A Soul Enters the World
When we arrived at the clinic, we saw a few of our women, Amanda, Davian and Heather, helping a young girl who was in labor. I was proud to see them holding her and coaxing her to breathe and drink water. None of them had any experience, but one of our other women, Sarah, a doula, had given them instructions while she attended an emergency C-section taking place at the same time. Amanda told me that the young mother had been distressed when they arrived. Alone, she was crying out to God, afraid that she had done something wrong and that this pain was her punishment. Seventeen years old, her name was Miriam and this was her first birth. As is the custom, the mother-in-law attends the birth, but there was no one. No mother or auntie to tell her what to expect or remind her to breathe or scream, or provide the wisdom of their experience, only her younger sister who mostly stayed away until after the birth. Miriam was clearly terrified, in pain and very much alone, so Suzanne and I joined in with the other women to support her in her birth process.
Standing outside in the hot sun, naked, except for a short piece of cloth that covered her from the top of her breasts to the bottom of her buttocks, she was swaying in pain, often dropping to all fours, clawing at the earth and clutching her belly. With each contraction, she would grab onto our arms or legs, squeezing tightly until the pain subsided. She looked wild-eyed and panicked, and we kept encouraging her to breathe when the contractions came. She reeked of sweat, blood, urine and shit, all of which was smeared down her buttock and legs. We searched for a wet cloth to wash her but were told that unless she brought one herself, there was none available. All the mothers are responsible for providing their own clean cloth, water, food, birthing wrap for the baby, as well as a plastic garbage bag to lie on for the delivery. She was 9 centimeters when I arrived, and we knew this baby was coming soon, so we brought her back into the delivery room.
The doctor finally came in to examine Miriam, and she held back a scream as the doctor pressed firmly on her belly and probed her cervix with his other hand. "She is fully dilated, but the head has not dropped yet," he said. "She must continue walking." Miriam began to whimper, and with this the midwife made Miriam get up by firmly nudging her off the side of the table. Miriam, fully naked, blood and fluid running down her legs, was wobbly on her feet, but managed with our help to walk the small room in circles. Suddenly she was seized by a violent contraction and slid to the floor onto her back. We insisted she get up because the floor was coated with filth, including smears of blood from the abortion. As her genitals touched the filthy floor, I got anxious that she might get an infection, so we managed to get her to another part of the room. Putting her soiled wrap on the floor beneath her, we encouraged her to squat and push. With each exhale we would all let out long moans and encouraged her to make sounds as well. She would mostly make small, covert little wails, but every once in a while she would strongly vocalize her pain and I could tell it was a relief. Our routine was to keep getting her up and holding her steady while she did squats up and down until the contractions came. Then she'd fall back into our arms and we'd help guide her onto the floor where she would push. This cycle continued for over an hour. By then we all smelled and were sweating, but completely present to this raw and primal experience in front of us.
At one point, I was on the floor rubbing her feet trying to ground her, while Suzanne was singing quietly near her face. Miriam's eyes were closed, tears running down her cheeks, when a fierce contraction ripped through her. Her body arched and one hand gripped tight onto Suzanne. She looked at me frantically, her other hand pushing down near the top of her vagina and pleaded, "Has it come?" Looking between her legs, her vagina dark, bloody and swollen, I could see a slick mass beginning to push its way through the opening. Miriam smiled with anticipation and relief when I told her, "Yes, beautiful, your baby is coming."
I've never been present to a birth before, and I was instantly overwhelmed by the true miracle taking place. A soul had entered the world, just like that. The baby's eyes were closed tight and the nurse alerted us that the cord was wrapped around its neck. I think at that moment we all held our breath until the cord finally came undone and in one massive push Miriam's baby slid into the world.
Needless to say it was a magical moment. Otherworldly, profoundly spiritual and utterly, utterly human.
The baby was coated in blood and a ghostly white film and the nurse quickly tossed her onto Miriam's still swollen belly. Suzanne had to reach out and grab the baby to keep her from sliding off. I put my hand on her head; she was warm and soft, her small mouth gulping like a fish. I saw the midwife reach for a clamp and scissor and as she cut the umbilical cord, the baby's eyes flew open and I watched her take her very first breath. "Welcome to the world, little girl," I silently prayed. "May God bless your journey, may you be safe, may you…"
Sadly, I didn't get to finish my prayer because the nurse grabbed the baby and held it upside down by one leg. The clamp, still attached to the cut umbilical cord, swung dangerously close to the baby's head. Suzanne reached out and took the baby into her arms, and holding her tight against her heart, sang her into the world.
