One Woman’s Need for a Maternity Waiting Home in Ethiopia

Matthias Steinbach

At the crack of dawn, and after being blessed by her mother and the elderly in one of the pastoralist villages of Denan Woreda district, 30-year-old Sindebie Weda left her home in the bush to travel more than 155 miles (250 kms) in a heavy truck to Degehabur hospital. Two bags filled with dresses and some biscuits were the items she carried for her long journey. Her aunt, accompanying her, helped Sindebie climb into the back of the truck crammed full of cargo and people traveling to town.

When the truck left the village in the Somali region of Ethiopia, Sindebie sighed in relief. During her six years of married life there, she had lost two babies in two deliveries. Like many women in the area, Sindebie had tried to deliver at home with the support of traditional birth attendants. "During my second delivery just two years ago, not only did I lose the baby but I was almost on the verge of death,” she said. “I was unconscious for hours while I was taken to the local health center." She was then transferred to a secondary care hospital, some 185 miles (300 kms) away, where she recovered.

"I was traumatized by such experiences," said Sindebie. She was determined not to undergo such a devastating situation again. She was intent on paying whatever it took to make her third delivery successful. After a half-day-long arduous and bumpy journey, the truck finally arrived in Degehabur town. “When I was told that I had arrived at the hospital, I was filled with joy and smiled for the first time in months," she said. "And, for the very first time, I felt I would soon enjoy nature’s blessing—being a mother."

As expected, she was well-received and treated. However, after a few moments of rest, she was called into the examination room and, after conducting the proper antenatal care examination, the maternity staff at Degehabur hospital told Sindebie her due date had not yet arrived and advised her to go back home and return after 10 days. When Sindebie heard this she couldn’t believe it. In an instant, memories flashed back of all the agonies, the loss and the misery she had suffered over the years. She was dumbfounded.

"When I saw her silence, I thought she hadn’t understood the advice so I told her again," said Rukia Abdulahi, midwife and supervisor of the mother-and-child health care unit at the hospital. "Then she slowly raised herself up from the examination bed and sat comfortably. She stared at the three of us, the midwives. She then settled her eyes directly on me, fixing me with a piercing look. Silence filled the little room for few seconds. Suddenly, Sindebie’s strong voice broke the silence: 'I won’t leave the hospital until I give birth to a live baby. I’ve had enough. I’ve already lost two babies during my previous two deliveries. I don’t want to go without my baby!'"

The midwives were stunned by the response. Rukia says the woman’s determination was firm and unequivocal. They never expected such a response. After listening to Sindebie’s traumatic tale, the medical team was convinced and sympathetic. However, Rukia said, "the problem was where to accommodate her and who could provide her with assistance for days. We were at a loss as to what to do."

Sindebie’s story spread very fast around the hospital until it reached Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) staff who were working in partnership with the Regional Health Bureau in Degehabur hospital. Already aware of the needs, MSF was in the process of constructing a maternity waiting house in the hospital.

"Although the maternity waiting house was only half completed, we had to adjust and create a room for this courageous woman to stay," said Dr. Seri Sango, medical activity coordinator of the MSF Degehabur project. "We facilitated that. She stayed for seven days and gave birth to a healthy baby."

It was not only the staff and community of Degehabur hospital who heard about Sindebie’s story; she also became famous in her Denan community and far beyond. Currently, the maternity waiting house is fully furnished and accommodates about 12 pregnant women at a time.

Since it became fully operational in January 2015, more than 100 pregnant women coming from all villages in the Jerar region, and some from other areas, suffering from a variety of pregnancy-related complications, including severe and mild pre-eclampsia, and anemia, have benefited from the maternity waiting house. In addition to delivering antenatal and postnatal services to the women staying there, the maternity waiting house also provides for their basic needs: hygiene, health education, food, soap, and general medical treatment.

"If it hadn’t been for MSF, we could have faced serious problems in saving the lives of these mothers and also in supporting them to deliver safely," Rukia said. "We don’t have any space to keep mothers here for weeks."

MSF is supporting the Somali Regional Health Bureau in providing quality health care at Degehabur hospital as well as in outreach locations via mobile clinics, and is supporting health centers and health posts in the provision of care.

Read about MSF's work on women's health issues in Because Tomorrow Needs Her

30-year-old Sindebie Weda was the first woman to stay at the maternity waiting house in Degehabur hospital, Somali region.
Matthias Steinbach