I had just sat my final examinations for a diploma in journalism at the Auckland University of Technology, New Zealand, when I fell ill. I consulted my physician, Andrew Wong, later in the day. His diagnosis? I was pregnant.
Far from feeling elated, I was plagued by uncertainty and fear. Disturbing images of the expectant mothers I saw in my village when I was growing up crossed my mind. The stories I had heard about the insults nurses hurled at them at the onset of labor made me panic. Pregnancy was nothing to write home about and expectant women were said to be "hanging" from a precarious tree - meaning pregnancy is a matter of life and death. During the last trimester, they would ask her close relatives: "Has so-and-so descended from the tree?" I didn't know whether to cry or be happy about my condition for the next nine months.
Things moved fast and three days later I received a letter from the Auckland Women's Hospital congratulating me on my pregnancy. Enclosed were details about what I was entitled to during pregnancy and childbirth. My husband and I were urged to go for antenatal exercises once a week at a neighborhood community hall.
I would not pay a cent for medical care throughout my pregnancy and for my baby until she turned five! And after birth, a nurse would visit me at home for six weeks to ensure that I washed and breast-fed the baby well.
It was enough to get me excited about the baby. I went for those exercises dutifully and shared experiences with the other expectant mothers and even envied those about to give birth. As soon as labor set in, I called a toll free number for a taxi that was at the door in less than five minutes. In no time, I had checked into the labor ward. I stayed in my room for three days before I was discharged after the child got all the medication and inoculation required. I was also thoroughly examined by a gynecologist to ensure all was well.
At home, I didn't have to fumble about cleaning the baby because a midwife assigned to me visited daily to help me bathe the baby, and the hospital called regularly to ensure all was well.
Nearly four years later, another doctor told me I was expecting. It was a private hospital in Nairobi, Kenya. Just like the two countries are thousands of miles apart, my second situation was as different from the first as chalk and cheese. There was no congratulatory note from the hospital and no smile from the doctor who gave me the news.
He referred me to the hospital's antenatal clinic. I was given a list of "packages" offered by the hospital and I had to choose what suited me best. The cost of having a baby back home appeared overwhelming. For the "normal" delivery package, which included three days stay in the general ward, I had to pay Sh.38,000 (US$1=72 Kenya Shillings). If I chose to have an elective caesarean section, I was to pay nearly Sh.100,000 and meet any other expenses that arose. While the first inoculations at birth would be free, others would be paid for separately.
I picked the normal package and hoped for the best. I had to pay the money by Week 20 of the pregnancy. The money was non-refundable. We went for the antenatal exercises like zombies, lying on the mattress without bothering to check the face of the person next to us or knowing their names. It was a whole new experience compared to the first pregnancy. I am still in touch with the mothers I met at the community hall.
After birth, my child was kept in the nursery and I would only hold her during feeding time. I wanted to bond with her but this was not allowed - not at the hospital. So the new mothers had to go upstairs to the nursery to sit on benches to feed the babies, as if it were a competition on who produced the most milk within a few hours of delivery. I longed for the Auckland Women's Hospital, where I could spend my time in the hospital studying my baby's face.
No one came home to check the progress of baby number two and I had to read the many books and notes I collected with my first baby to ensure I did everything right. My bundle of joy was definitely no big deal here, just one of the many born every minute.