl to the delight of her adversary. That baby now contends with sleeping in one poorly-ventilated room with the rest of the family members.

On March 4, I wrote against the inclination of some Nigerians to have many children on this page. That piece, entitled ‘Chinese soothsayers and Nigeria‘s population explosion,‘ did not go down well with some individuals. One Ms Ifeoma Okoronkwo fired back, saying the irony of it all was that Nigerians, who condemned large families, most of the time, were products of large families.

She added, “Mr Igbokwe, I don‘t know you in person, but I can bet that you are from a family of not less than five children. And your father or mother is not ‘a multimillionaire or a politician eating from the public till…’ yet they catered for you up to the university level (UNN). I can also bet you are not the only graduate in your family. So if your parents can cater for you in spite of the number of children, why are you condemning large families or couples who like having many children? The excuse of the state of the economy is as lame as it is old.”

She said Nigeria’s population was not the cause of its economic woes but recurrent bad leadership. As she put it, “It doesn‘t take a rocket scientist to know that our resources (human and natural) are more than enough even for double the size of our present population. The point is that every child comes with his own gift from God and no man or economy can determine the child’s destiny. I am sure five years ago you never thought you would have the opportunity of studying ‘free of charge’ in the UK. So it is with the ways of God. No one knows how or what a child will be. In other words, please stop using your column to make couples commit abortion in the name of population control. Don’t be afraid for your three children. They are God’s children. You are just a custodian. With all your wits, connections and education, you cannot determine their future…”

This argument sounds seductive. But the truth is that things are difficult in Nigeria today. Just as I was putting this piece together, I got a call from a good friend in Port Harcourt. His first sentence was that I had forgotten and abandoned him. His next words were, “Things are difficult for your brother o. I learnt you just came back from the UK. How can you help me? I have lost my job and there is nothing I am doing now.”

This is a family man with children. I know many other families who are going through excruciating conditions because of abject poverty. Some men cannot even afford hospital or maternity bills of their wives. Some pregnant women, because of poverty, do not attend antenatal care. They don‘t take nutritional foods. They resign themselves to fate, arguing that as God gives children, God will also take care of His own children.

The result is that there is high rate of infant and maternal mortality in Nigeria. Over 50, 000 women reportedly die from pregnancy-related causes every year. Over one million others suffer disabilities annually from complications during childbirth. And infant mortality stands at about 100 per 10, 000 live births per annum.

A UNICEF survey put the major killer of pregnant women in Nigeria to haemorrhage. This reportedly accounts for 23 per cent of maternal deaths. Unfortunately, some women who have this problem refuse to take blood for one reason or the other. For instance, a member of Jehovah‘s Witness sect, Emma Gough, allegedly died after giving birth to twins on 25 October. The suspicion was that her death was because she refused blood transfusion. To members of this sect, blood transfusion is a sin. Although this happened in England, it is typical of what happens in some parts of Nigeria as well.

Globally, half a million women, according to The Lancet medical journal, die from pregnancy-related complications annually. Editor of the journal, Dr Richard Horton, was quoted as saying that people often see women only as “containers” for babies. Hence, there is little consideration for their health and well-being. This is why the Federal Government’s plan to offer free medical care to pregnant women and children below five years is commendable.

The Lancet captures the essence of this piece in these words, “Since the human race began, women have delivered for society. It is time now for the world to deliver for women.” The best way to do this is to give our women some breeding space. It is good to have children. But let’s also consider the health of mothers and our capacity to cater for those children. We should not turn women to baby containers. I hope my mother understands.

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