©2011 Odilia Rivera Santos
A writer has to know something to have something to write about, and my interests are varied. One of my favorite things in the world is to be alone to think about what I’ve read or heard or seen. This, to me, is the true life of a writer -- the perpetual student who experiences with a fresh mind and eye. This summer, I have spent a lot of time exploring health issues, not a new topic for me, but one to continue researching.
I just watched A Walk to Beautiful,a documentary about women in Ethiopia who were excised from their society due to injuries suffered during childbirth. Girls begin hard physical labor at the age of two, and, due to consuming insufficient calories for their activity level, the girls’ growth is stunted. Girls grow to be tiny women with narrow hips, and this contributes to a difficult birth. By the time some of the women reach the hospital, they’ve been in labor for up to ten days and the baby has died. Due to poor obstetric care, the labor process turns into some kind of ritualistic torture, another rite of passage for women for whom daily life is a rite a passage. The women end up with obstetric fistulas, a hole between the bladder and vagina or between the rectum and vagina, leaving them susceptible to infections, incontinent and some lose control of their bowels as well. And in some cases, due to nerve damage, the woman can end up paralyzed.
The family builds a shack behind their house in which to keep the female who, because of her injury, is now considered defunct in her society. Her new ‘home’ is simply to protect her from hyenas, not a place to do anything but wait for death. The women can no longer work, spend time with family or socialize and say their lives are over. It is astonishing to think something as simple as caloric deficit can lead to such physical and psychological trauma. Some of the women are taken to a hospital to have surgery, and there is a doctor who says she and her husband arrived in 1959 to stay for a short while and never left. It is hard to leave when you are helping change the trajectory of a human life from abysmal to the normal or at least her normal.
The doctor tells the women to start walking toward a hospital as soon as they feel the next baby is to come and I thought there’s no way in hell I would have another baby and risk the same injury again, but that’s my normal. In my normal, I have choices.
One of the women was a true visionary; she said she would not return to a family who ostracized her and asked for a job at the hospital. I laughed, thinking it is exactly what I would have done. The little visionary said the place was beautiful and you can see in her eyes, she will find a way to turn this tragedy as a way to save her from a culture too grueling and rigid for her delicate soul.
As I was watching the doctors operate, I thought of my sixth grade teacher telling me to go to medical school and a college professor as well. I imagine myself in a tiny hospital in Ethiopia, providing solace and at times, a cure, for a multitude of ailments. I imagine myself there as clearly as I see myself here, and think I would say I will be there a little while and stay forever because how could you leave a place in which you’ve reawakened hope.
If you're interested in learning more about this injury and would like to know how to help, please check out The Fistula Foundation