This story by Gayle Woodson is the third place winner of the 5th Anniversary Writing Contest. Gayle is a semi-retired surgeon who aspires to a second career as a writer. She winters in Merritt Island, Florida and summers in Newfoundland, and she and her husband spend two months each year teaching at a medical school in Tanzania.
Nasila didn’t mind the sharp poke that woke her in the night. She put her hand on her belly to feel the lump moving under the skin, trying to guess: was it an elbow or a foot? She sang a soft lullaby, “Abiyoyo, abiyoyo.” Then she whispered, “If you are a boy, your father will name you Bakari, one with great power. You will go to school, like my brother. And if you are a girl…”
The hoot of an owl sent a shiver up her spine. She knew the chicks were safe in their pen. But the owl could be a bad omen.
“If you are a girl…” She paused to think. “I will hold you and sing to you. And I will tell you to be brave.”
Her labor began the next morning, while she was fetching the day’s water from the stream down in the valley. She was climbing back up the mountain path with the jug balanced on her head when the first pain came and she stumbled.
Bardu was angry at first because she had spilled so much of the water. But when she told him why, he was happy. The baby was coming.
She asked her husband to take her to the hospital. “The doctor at the clinic said I must go to the hospital. It is not safe to have the baby here.”
The midwife, Etana, told her, “They always say this. But you do not want to have your baby at the hospital. They will make you lie on your back. They will not let you sit.” And Etana aked Bardu, “Do you want a man to see your wife’s private parts?”
The elders agreed that Nasila should not go to the hospital.
If only her pains had started an hour later. Nasila would have been at work, at the lodge. Mrs. Jane would have taken her to the hospital. It was Mrs. Jane who took her to the clinic to be checked, when Nasila told her she was pregnant. The doctor examined her and warned that it would be dangerous for her to have the baby outside the hospital. The nurse gave her a shiny folded piece of paper, with pictures and words that Nasila did not understand. Mrs. Jane was teaching her how to read, but these were new words. Nasila recognized the letters: FGM.
Mrs. Jane told her, ”FGM stands for Female Genital Mutilization. Female Circumcision. Do you remember someone cutting you when you were a little girl?”
Mrs. Jane said. “You did not heal properly. Your baby cannot be delivered naturally.”
Nasila promised. “I will come to the hospital when I feel the pains.”
She was eight years old when Etana first cut her, in a hut far from their village. Four other little girls were there. No one had told them what would happen. No one prepared them for the pain. Their mothers just told them to be brave. It would be a disgrace to cry out. Nasila was the third one, so she saw what happened before it was her turn. The pain was horrible—not just the cutting. The stitching was seemed to go on forever. But the burning afterward, when Etana poured alcohol onto the wounds, was unbearable. For days, all four little girls stayed in the hut with Etana. None of them wanted to drink, because urination hurt so badly. One of her friends died from fever.
When Nasila came home to the village, she asked her mother, “Why did Etana do this?”
“To make you a good wife. We must be pure.” Nasila did not understand.
Until her father sold her to Bardu. And once again, Etana cut her. This time, it was to reopen what had been sewn shut. So that she could be a good wife. She was married the next day, and that night Bardu took her to his hut. And when she screamed, he hit her.
Nasila’s labor continued all day and all night. She never cried out. At first it was hard to be silent. But as the sun rose, her body ceased to be shocked by the waves of agony. She was not numb—far from it–but her spirit had somehow surrendered, now that her fate seemed to be sealed. Her mother dabbed at the sweat and murmured encouraging words, “Nasila, you are brave.”
But the midwife, Etana—she was angry. “You are not pushing. The baby’s head is here.”
Nasila kept her eyes closed. She had tried to push. But she had no more strength. It had been hours since Etana announced that the baby’s scalp had appeared. Nasila heard them whispering that the water had become green.
The baby would never be born. And Nasila would die. That seemed certain.
Her mother pressed a cup to her daughter’s lips. “You must drink.”
Nasila opened her eyes and took a few sips. The water felt good and was soothing to her dry, cracked lips. She asked “Where is Bardu?”
“Your husband is waiting with the elders.”
So he had not given up yet.
Perhaps the baby was already dead. There was no movement in Nasila’s belly.
Bardu would not be sad if Nasila died. She was certain of that. He preferred the women in town, the ones who could moan with pleasure. They would not give him a son. If Nasila died, he would get another wife. But if her baby was a boy…he would not like to lose a son.
Nasila hoped that Mrs. Jane was not angry because she had not shown up for work the day before. Maybe Fahim, the porter, would sweep the terrace. But who would clean the guest rooms? Wash the sheets? Mrs. Jane already had so much to do, running the lodge and tending to the vegetable garden.
Mrs. Jane might come if she called. But Bardu had taken the cell phone.
Another contraction. Nasila took a big breath and tried very hard to push the baby out. But it was no use. The infant would never break free from her womb.
Etana berated her again. “You are not pushing. You have given up.” She took a knife and tried to release the baby.
Nasila’s mother grabbed Etana’s arm and begged her to stop. “You have cut the baby’s head.”
Nasila lay on the straw mat on the dirt floor of the hut, so weak that she could barely open her eyes. There were angry voices outside the hut. Her mother pulled back the cloth over the door to see what was happening.
Bardu said, “Go away. You do not belong in our village.”
A woman’s voice said, “She’ll die if we don’t take her to the hospital. And your child, too.”
Mrs. Jane came into the hut and knelt next to Nasila. “We can take you to the hospital. Do you want to go?”
“Yes,” she whispered. Fahim scooped her up and carried her to Mrs. Jane’s Land Cruiser.
The hospital smelled funny. And it was so bright. They put a needle into her arm and ran water through it. The doctor looked between her legs and shook his head. “We have to do a C-section. STAT.”
Mrs. Jane tried to explain what was going on. The opening for the baby was too small, nearly scarred shut. The doctor would have to cut her belly open to remove the baby.
Nasila asked Mrs. Jane, “If I die, will you watch over my baby?”
“Of course!” Mrs. Jane had tears in her eyes.
Nasila was frightened. But after the doctor put medicine in her back, the pains stopped. And she did not feel him slicing through her body and pulling the baby out.
Finally, it was over. As she suckled her newborn daughter, Nasila had never felt so happy, so content.
Mrs. Jane asked, “What will you name her?”
“Dafina. It means Precious.”
The infant was beautiful, with rosebud lips and tiny fingernails. She was almost perfect—except for her head, misshapen by the hours of compression in Nasila’s pelvis, and the scalp wound. The doctor said her skull would eventually have a normal shape. But she would always have a scar on the top of her head, from the cut that Etana had made.
Mrs. Jane offered to take her to the lodge. “You can stay with me until you’re strong enough to go home.”
Nasila shook her head. “I don’t want to go back to the village. Ever.”
Mrs. Jane patted Nasila’s shoulder. “You don’t have to go back. You and Dafina will always have a home with me.”
“Thank you,” said Nasila. “Asante sana.” She sang to the baby, “Abiyoyo, abiyoyo…”
Mrs. Jane asked her what the song meant.
“Abiyoyo is a monster. The song is a lullaby, a story. It means, ‘We will protect you’.”
Nasila spoke softly to her baby daughter, “You will go to school. And I will never let anyone cut you.”