A Bad Omen

For the few months I spent with Save the Children in Bungoma, I’ve told and retold this story many times, on meetings, on trainings, to friends.

In parts in Western Kenya there is a bad omen for the family, if your first born are twins of same-sex. The omen says that one of the twins must die, or something bad will happen to the parent [I presume of the same sex]. As a girl Anne had heard this omen many times…

Nights fall early on the equator. 7 o’clock is already dark, in the single isolated mud houses built at long distances from other farms and settlements, there’s no electricity to light up the night. Days end up early there, and children go to bed, parents and grandparents telling them tales and stories that pass on myths, beliefs, traditions. Of ghost drivers crossing the roads at night… Of boys disappearing mysteriously in caves, searching for hidden treasures… Of wisdom and treacheries… Of rich men and poor men… 

As a young girl Anne probably had heard a lot of those tales time and time again. They captured her imagination during the days, and filled her colorful dreams at night. But they were nothing more than that, just stories in her mind. Until the day she gave birth. To her first-born twin boys.

Now try to imagine Anne in the health facility, immediately after giving birth. The maternity unit is small and busy, sometimes nurses need to put two mothers on the same bed, as there is no space. In the small room you’ll find not only the young mothers, but also their mothers, their close female relatives, their grown up children, the traditional birth attendants, accompanying them during delivery, sometimes even their husbands. The place is really crowded. Many times mothers only stay a few hours, and then go home.

Anne’s boys are so small, she’s been moved to a special ward for premature babies. Save the Children have equipped this ward as part of the Kangaroo Mother Care program, so conditions here are better. Still, Anne is extremely stressed. She’s exhausted after the labour; she’s only 19, she does not have any experience with babies, and the twins are so small. Each one of them weighs a little less than 1,5 kg, she does not know how hold them, how to hug them, how to feed them. The twins’ physical survival is at risk. There’s no incubators for the twins, so the nurses train Anne how to place them on her chest and wrap them up with warm cloths, to provide them the warmth they need, to help them survive. 

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A mother, holding her premature born baby in kangaroo mother care position.

And then, among the excitement after the delivery, the physical stress, the exhaustion, another realization comes. Probably someone from her visitors reminds her. Probably someone not related to her, from the ward. Of the omen. And that she needs to make a tough decision of the destiny of one of her newborn babies. [Later on, when we were writing the case study, we called it briefly ‘pressure by the local community’. So I guess it is not one person or two, reminding Anne and her husband of the omen. It was many people and it was a rising pressure as the hours were passing by.] 

Anne is young and fragile, in this particular moment she has one drive – a strong maternal instinct to protect her babies. Babies are so small she cannot just take them and run away, so in her despair she starts raging and crying, health workers need to constrain her and give her sedatives to calm down… This is probably when her husband, John, also realizes he needs to step in and make a decision…

I met Anne and John a couple of months later. Anne stroke me as very young, she looked much younger than the 19 years she said she was. And very delicate. The babies must have been really tiny. As most women living in the distant areas in these communities, Anne probably had not visited ante-natal care, but even if she did, the news about her same-sex twin boys must have come as a shock to her.

As you have guessed by now, the babies survived. At 4 months, they weighed 3,5 kg and 3,8 kg, they more than doubled their weight after discharging. Now Anne seemed happy. She was smiling, holding and feeding the twins the comfort of her home, sitting next to her husband, the nurse from the facility, and her mother in law.

We visited the family to do an interview about male involvement in taking care of the premature babies as part of the Kangaroo Mother Care program, run by Save the Children, in partnership with Ministry of Health. In his desire to help Anne and protect his babies, John reached out for support to the priest, and got a lot of support and training also by the health workers in the facility, as part of the Kangaroo Mother Care program. These two community ‘institutions’ really helped the young couple with counseling, and advise.

I can’t help but think it took much more than that – getting the support. I truly admire Anne and John and their courage. As a young couple, they are probably economically and socially extremely dependent on their families. They live in a mud house, far away from any village, at the end of a road, which has not seen a car pass by for a long time. And yet, this very young couple managed to stand up against the community that put pressure on them. To be brave and stand up for their family. To save their children.

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Anne and John with the twins

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Anne and John with the twins