© Folakemi Emem-Akpan
Four weeks doesn’t seem like much. For heaven’s sake, it is only but a full moon. You can’t build a house in four weeks. You cannot sow and reap in four weeks. You don’t grow much in the space of four weeks.
But your life can take a dip in four weeks. In four weeks, you can lose the hope you held onto for eight long months.
Experience has taught me to take it slowly, to sit in front of the hut in the evenings with my feet propped up, sipping the bitter juice of the isesi leaves that theoretically delays labour. Experience however, has not taught me to cope with the loss.
The first contraction is mild, rippling my swollen belly gently. I prop my feet higher, and try to push panic away from my heart. The next contraction takes its time in arriving, but it is with a little more kick. Terror floods my heart.
Five times I’ve been with child. Five times I’ve knelt at the birthing bed four or five weeks too early. And five times I’ve been handed dead children, fragile babies that do not have the ability to suck life-giving air into their lungs.
At the third contraction, I hasten off the chair, into my mother-in-law’s hut. Over a slow fire, she is roasting groundnuts, her feet tapping to a song she hums gently.
At the sound of my voice, she turns. Her face is brown and perfectly wrinkled, her eyes deep set and knowledgeable. This evening, they are twin pools of sorrow.
“Now?” She asks, rising to her feet.
I nod and turn to go out of the hut. She follows immediately and soon catches up with me.
“Perhaps the baby will live.” She says.
I want to keep hope alive. I desperately want to hold my own child in my arms, not because arrangements are already being made for Soji to marry another woman, one that will bear him living heirs. Not because it is extremely shameful for a woman to be besieged by series of stillbirths.
I want a child I can love. I want this extension of me. I want this validation that I am a whole woman.
“Go on inside. I will get the midwife.” Mama says at the entrance to my hut. As she hurries away, another contraction hits me right in the middle of my stomach. The pain roots me to the spot. My feet tremble as a sudden cold descends on me.
As the contraction eases, I realize that I am sobbing, praying, pleading.
“Oh God, oh God. Let this baby live. Please…please, oh God.”
In a raffia basket near the bed, the birthing equipment are ready. A dull knife, a sharp knife, a clamping cord, coarse soap, palm oil for the baby’s skin. In another raffia basket are baby clothes, hand stitched the first time I got pregnant.
I’d been wild with joy, thrilled at the honour of becoming pregnant only one month after we were married. At the village market, I’d purchased yards and yards of good material, had laboured for months, stitching together beautiful garments, waiting for the birth of my first child.
That baby came six weeks early, had not even drawn a single breath before she was laid into the ground.
The sobs rend themselves from my throat, exploding from me not unlike a burst of gunfire.
I sit on the edge of the bed, awaiting the midwife’s arrival.
In ancient Africa, the mortality rate was very high as there were no equipment to save premature babies.