The Littlest Midwife
Editor’s note: This article first appeared in Midwifery Today, Issue 90, Summer 2009.
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We decided to talk with her father, Travis. My son is a remarkable father to his five children but I didn’t know how he would react to his youngest daughter flying by herself to West Africa to meet me and spend a month living in my home village of Kambama. He asked a lot of questions about the risks to her health and safety, but in the end he too saw the truth and wisdom in her eyes.
Kassy started to raise money for her ticket and to collect school supplies that she would bring over in her luggage for two village schools. We sold cocoa mix, holiday centerpieces, Valentine’s flower pots, and she cleaned houses for eight months. We spent hours putting cans and bottles into the refund machines until we were sticky with soda, but she never complained or quit.
The day her Daddy turned her over to the airlines in San Fransisco and I waited in Freetown to meet her was the beginning of the longest 24 hours in all of our lives. We had no one to contact about her whereabouts and no way for her to call any of us. A security guard in the Freetown airport watched me nervously pacing the waiting area and eventually asked if I needed help. He became my new best friend that evening, going to the back to check on her progress through customs and baggage claim. Finally she came through the gate encircled by an entourage of airline staff, security guards and a Sierra Leonean woman who had sat next to her on the plane and who was now determined to see her safely into my arms.
The Paramount Chief of the Jawei Chiefdom, Chief Kallon, gave Kassy her Mende tribal name, Kadiatu. She is called Kadi by our African family and friends. She didn’t take long to settle into the routine of village life. We do prenatal appointments on Fridays; and of course she was by my side asking questions and at times even giving the answers. One day during our prenatal appointments she disappeared. I went looking and found her in the treatment room working with the Chief Dispenser, Mr. Sulaiman Koroma, her new African Papa (grandfather). They were standing side by side listening with a stethoscope to the labored breathing of a child. He was patient with Kadi and also seemed to recognize in her something beyond her 10 years.
Kadi spent the next month playing with her new sisters and brothers, Vandy, Junior, Abu, Fati, Amarra, Sulay, Jinah and Will (the baby named after my husband), but the one that she became really close to was Eena. They shared the chores that were the responsibility of girls their age, including helping with the cooking and child care and going to the river to do laundry. Laundry was no easy task for our household of eight children and four adults, but Kadi never complained or quit.
She seemed happiest when working in the clinic with me and her Papa. She was tireless, getting up with us in the middle of the night to treat a sick child or offer support to a laboring woman. We tried to tiptoe out of the house one night without waking her, but in a few minutes she was within the aura of the flashlight we were using to evaluate a toddler in febrile convulsions. She already senses when she is needed or can be of service.
Often I would find Kadi sitting on the treatment bed with a toddler sick with malarial fever and she would remain there for hours. She had a hard time when we first lost a child. I could see her struggling to understand how this could have happened and working to accept that it is the way of life there. But she never complained or quit.
The Story of Yata
Yata was in labor with her ninth child, which should have meant a quick easy delivery. As the hours went on into the night I grew concerned. Why was there no progress? The Maternal Child Health Aide was out of the village, so I had no one to consult or get a medical history from and my limited Mende language skills made it difficult to ask questions or understand answers. Kadi was beside me attending her first labor and I could see that she, too, sensed a problem. Kadi and Yata had formed a strong bond during Yata’s labor, as Kadi offered her comfort and sympathy. I could see her intuition working as she watched Yata struggle to birth her baby.
As the sun rose with no progress toward delivery I knew it was time to send Yata to the nearest hospital. This meant carrying her in a hammock for 15 miles on bush roads. We called her family to come to the clinic and told them the news. They expressed disbelief and fear, and asked a lot of questions. Then her husband rallied his friends and family and they began to make preparations. As we helped her onto the hammock she looked at Kadi beseechingly. Kadi reached out her arms and gave Yata one last hug before helping her onto the hammock. And then the family was gone down the bush road. We felt so helpless. What if she delivered on the bush road? What if the baby died along the way? We waited the long hours to hear news and when it finally came there was relief throughout the village. Yata and her new son were fine.
I feel privileged to teach the next generation of midwives, but to have my granddaughter carry on this time-honored profession makes it even more humbling.