The freedom to dream about a better tomorrow is a luxury many don’t realize they possess until it is taken away. This post is a collection of stories about a group of women that come to the ship for surgery and leave with a new freedom to dream. They are women who have suffered from an obstetric fistula, a condition caused by prolonged obstructed labor that makes the woman incontinent of urine or feces or both. In addition to usually losing the baby she was carrying, a woman with fistula is often rejected by her husband and pushed out of the daily life of her community due to the foul smell beyond their control as they are not able to control their bodies when nature calls.
“Head and knees, shoulvas, toos, shoulvas, toos!” (Sung to: Head & Shoulders, knees & toes)
When I first met Ashitou, she was singing her own version of the popular children’s song, pointing to her shoulders as she proudly sang “knees” and to her knees as she sang “shoulvas!” But unlike the song she was singing, Ashitou is not a child. Although she has not yet reached her 20th birthday, she’s already experience the pain of obstructed labor, already had a fistula that made her unable to hold her own urine or bear children, and already being ostracized by her own community in the Norther part of Cameroon.
Thankfully, she’s also already experienced Mercy Ships and a life-altering surgery. She’s also experienced the love of Christ through the crew she met.
Yesterday, I saw Ashitou coming for an outpatient check-up. She smiled and waived as I joined her under the waiting tent. Although neither of us can speak the other’s language (she speaks the northern tribal language, Fulfulde), there was no mistaking the joy in her eyes.
At least once a week, I go down to the hospital wards to visit with the patients. Although my French is improving, it’s challenging to have deep conversations with many of the patients who only speak French or another local language. So, I was happy to meet Ernestine, who comes from one of the primarily English speaking portions of Cameroon.
Ernestine is one of the lucky ones. Her handsome young son survived the obstructed labor and her husband stayed by her side, despite the challenges and unlikelihood that she would ever bear another child.
Over the few weeks that Ernestine stayed in the hospital on the ship (her husband often sleeping underneath her hospital bed), I got to know her and her family. After her surgery, we talked about her new life, now that she can re-enter her community. We danced and sang “God is so good!” together. Shame was replaced with hope.
I was honored when Ernestine invited me to her “Dress Ceremony,” a ceremony Mercy Ships host for the women to celebrate their healing. As part of the celebration, each woman is given a bright new dress, a symbol of their new life. They get dressed up to go out, something some of them haven’t done in decades. Ernestine stood to give her testimony, clearly overcome with the emotions of the moment but also radiant in her new dress. Clementine, one of our hospital chaplain’s also had Ernestine’s husband stand, to honor him for being a good husband. Afterward, we danced and celebrated together. Shame was replaced with hope and joy.
When I first saw Marie, I knew she was going be a character. With a hair weave of bright red and nails to match, she joked with me through her limited English and my limited French.
In my attempt to make conversation, I asked her what she did for work back at home. Her look suddenly turned sad. “I can’t work,” she told me. As she explained further, her incontinence made it impossible to get work. She had been confined to her home for many years. Trying to recover from my blunder, I asked her what she hoped to do when she got back home. Her smile returned immediately and she glowed as she started to think about her new life. “Maybe, I’ll be a beautician!” she told me through one of the ward translators.
These are just a few of the women whose lives will be changed through an obstetric fistula surgery during our time in Cameroon. As you may have noted, this blog post doesn’t include pictures of the women it highlights. Often these women are living in the shadows–embarrassed and hiding. They’re ashamed and don’t want photos for the same reason.
Mercy Ships sometimes have difficulties encouraging these women to come out from the shadows. Such has been the case in Cameroon. Although it is known that there are a large number of women who need this surgery in Cameroon, we have had to postpone obstetric fistula surgeons coming to the ship because not enough women have come forward for surgery.
Please pray that these women would have the courage to step out of the shadows, to come to the ship for surgery and to dare to dream again.