On a recent Cross Catholic Outreach trip, I had the opportunity to share time with 20 incredibly brave mothers in the diocese’s impoverished Chamilala Valley area, where childbirth is a fearful, often tragic experience. It struck me as ironic, coming from the U.S., where the sanctity of life in the womb is so often questioned. These women had no doubt their children were a gift from God.
Without a nearby hospital or clinic and with just handful of birthing assistants in this remote area, these poor women must walk up to 50 miles to a regional hospital to have their babies. If there are complications, as happened in Maureen Daka’s case, one can only rely on prayer and the grace of God.
Daka walked 14 miles to a hospital after going into labor with her baby, Elizabeth. She left home around 8 a.m., arrived at the hospital shortly 3 p.m. and delivered at 5 p.m. After giving birth, she began to hemorrhage and nearly died. In that moment, she began reciting Psalms 121: “I lift up my eyes to the hills— from where will my help come? My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.” She says her prayer and faith sustained her through the harrowing experience, during which no one explained what was happening.
Sara Ngulube was about halfway through her nine-mile journey when she delivered her daughter, Joyce, in a bush off the side of the highway.
“I was scared because there was no skilled person who could help me,” said the soft-spoken 23 year-old. “My mother was also scared but thanks to the grace of God, the delivery was successful.”
Sadly, many women in the region aren’t as fortunate. According to a 2014 report, there are 66 deaths per 1,000 live births and a maternal mortality rate of 440 deaths per 100,000 live births.
In response to the lack of medical care in region, Chipata diocese bishop George Lungu commissioned the construction of St. Joseph’s Rural Health Center. It’s staffed by the Polish Sisters of Mercy of St. Charles Borromeo and serves 4,000 impoverished villagers in the Chamilala Valley area, including services for new and expectant mothers. Expansion plans include a Cross Catholic-funded shelter for new mothers who can arrive well before their due dates, avoiding a life-threatening journey once labor begins.
It was at the center where I found myself on a chilly morning last June watching new moms like Sara and Maureen, in their colorful kitenges, delighting in their heavily-swaddled babies. These mothers are survivors and nothing is taken for granted. Every smile, gurgle, cry and yawn is seen as a precious gift from the Lord.
“I thank God for the beautiful life I have with my family,” said Daka. “I am still alive. Sometimes I have backaches but I am OK now. I’m thankful for the health center because before, we had to walk long distances. Now, I can be here for Elizabeth’s appointments in less than two hours.”