All of the sudden, Miriam began writhing and clutched at my hand as her body contracted to release the placenta. Blood and fluid poured out of Miriam and onto the floor and over my shoes. I rubbed her belly in circular motions, and it took another 20 minutes until the afterbirth came out. Miriam looked ready to faint and I kept repeating, "You did it, Miriam, you're a mama, you're a mama." She weakly smiled and nodded, her eyes searching for her child who was being swaddled. Then the nurse examined Miriam and said she had torn both the wall of her vagina and perineum badly and would need to be sewn up. Once again we held onto Miriam's arms and legs while—without drugs—the nurse stitched her up, the circular needle sliding in and out of the already sensitive and overworked flesh. Miriam continued biting her lip and repressed her screams, which seems to be the standard protocol of birthing babies in rural Africa.
Miriam, unwashed, but changed into her nicest dress, limped in and lay down with her baby. She stroked her head gently and told us her name was to be "Miriam," just like her own. It made me wonder if this child was the product of a rape, because it is customary for the father to name the child and with Miriam naming her herself, and no mother-in-law present, this suggested that no father was available. I began to choke up with this realization and felt compelled to reach over and touched Miriam on her cheek and said "Thank you, you have given me the greatest gift in my life." I knew her English was limited, but I needed to express my gratitude for being allowed to witness and be a part of the deepest intimacy of her young lifetime. Surprisingly, she smiled, touched her heart with one hand and said, "You are my friend." And for the first time that day, I began to cry.
Before we left, I kissed Miriam and the baby and gave her some money, certainly not much by our standards, but perhaps an entire year's salary to her. I put it in her hand and squeezed, and then touched the baby's head and said "Please, an education, okay? You understand?" "Yes," Miriam said and smiled, still looking down at her daughter, "She will go to school."
Miriam's birth was one of the most remarkable experiences in my life. She was beautiful, like a wild animal, and with loving guidance and encouragement allowed her body to do what it was meant to instinctively. I can't imagine going through that process without the love and support of a partner, parent or friend. It breaks my heart to know that women have to go through an experience as intense as labor and birth in conditions that are unsafe, unsanitary and unsacred, when it is, indeed, the most holy of moments and should be honored as such.
After witnessing this birth, this yoga, I am even more excited that we are building a center where women will be supported in the process of birthing. They will be nurtured and guided so that the experience can be what it is, a miracle and a blessing and a sacred expression of God. No woman should ever have to birth in conditions like what we saw, and unfortunately, that is how it is for many of the women in our world.
All the materials are made from natural resources. It is completely eco, from the bricks to the gray water to the solar electricity. There is a water filtration system and an organic garden. Employed are the local villagers so income is being generated in the area as a result. Right now there are three buildings at different stages of completion. This includes birthing rooms with fresh-flowing air and plenty of sunlight for bed births, water births and even places specifically designed for if the mother wants to squat her birth. There are special rooms for after the birth where the mother can heal and bond with her baby. We also funded a community center where midwives will be trained with new birthing techniques, as well as reclaim some of their traditional birthing practices. They will learn to support the mother's through the process of birth lovingly and sacredly. There will be birthing classes, yoga classes, parenting classes, as well as classes that educate about HIV/AIDS prevention and mother to child transmission. We have also funded a program where the midwives can bring sanitary birthing kits to use for home deliveries in areas too far for the women to travel to the center. These kits can greatly reduce the chance for infection, saving both the mother and child as a result. We also bought an emergency vehicle to transport the women to the local clinic in case of the true need for Caesarean section or other emergencies.
I cannot express my overwhelming feeling of pride to be a part of the manifestation of a center that will create a positive, sanitary and safe birthing experience for mothers and the opportunity for children to enter the world caught with compassion and love. This is by far one of my greatest joys, and I am continually grateful to all the people who contributed to the Global Seva Challenge and made this center possible. I pray for Miriam, her daughter and every sweet birthing Mama in the world. May God bless and protect you. May your lives be filled with good health, happiness, abundance, safety and peace. May all children ease into this world nurtured with love and guided by grace.
Seane's first few days Uganda
How Seane came to believe in God
The lessons yoga has taught Seane
Seane Corn is an internationally celebrated yoga teacher known for her impassioned activism, unique self-expression and inspirational style of teaching that incorporates both the physical and mystical aspects of the practice of yoga. For more on Seane Corn, visit SeaneCorn.com.