A woman came to my office today with some interesting neurologic symptoms. In the half an hour I spent with her I was able to ask enough to get a little snapshot into her life . . . she lives in small village about an hour from our hospital. She passes her day pounding millet, drawing water from the well and collecting firewood.
After I had finished my evaluation, we talked through some things she can be doing at home to help reduce the strain she places on her neck and spinal cord . . . such as not carrying anything on her head. 'Do you have any children or grandchildren who can transport these heavy loads for you?'
'No.' she said.
'No children?' I asked, puzzled, as this is culture in which childless women have no value.
'I had 10. But they all died.'
I froze . . . did I actually hear that right?? 'TEN?' I clarified.
'Yes, 10.' She said.
I was stunned. I didn't know what to say. Being a childless woman myself, I could not imagine the depth of sorrow this sister before me has endured . . . if losing a child is unbearable for a mother, what happens to the heart of one who has buried ten?
'The first one had just started to walk when he got a fever. The second one . . . .' she went on to tell me about each of her children . . . none of whom survived childhood. After the fourth, I couldn't listen . . . I wasn't going to be able to sit there without crying if I actually processed all of what she was saying.
It took me a minute to bring myself back to why she was sharing this in the first place. Oh yes, could someone else carry the buckets of water from the well for her.
I asked if there were any children in the household who might be able to help her transport her loads.
'Yes,' she said. 'My co-wife has several children.'
I blinked at this gentle lady. Her story could not be more foreign from mine . . . and I felt helpless in trying to offer her some relief to the pain she bore. But I had nothing.
'Is your co-wife nice to you?' I blurted, without thinking.
My assistant, B., turned and stared at me. I realized how awkward that question might have been, so I hurried with a follow up. 'If you continue having the weakness in your hands and legs, try having your co-wife pull gently on your neck the way I have . . . but ONLY if she is nice to you.'
B. shot me another look. I read his cue loudly. 'Uh . . .', I continued in my typical graceful manner, 'If she's not nice, then she might hurt you . . . this should only be done gently. Is she nice to you?'
She looked at me as if she was a bit confused . . . as if she couldn't understand why I would ask that question. Because she has no context in which a woman would be a man's only wife . . . and she is probably thankful to have not been turned out of the house when the last of her children died.
But the truth is, after 2 1/2 years of calling Niger 'home', this type of everyday reality still feels so very shocking to me.
The other day, one of our docs mentioned, in passing, that he had just seen a woman who had delivered 19 times, and not single baby survived . . . she had a 'noncompliant cervix' (I think that's the technical term) and all of her little ones were born between twenty and twenty-two weeks. That's five months of hope, 19 times. How does a woman's heart bear that sort of agony?
But the only way I can keep going is to believe that it was no surprise to God that the muscles of this woman's pelvic floor aren't strong enough to keep her babies inside . . . nor that she lives in Niger where she will not have access to the types of intervention that might result in a full-term pregnancy. And that just as Jesus had compassion on the nameless bleeding woman in Galilee, I have to cling to the hope that He is active in healing the deep hurts of the childless mothers of Niger.