We almost didn’t stop.

The dust, a cloud of cinnamon caught in a sneeze, billowed before us as we raced down the dirt road, gullies carved on either side in anticipation of future rains. We were racing time and honking as pedestrians wandered into what I imagine is usually a deserted strip of road.

We almost didn’t stop.

But the shirtless men, sweat streaming down their torsos, looked pained. And so we slowed. Uncommitted. And finally rolled to a stop a short distance from the deserted thatched stalls of that area’s market grounds.

The other county vehicle stopped a little ahead of us and we began to disembark – some with purpose, others – like me, out of curiosity.

She was in labor – perched in a makeshift hammock tied to a long branch and held off the ground by several of the men who had flagged us down.

There was confusion. Would we take her? Which vehicle? Would she make it to Salala in time? Gutz, with four children of his own, leaned over to me, “she’s going to give birth in that vehicle.”  And he was right. Before we could drive away there was commotion in the back of the vehicle with the mother-to-be.

J hurried to the other vehicle and settled into the back while the rest of us scrambled for shade and speculated on what might be happening. Through the windows we could see lapas being held up and people motioning and adjusting and readjusting below our window sightline. J opened a window and called for my camera, I’d been ordered to take pictures when we stopped. Camera in hand and brief instructions on its use, and the window closed again.

There was the occasional flash, J moving from his perch in the back of the vehicle to the front seat – back pressed against the glass as he focused. And all around the vehicle we chatted among ourselves…about the four-hour walk the woman and her traditional midwife embarked upon to get to where we’d found them -there was no clinic near their village…about the luck that we’d stopped at all.

Ten, maybe 15 minutes later the passenger door opened and the certified midwife from Salala’s clinic who happened to be riding with us sat holding a quiet little boy. Eyes tightly closed, he didn’t look like a newborn at all. But there he was, brand new to the world and wrapped in a blue lapa against the dust and sun.

Loaded up with mother and her new bundle we continued on to Salala – now after business hours – and opened the postpartum wing so mother could rest. Then the certified midwife went about the business of birthing…settling the mother, urging her to let the baby nurse, and weighing the placenta (heavy placenta is an indication of reproductive problems).

Once on the road headed back to Phebe, J informed us that one of our colleagues had just died at the hospital. He had lassa fever. More importantly, he’d had lassa fever for nine days.

Nine days.

A viral infection, there is no cure for lassa. If caught early enough serum from survivors may be given to help fight it off, but in the absence of that it is a fight against time. If a patient can survive the renal failure and other organ damage after those first two weeks s/he may recover. Our colleague didn’t make it that far and so our excitement of the birth was tempered by death.

I couldn’t help but wonder if maybe that tiny little person took his first breaths just as our colleague took his last. I don’t know why but that thought comforts me – greetings against farewells, laughter against tears, embracing against letting go…

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2 Comments on birth in the time of driving

  1. rachel says:


    what a nice story!

    lassa does have a cure, actually– you can take a drug called ribavirin, but our colleague had been misdiagnosed with malaria (common, because the symptoms of lassa and malaria are similar), and so he made it to the hospital too late. phebe does have the medicine though (the who has set up a special lassa isolation unit), and many are successfully treated if the disease is caught in time.

    see you around the compound!


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