Angel Babies in Eastern Africa - Michelle's Story
In 2011 I felt called to come out full-term with an Africa based sending organization to a place we affectionately call “The Islands”. This cluster of 4 islands make up an archipelago whose name is translated to mean “Islands of the Moon”. The history and beauty of this country is astounding, and the people are as friendly as they are beautiful. Crystal clear turquoise waters lap up on white sandy beaches, enormous, yellow-finned tuna is sold at market daily for only $2 a kilo, and minarets throughout each island synchronize their cries to Allah in harmony 5 times a day.
Coming to the islands in 2012, initially as a single, I helped teach English As A Second Language (but really like 3rd or 4th) as well as started and ran a ballet studio for little girls. My first 5 years on the capital island were fabulous, exciting, challenging, hard and glorifying. My, now, husband, Richard, and I met out here in the islands. He was serving on the smallest island in our chain and I resided in the big city of the capital island. Across the sea we fell in love and in 2018 we were married in our passport country, the US, and had a 6-month home-assignment. On returning to the islands we were so excited to start our family, to live in community and watch our kids grow with all the local kiddos around us; we dreamed of our children speaking the local language with perfect accents and inflection and running across hot rocks and sand barefoot like pros.
After about 6 months of hopeful waiting, we found out that we were expecting. It was so exciting and we started planning and celebrating. About 5 pregnancy tests later to make sure there could be no mistaking it was real, we headed to the hospital for an ultrasound. There, our ultrasound tech was all business and once scanning my abdomen (and not even letting me see the screen) he declared we looked only about 4 weeks pregnant. That seemed a little off from our math looking back at my last cycle and knowing the normal length of my cycles etc. But we smiled and said, “Ok, great! What now?!”. He suggested we come back in a few weeks to see if there was any growth and to keep an eye on our little sac that was preparing for a growing baby. We did all the appropriate blood tests and such with the maternity ward and even got a free blue mosquito net that all expectant mothers get courtesy of the WHO. We were so excited!
A couple weeks passed, and we returned to see our ultrasound tech. He gave us another ultrasound to find our little embryo had grown slightly and things seemed to be doing well. Well, that’s sort of what he told us as he spent the entire consultation on speaker phone with someone else, never actually directly speaking to us and, once again, wouldn’t let me see the screen. He said to return in a couple weeks to continue to check the baby’s progress and then he might be able to nail down a better due date estimation. After about 3 weeks we decided we should get checked out. I had been feeling a little strange, actually I had been not feeling strange which I found very strange within itself. When I had used to be nauseous or dizzy, I now felt normal and fine. When I had been extremely tired, I didn’t always need a nap. I felt like my normal pregnancy symptoms were disappearing and it worried me.
So at around 10 weeks we decided to go to a private hospital so we could get a print out of our ultrasound and hopefully have someone a little more personable than our previous ultrasound tech. Since our house backs up to the Catholic Mission, we decided to give their hospital a try. Once in to see the tech, she did the ultrasound proclaiming that we had an embryotic sac that looked to be about 6 weeks old. We let her know that that couldn’t be possible since we were here for our 10 week visit. She checked and measured for us 3 more times. 6 weeks. Not 10 weeks. A part of me said in my brain, “I knew it”.
In this culture, crying is completely socially unacceptable. If there is a death, then you may grieve for a moment, but you must do everything within your power not to cry. They say crying “heaps sin upon the deceased person’s soul” and I’ve even had people tell me that “crying causes the deceased physical pain”. But, in that moment, I wept openly, loudly and fiercely. My husband joined me. The doctor felt so much for us that she said that we shouldn’t trust her opinion only but to go back to the public hospital and see the traveling Chinese OB/GYN for confirmation.
We told our team leader, who also happens to be a nurse, what was going on and she came over to grieve with us. Oh and I forgot to mention, this all also happened when we were hosting a university aged male short-termer in our home for a month. Emotions were high and fear crept into our hearts.
