I am sitting in the office at Neema House, hearing the getting-ready-for-nap pandemonium take place right outside the fabric partition that serves to pseudo-seclude me from the crowd of sleepy toddlers. A few minutes ago I led a grieving family on a tour of Neema House. Their wife/daughter/sister died four days ago, giving birth to her third child, Joshua. They found Neema House through a friend who knew about us and said we were a good place. We are honored by that, a good place to bring your child, newborn to the world, and turn and walk back home empty handed. The husband, father to a new son, newly a widow, is visibly grieving. He has lost his beloved wife, the wife of his choice, not arrangement, a rarity in Masai culture. Today he gives away his son, the last gift from his bride. Neema House, the living, breathing work of many is so honored to be a safe place for such a precious gift. Sometimes this is holy ground.
I struggle with writing blogs because I do not feel like my words can do justice to what is going on here. Don’t get me wrong, not every day at Neema is full of holy sadness. Saturday we said goodbye to Maxine, who was adopted by fantastic, adoring parents. Maxine, the 2 pound baby who almost did not make it through the first months of life, just became the healthy daughter of a Kenyan mother and Scottish father. We celebrated their family, but we also celebrated our part in her life. Neema House, the living, breathing work of many, worked together to save, sustain and flourish life in a tiny baby, abandoned. Everyone was excited. Everyone felt community in the greatness.
A few weeks ago we took Bahati out to see his family in Masai land, a three hour drive into the bush. Bahati’s mom had also died in child birth, and he has been with us ever since he was a few days old. Bahati is now 18 months old. The trip was fantastic. It was a joy to see the village reunite with a child they assumed could not survive without the life-giving milk of a mother. They could not believe how he thrived, with chubby cheeks and a healthy appetite. Soon Bahati will be another success, another start to finish fulfillment of our goals. We plan to follow up with all of our children. We would be naive to believe that just because our little ones have survived the perilous time of infancy, that they are ensured a long and healthy life. The death rate for children under five in Tanzania is 112 in 1000, more than 10. (http://www.who.int/pmnch/activities/countries/tanzania/en/index1.html) There is certainly more work to be done. But for us it is thrilling to be a part of the process, a source of hope in a time of grief. A safe place.
Right as we were leaving Bahati’s village to make the long trip back to Arusha, an elderly grandmother spoke up, a risky move in a culture where women are supposed to keep silent in mixed company. She told us that a week ago twins had been born in the neighboring village. She said, “they have no cow, they have no corn.” In other words, they were starving. It is part of the custom as a Masai mother to eat very little during pregnancy. It is believed that if a pregnant woman eats an egg, her baby will be born with a large tummy, and the mother will die in difficult childbirth. So they make it their goal to eat only enough food to sustain life. The mother had grown twins, while starving herself, delivered her babies, and then had nothing to eat. The equation is simple: no cow, no corn, no breast milk.
The very next day a man from the village who acts as a liaison between Neema House and the Masai community, made the trek to Arusha to pick up a couple of cans of formula. He said he would take the milk to the mama and assess the situation. He called two days later and said the circumstances were dire, both mama and babies were unwell. It was decided that we would go and collect the mom and babies and take them into the hospital in Arusha. Matt made the trip and I met them at the hospital. The mom was completely dry, not a drop of milk for either baby. The babies were listless and dehydrated. I had brought some special food, banana and meat soup. It is a cultural post-delivery delicacy, that the nannies had prepared the second they found out that the mama was coming to the hospital. The mama had difficulty making the long walk between the intake area and the maternal ward. The babies were taken into the neonatal care unit and given formula. They all stayed in the hospital for eight days. We took food to the mama twice per day and her milk slowly started to return. The babies gained a bit of weight and started being a little more lively. The babies are small and have some significant joint deformities. None of the doctors at the hospital had seen anything like it. Babies with the bones of the wrist, fingers, elbows, knees and ankles frozen in flexed position. The mama also came back to life, with big smiles whenever her food was brought.
When they were discharged from the hospital they came to Neema House, and that is where they have stayed. We found out that her husband has run away and that she has three more children. She said that she had the first baby in her home and then traveled for more than an hour to give birth to the second baby. She is eager to go home, but knows that her babies need more help. Right now we are waiting on consults from orthopedic doctors before we make a plan. While they wait I have been able to start doing some therapy with the babies. Their little joints barely move and they cry in pain with each stretch. These babies have really touched my heart, their plight of being disabled in a culture where only the strong survive, has moved me deeply. Having no father to defend them, no source of provision for food. Life here is hard for the strong, but for the weak, it is brutal. The babies may stay at Neema House indefinitely. We will wait to see what the doctor says and what the mother wants. Right now, we are a safe place for mama and babies. We are food and water and gentle touch. We are the hands and feet as best we can for those that come in, and all are welcome.