We have gotten in the habit of taking a daily walk around Namikango, weather permitting. If red-caked mud doesn’t cling to our shoes, it’s into the forest we go – through trees covering carpets of green life, past tall maize which must be near ready to harvest. We walk past the maternity clinic, greeted by a sudden flash of pink palms and white smiles highlighting each woman lounging in front of the quarters where they stay while they wait for labor and delivery. I know they see it, each time I walk past I can tell their smiles get a bit larger, with intrigue perhaps? This muzungu with a belly as large as (or as is often the case, larger than) theirs.
It continues as we walk on – glances at my mid-section from kids and adults as we walk along the road that marks the back of Namikango property. We pass each person and call out a greeting – a series of phrases that inevitably gets shortened and dropped off because there simply is not time to go through the whole routine when you are both headed off with intention in different directions.
I’m not sure what’s more odd to those we pass, the white skin, the large belly, or the lack of attempt to conceal it. Don’t doubt me, I always dress appropriately, covering everything that needs to be covered. But nearly all pregnant women I have seen are covered in chitenje, secretly concealing their wide middle that is host to a growing human.
We’ve heard that this is often out of fear that someone will learn that the woman is pregnant and put a curse on the baby – the same reason many women have traditionally given birth at homes in the village – which has resulted in such a high rate of death during childbirth. Things are changing however, as women are now required to deliver in a clinic, or with certified health professionals. We’ve even heard of women being “charged” for delivering along the road, since they knew they needed to be in a clinic in time for the birth.
All the fashionable and clingy baby bump clothes are hung in the closet for now, the looser the better here in Malawi – both for culture and for heat.
We walk at the end of the day, when the sun is getting ready to go down and a breeze makes this mama brave enough to get the heart rate going. With each step focused just to keep the body moving, a loud noise jerks my attention to the right. A woman with a growing belly in a chitenje chopping wood to prepare her fire for dinner. What would my obstetrician in the States say? I have trouble chopping wood in general – and can’t even imagine doing so at this stage of pregnancy!
She continues chopping, as have the women before her – each chop breaking down my pre-conceived ideas of “normal” once again.