Friday, December 23, 2005

A visit to a mother and her newborn

Last night Daniel and I visited my colleague, her new baby and extended family at their home. They live behind one of the two major markets in Dili. My colleague gave birth to her second child on 1 December at the Dili National Hospital. Like my colleague who gave birth the month before, she worked right up until she went into labour. However this colleague’s birth was not as easy as the other’s was; the labour was 13 hours and she had to stay in hospital for four days due to ill health. She told me that it had been the same with her first child who was born only 14 months previously. She said that she did not want to have any more children, at least not until her early 30s (she is 23), as she hates the pain of childbirth. My colleague has also said that she only wants two children but perhaps because both are boys, she may want to try again for a girl in the future.

My colleague was, as is customary in Timor, wrapped up in clothes including a woollen/acrylic cardigan! Sweat was pouring off her brow as we sat in the still humid evening air. She wouldn’t drink the soft drink she offered us because she can only drink hot drinks. She can also only bathe in hot, often scalding water. This custom must be adhered to for at least one month after the baby’s birth in the belief that toxins and impurities that resulted from the pregnancy must be sweated out. Again, I do believe that perhaps this custom had some practical benefits in the cold mountainous interior of Timor, but in Dili?!

The baby was wrapped up as well; including the ubiquitous hat on its head. However, at the very least it was cotton and when it fell off his head, no one bothered to put it back on. He weighed 3.5 kg when he was born and likewise his older brother weighed 3.4kg. This is a very good weight for Timorese babies as often women try not to eat too much during their pregnancy in order that the baby does not weigh any more than 3kg. As you can imagine, low birth weight is a huge problem which sets off a whole host of other health problems in the life of a Timorese child (12% of children die before the age of 5.)

There are twelve people living in my colleague’s home which must only have three or four bedrooms at the most. My colleague, her partner/husband and two small children live with her parents and her six siblings. It is unusual for a “married” woman to live with her family of origin but because her partner/husband cannot afford the bride price, they cannot live with his family. My colleague told me that she hopes that the bride price will never be paid because she loves living with her family for it is “better”. Better translates into having more power than is usually the case for women who are “sold” to their husband’s family where they are all too often disempowered and vulnerable.

My colleague and her partner/husband are very beautiful people and their children are likewise gorgeous; and she and her extended family were all delightful. We had a really good feeling from this family and were very pleased to meet them all. However, there was one very funny incident where my colleague’s mother said that Daniel and I had the same faces and therefore looked alike. Daniel and I look nothing like each other! He has brown eyes, a roman nose, full lips and an oval face; I have green eyes, a ski jump nose, thin lips and a round face. I therefore deduced that my colleague’s mother had obviously not been in close contact with many “malae’’ and that Timorese too are just as guilty as white folk are of claiming that the “other” all look alike! To be honest, this was quite a revelation to me, the fact that all races can be guilty of racist comments.

When my colleague returns to work I am going to talk to her about contraception. She has told me that she doesn’t want any more children (for now anyway), but if she doesn’t do something about it, she will soon be pregnant again (remember only 8% of women use contraception hence the highest birth rate in the world). I have recently ascertained where the four places in Dili are located where contraception can be obtained; two of which are free. I’m on a mission!

Category: Timor-Leste (East Timor)

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