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Motherhood in Kenya

World Vision
8 May 2014 by Katrina Barnes
Motherhood in Kenya

It was over 18 months ago that I first arrived in Mombasa as an Australian Youth Ambassador for Development (AYAD) to work on the Australian Aid-funded AACES project. World Vision’s project works in conjunction with Ministry of Health staff in some of the most disadvantaged areas of Kenya to increase the health status of women and their newborn children.

While I don’t have children of my own, many of my friends in Australia had announced their pregnancies just before I left. Working on a maternal, child health project, I was suddenly thrown into a world where pregnancy and motherhood was all around me.

The similarities between my calls to close friends and my work in rural communities on Kenya’s coast began to strike me. Granted, the setting was different, the specifics were different, but ultimately the feelings and the process was the same. As my knowledge grew about the process so did my ability to identify the same steps, in both cultures.

While friends spoke of timing and if they were ready for children, colleagues and the community members of Bamba spoke of family planning or healthy timing and spacing. 11,000 kilometres away, I knew friends walking into pharmacies a little different to the ones in Kenya and receiving the same contraceptives distributed here.

Bamba, Kenya

While friends at home discussed their birth plans with me, I became much more familiar with the concepts of water births, birthing suites, home births and hospital births. Meanwhile the women I worked with in Kenya were facing decisions too, as they or their husbands would look at the distance between their homes and the clinic and decide whether they would be delivered by a traditional birth attendant, if they would go to the clinic and if so whether they would walk there or catch a ‘piki piki’ (motorcycle). One women I spoke to explained that “if you walk it’s like four to five hours but with a motorbike its 2 hours”.

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While Skype calls back home began to be filled with questions such as what to put in the hospital bag, and who would be in the delivery room, I couldn’t help but think of my last visit to Midoina where our visit was cut short as a young girl in labour needed to get to the hospital urgently. We had the only vehicle around. She could not speak a word of Swahili or English, and my colleagues did not speak the local language Giryama.

Nevertheless she climbed into our car, alone at first, clearly experiencing painful contractions. Discussions took place (that were later translated to me) about who should accompany her, she had the choice between her mother-in-law and the village elder. It was decided that both would accompany her in the car. The hospital was a two-hour drive away, and she would have to make her way back with a newborn baby.

I couldn’t see a bag, a change of clothes, a wrap for the baby, or anything that I knew my friends back home were planning on taking to the hospital.  I then realised she had her version of what was needed. She had her mobile phone around her neck. In Kenya, a mobile phone acted as a handbag, as it would allow her contact, if she had savings for the birth she could also could access these via her phone.

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When my friends had worries or concerns about their new roles as mothers, they turned to their networks of friends and other members of their mothers’ groups. This mirrored the Kenyan experience almost identically. In Bamba, mothers groups may be held under a tree, but they provide the same support network for mothers looking for advice and education on topics including breastfeeding, nutrition and immunisation.

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 When my friends had worries or concerns about their new roles as mothers, they turned to their networks of friends and other members of their mothers’ groups. This mirrored the Kenyan experience almost identically. In Bamba, mothers groups may be held under a tree, but they provide the same support network for mothers looking for advice and education on topics including breastfeeding, nutrition and immunisation.

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And while friends were doing cost-benefit analyses on the cost of a pram versus the protection it provided a new born baby, the women I was around found comfortable ways to keep their children close and protected.

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In the end there is a newborn baby, and while the similarities between the processes in Australia and Kenya made me realise that motherhood really is universal, there were also stark differences in the services available to these women. When I came home, and saw my friends around their children for the first time, I was able to fully realise what unites these mothers.  It is the look in a women’s eye when she looks at her child. This could be in Australia, Pakistan, downtown Delhi, rural Nepal, London, Kazakhstan or rural Kenya. That look connects all women.

You can see more photos celebrating motherhood and maternal health services at the Motherhood Matters exhibition in Melbourne this May.

Katrina Barnes Katrina Barnes

Katrina Barnes is a Grants Officer at World Vision Australia. She spent 12 months working in Kenya on an Australian Aid funded maternal and child health project.

 

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