We did as we were told and returned to the public hospital and visited with the visiting Chinese doctor. The only issue was, he was the most smiley, nicest man, but didn’t have hardly any English, French or the local ShiKomori language. We had no real way of communication. But we tried our best to piece-meal our stories together and after an examination he confirmed that I had had a “blighted-ovum miscarriage”. Once again, Richard and I were devastated. The doctor suggested we wait another 2 weeks and hope that my body helped this miscarriage to play out on its own, but this thought scared me. Just sitting around for 2 weeks knowing that the life inside me was no longer there was too much for my heart to bear. This little bundle of hope that we prayed over every night, that we sang to and loved so dearly, was gone. I didn’t think I could bear 2 more weeks with this. So we called a Brazilian doctor friend who works on the 4th island in our archipelago. He graciously prayed over us and wept with us, explaining he and his wife had experienced the exact same thing just a few years before.
He recommended for us to do the same thing they did, which was to take some medicine that could help my body understand what was happening and help the baby to move along with some help. But he said that no matter what, unless it’s a life and death situation, we were to never ever ever have any type of surgical procedure done on our island. As a small and not very developed island, our Brazilian doctor friend knew that the safest thing for my health would be to try and allow my body to pass the baby on it’s own, or with the help of some medicine. But a D&C was out of the question. We spent quite some time trying to convince our doctor about this advice of no surgery on our island, he finally agreed to allowing me to not get a D&C and to take the medicine. So it was settled.
That weekend we went to a hotel on the other side of town so that we wouldn’t be at home inundated with our normal daily visitors while going through this loss. The doctor asked us to come to the hospital Friday night for the first dose of medicine and we followed his orders. I took the first pill there with him at the hospital and after a little while he let us go with instructions to return to the hospital Saturday morning for the second dosage of the medicine. So, again, we complied and arrived at his office in the morning.
Once arriving at the hospital, the doctor had us come into the maternity ward where he was working. The sound of new baby cries surrounded me and happy smiling friends assumed we had come to congratulate them on their niece/nephew/grandson/grand-daughter etc.’s birth. The doctor gave me the second dosage and said I had to remain at the hospital for a short while for some observation. I assumed this meant something like 20-40 minutes or so, but he meant for the rest of the day. A bit annoyed and incredibly disappointed we asked where he wanted us to wait. He suggested the communal receiving room with all the mothers who had just given birth to their adorable babes. We pressed gently stating that, emotionally, that is probably not the best place for me to undergo this loss and that I might benefit from paying for a private room for a bit of space, especially seeing that it only costs about $8 for the day. The doctor was not too happy about that and wanted me closer. He suggested then that I wait in the waiting room on the concrete bench under the tv that blared Spanish telenovelas amongst all the crowds of women waiting to help care for their loved ones who had just given birth. Finally, we won out and got a private room… just in time for my body to go into a type of labor.
The pain rose through my uterus into my stomach and through my throat. Having never been in labor before, this was the most excruciating pain I had ever felt. And my body started to bleed. The doctor wanted us to catch everything that passed so he could examen it. The small bathroom had water all over the floor and a toilet that didn’t flush. The room was warm and we hadn’t brought any sheets for the bed not realizing I would be in the hospital all day. I writhed in pain and Richard searched for a friend that might be around at the hospital who would be willing to run the shop to buy me pads as we had left all of our belongings at the hotel. But he couldn’t find anyone. Finally, he decided he had to go himself and asked if I was ok. We had no other choice, so I was. He asked a friend to sit with me so I wasn’t alone. Instead of sending the woman in this group of friends, the man came to sit with me. A soldier dressed in his uniform sat on the adjacent bed in the room, pulled out his laptop and began typing as I squirmed, rolling around unable to stop the pain. Finally, after what felt like forever, the pain subsided but my heart was fully broken. I laid on the bed crying, saying in the local language, “My baby has died. My baby has died…” The soldier stood up, walked over to me, took my shawl that normally covers my shoulders and head and laid it over my crumpled body saying, “Now now, don’t say that. God will give you more children, inshallah”. He then returned to his side of the room, sat down and began typing.
