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Stories From the Field - Project Coordinator Sadie St. Denis

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‘It’s a Woman’s World’

On Saturday September 10th, the ladies from the Shanti Uganda crew, including Ssanyu, Joy, Florence, baby Honey and myself, boarded a bus carrying midwives from the US, Australia, Kenya, and elsewhere, bound for Acholi land in the far Northern region of Amuru, Uganda. Shanti Uganda had been invited to attend the first annual International Midwives’ Symposium hosted by Earth Birth in Northern Uganda. Earth Birth is a traditional birthing centre and community space situated on 20 acres of land outside of Atiak, Arumu District, near the border of South Sudan. It was founded and is run by two American midwives who work with traditional birth attendants to create a culturally competent, locally sustainable birthing centre in one of the most vulnerable districts in Uganda.

When the bus finally pulled into its destination, the sky had long since turned black and 10 hours had elapsed since we had left the modest comforts of our dusty little trading centre, Kasana, Luweero District. I could sense even Joy, Ssanyu and Florence (the only native Ugandans to make the journey) were uncertain of how to feel about the sheer remoteness of this place. Their earlier excitement as we crossed the Karuma Bridge over the fierce Nile River and their giddiness at the sight of an epic number of baboons loitering on the roads and about the roadsides had given way to fatigue and a certain wariness about what could possibly lay ahead in this far faraway place.

Even before we disembarked from the bus, unfamiliar yet welcoming sounds of foreign instruments could be heard coming from inside the birth house. In the darkness from out of the large imposing structure figures slowly began to take shape and the universal Ugandan cry of uninhibited joy and celebration rang out again and again. A flat tire and poor road conditions had delayed our arrival by several hours and yet our welcoming party didn’t seem the least bit fazed. It seemed the traditional birth attendants (TBAs) who train and practice at Earth Birth, all 30 something of them, had already decided a slumber party was in high order. Hot chai tea was like a sacred gift after the long journey, and after a short welcome by the two American midwives, though sleep beckoned us to our beds we all stood mesmerized by the hauntingly beautiful sound of the Acholi music and the birth attendants dancing in the faint glow of candlelight. What mystified the onlooker was that the women weren’t dancing because they were told to dance, and that the musicians weren’t playing because they were told to play. It was obvious to all that their ‘performance’ wasn’t for us; but rather it was so much a part of themselves, of their wellness, and of their soul, that they simply could not help themselves. I was overcome with calm and peace, and I got the sense that I had now entered a very sacred land, that this was indeed a very special place.

It was a blessed beginning to a week long celebration of motherhood, birth, peace, sisterhood, storytelling, healing, theatre, traditional wisdom, cultural exchange, and learning. Acholi TBAs, one lone Buganda TBA, Western midwives and women’s activists, and three Ugandan midwives came together for 10 days in a harmonious exchange of knowledge and friendship.

Shanti Uganda’s midwives were exposed to hands-on lessons about placenta medicines, homeopathics for childbirth, spinning babies, cord burning and physiologic closure, the making of shea butter, prenatal massage, birth rituals from around the world, epigenetics and more. Shanti’s head midwife, Sister Mary, presented on manual vacuum extraction, a topic that even the international midwives found fascinating.

In the evening everyone had the opportunity to relax with storytelling, sweat lodge, dance and music. Florence was a curious and eager participant of the dancing and through this she seemed to make friends easily. The Acholi 

women took her ‘under their wing’ and tried in vain to teach her their local Acholi way of dancing; yet the Buganda in Florence just couldn’t get the hang of it. Instead the women spent much of their time laughing together.

It was fascinating to watch two Ugandan citizens struggle to communicate or even understand each other’s very different cultures; and yet Florence and the women became friends through dance, womanhood, and an unspoken but understood history of similar challenges, hardships, and experiences.

Despite having very little, the Acholi women gave Florence gifts of homemade brooms as a sign of their friendship. Having nothing to give in return, Florence was touched by these women who had so quickly become her friends expecting nothing but her friendship in return. Recently Florence disclosed to me that she has already begun collecting clothes from her friends and through her church, and when she gets some time off she plans to use it to make the treacherous 10 hour heart-stopping bus ride back to Atiak to repay her new friends for their kindness.

On the final day as the festival came to a close and the final ceremony in which we would all be together for the last time was concluding, there was a great outpouring of appreciation, gratitude, respect and love for one another. While I stood in the circle and thanked Earth Birth for creating this sacred space for women, I thought about the ways in which Shanti Uganda and Earth Birth are like sisters. Earth Birth the older, from whom Shanti still has much to learn. But we are bound by our common mission to bring peace and honour to birth, and by our shared belief that, “It is not that birth is painful; but that women are strong!”     

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