The Oda Project

Essential healthcare and education - giving Nepali communities in extreme poverty a fighting chance

First Birth of the New Year by 2018-2019 Health & Operations Fellow, Radha Bhatnagar

Names have been changed in this blogpost.

            I ended the first day of the New Year, in this case the Nepali New Year, in a very special way. Usually, people try to do something on the first day that they feel brings them a little closer to wholeness, to set the tone for the rest of the year, something that comes from and helps renew that sense of hope and limitlessness. Here in rural Nepal, people eat good food, hold festivities, and wear the newest, cleanest clothes that they own. It’s all the actions of the future that they want and work for.

            That night, one of our favorite youth group students Leela, a young woman I now think of as a little sister, came to the medical and Lucy and I went to see her. She had asked us to come to her home and eat sel roti (a traditional Nepali sweet bread) with the family, but we hadn’t gone. The first thing that rolled out of her mouth was, “We didn’t see you at the New Year’s program and you didn’t visit our home!” The truth of the matter was that it was hot and we were too lazy to walk up. The other truth of the matter, the one we didn’t say, is that we knew they couldn’t afford to feed us. I found out she was here with her pregnant bauju sister-in-law, Ranipura, who was in labor, and I wanted to stay. For some background, Ranipura is my favorite Community Health Educator. She’s young, she’s low-caste, she came and worked throughout her pregnancy, and she always brought her young daughter Parmila in tow. Parmila is one of my favorite children. At first, she wanted nothing to do with me. Not even a glance my way, let alone talking or playing with me. These days she will run up to me, with arms outstretched, asking me to hold her in the tender, open-hearted way that only the little ones can do.

It was truly a family affair. A lot of people packed into a waiting area, laughing and chatting. Five of us were squeezed onto a bench, while some of us were sitting on the ground sharing shawls for warmth and others were even waiting outside. In the beginning of the labor, we were all goofing off. I had been holding little Parmila the whole time, when someone asked her if she wanted to stay the night with me. She firmly said no, so I feigned a gasp and asked, “Kina?? Why??” And while I expected the usual answers a child might give, she told me that she wanted to stay with her mom because she was scared that her mom was going to die. At the age of 3, there was no way Parmila understood the complexities of how and why low-income, low-caste women are disproportionately dying. She just knew that women die from this sort of thing and she was scared for her mom. She kept wanting to go into the room to see her, but she couldn’t. All I could tell her was that her mother was doing very hard work. Good work, but hard work and we’d see her and the new baby later.

Soon after that exchange, Ranipura’s labor took a turn for the worse. The baby was not in the right position and Ranipura’s energy was very low. Our medical staff said that if she couldn’t give birth within the hour, they would have to send her to Manma. An ardous two hour hike and one hour bumpy car ride away at night for someone in troubled labor, with no one available to carry her.

When our staff went back into the delivery room, Leela turned to me and said, “See, this is why you shouldn’t do child marriage.” It dawned on me that I had never known Ranipura’s age. She was 20, which didn’t seem terrible, but she had had her first child at 17. Pregnant at 16. Purposefully pregnant at 16. While she isn’t the youngest in the village to have a baby, a 16 year old is still a child. The other family members were sure that she would be fine and that the labor would end soon, and then they wondered whether she would have a boy or a girl. Leela excitedly told me that if Ranipura had a boy, everyone would have a lot of fun. I waited a beat and said to her that maybe she should have fun if a girl was born, too. She looked me in the eye and said, “Yes. I think we should have fun no matter what.”

Soon after, we heard the cry of a baby and we knew that the birth went ok. Everyone looked expectantly towards the door and someone cried out, “Is it a boy or a girl?” I have to be truthful. At that moment, Lucy and I had both hoped it was a boy. Not because we think men are stronger or smarter or better than women, but because we knew that it would be better for Ranipura if she had a boy. If she has a girl, she might be pressured to have more children. If she has a girl, she will have to see both of her children stay home from school to do work in the home and in the field, to see both of them stay in the cowshed while menstruating, to see both of them leave home for another village after marriage. This is the painful reality of being the mother of a girl. And then the news came. A staff member came out and said, “Keti ho. It’s a girl.” He had a smile on his face, but his voice was low. I looked around the room. The mood was different. It had dropped and there was the soured smell of dismay in the air. Something came over me in that moment. I thought, “What would my Mom do?” and I clapped as loud as I could. I shouted, “WOO, it’s a girl!” and Lucy clapped, too. It felt silly and meaningless. No one else clapped, no one else hollered, I don’t even know if someone smiled.

I turned to Parmila and told her, “We can go see Mommy and little sister now.” and she had the biggest little smile on her face. Everyone else poked their head in to see the little girl and then they left. The medical staff left, too, to eat a late dinner. And then it was just me, Ranipura, Parmila, and Leela.

Ranipura was exhausted, so I tried to be helpful. I kept holding onto Parmila, I gave her water, I gave her blankets and took them away when she was too hot. Leela was a happy face. She was excited and cooing to the little one. Murmuring sweet nothings that we couldn’t hear. Eventually, Ranipura had a bit more energy and asked Parmila to come sit next to her. The three of them, Mom and the two small ones, squeezed onto the bed. Mom’s hand and smile were resting peacefully over them. Leela sat by the head of the bed watching them all, head on her hands staring at them all dreamily. As I sat there, I remembered all these little moments. The way that Ranipura gently, gingerly combs little Parmila’s hair. The little secret game that the two of them play with their hands when they think no one is watching. The times Ranipura would whisper in Parmila’s ear and smile and watch her laugh with a twinkle in her eye. There were no drums that night, no dancing, no celebration. This little one was certainly born into a tough life, but all I could see was the love. I was overcome by the sweetness and the fullness of the love in the room.

As I write this blog post, the police are investigating into the marriage of a 15 year old low-caste girl. I know that this little one, just born, has a long road ahead of her. Lucy and I are currently deciding which gifts we will give to her mom Ranipura. People only give gifts for boys, but we are determined to celebrate this and start it off right. We know that this little one has the love of her mom and her family. She has strong, brilliant role models of our youth group women. I can only hope that when I come back in 16 years, she is in a better place than her mom was. That she has more opportunity than her mom and her mom’s mom and all those before her.