Immediately after that, Richard came running in. He had been gone a total of 10 minutes or so but it had felt so much longer. The soldier met him at the door and said, “Her heart can’t take it. Don’t wait. Get her pregnant again soon and she’ll be alright.” At first I found this offensive, but I knew what he was trying to say through the lens of different cultures. He was saying, “This is a horrible thing. Don’t let this stop you from continuing to try for more children. She has a mother’s heart; you can always try again.” (Later this year, that same man became one of very few people on this island to call on Jesus to be his Lord and Savior)
After hours and hours of waiting and waiting, we were finally released to leave. We went back to our air-conditioned hotel and continued our waiting, but more comfortably. Finally, that night, around 8pm, our baby left us. As I looked down to see what had happened I could see a clear sac with a small peach crescent inside and Richard and I knew that had been our little babe. And we loved her. We never knew her actual gender, but to us, she was a girl. Ava. Our Ava.
Richard had to bring her to show the doctor and the hospital so he could approve the miscarriage happened well and there was nothing remaining inside. Once he did the doctor confirmed that I had passed all that I was supposed to and I was safe, he then asked Richard if he wanted him to throw “it” away for him. Richard, hurt and shocked, declined and brought Ava back with him to the hotel. Richard called me when he arrived and asked if I wanted to join him on the beach to say goodbye to our girl.
We went to the beach, under the bright Milky Way and buried our baby. Richard dug a hole with his hands as I watched. He tore through coral and rock without concern of cuts but just continued to dig. He needed to do this for himself and for her. Once she was buried, we prayed and stacked a tower of coral that had washed up on shore on top of her spot. We continued to pray, to cry and to grieve our loss. We committed our girl to the Lord and reluctantly left the beach. The next morning, we saw her tower in daylight and I thought it the most perfect dedication to her.
Five months later, on Valentines Day, we found out we were expecting again. We were very nervous and scared of what could happen, but, thankfully, our sweet Luna was born on October 28, 2020 during the height of a covid spike in Nairobi, Kenya at Aga Khan hospital. And she was and still is incredibly perfect.
Fast forward 10 months, and August 16, 2021, back on our island home, we find out we’re pregnant again. We were beyond thrilled. Luna was to be a big sister! After only one week since we had done the test, I started spotting. We didn’t think too much of it but as each day passed the blood increased. We knew what was happening. To confirm what we felt sure about, we went to the hospital for care and advice. There was a new batch of traveling Chinese doctors and our previous doctor had returned to China. This new doctor didn’t know us or our story of loss and gain. We struggled to communicate as he had even worse English and French. We ended up leaving feeling confused and discouraged. And every day the blood increased. Until finally, a couple days later, while we were hosting a church gathering at our home, our 3rd baby left us. This one was smaller. We couldn’t see anything like we could with Ava, but we knew he was there. Our son: we decided we would call him a boy. We named him “Mbaraka” which means “blessing” in our local language.
This time, we had nothing to bury. But we still returned to Ava’s beach and we made a tower of coral to symbolically say goodbye. As much as we wanted a solemn moment, Luna cheerfully played with the rocks and coral, stacking and unstacking them on her brother’s memorial with the widest smile. She filled our hearts with so much joy as we processed so much sadness.
I know these things happen. I know the statistics. 1 in 4. 1 in 4 pregnancies end without a baby in mama’s arms. But even in the loss and sadness and grief, I’m grateful we had our babes with us even if the time was short. We celebrated their little lives well. We had hope with and for them. That same hope has not been taken from us. Sure, it’s been battered by the waves of sorrow, but like the determined grace that hope is, it still floats along, never failing. We still hope for more babies. We cling to the hope that Jesus gave us in His truth through His Word. We remain hopeful. And I look forward to seeing Ava and Mbaraka one day when we go to our Heavenly home, in the arms of Jesus. I look forward to the day, long from now, that we will be reunited once more.
Top left - The coral memorial for Ava, Top right - Our maternity photos when expecting Luna, Bottom left - Luna's amazing arrival in Kenya during a huge spike of Covid, Bottom right - Luna and Mbaraka's memorial on the same beach as Ava's