Pregnant in a refugee camp

Citegetse Laurence is due at any moment. Literally. “I’m past nine months pregnant,” she says with a grin. A maternity ward nurse at the Tanzania Red Cross Society hospital in the Mtendeli refugee camp, she is more than familiar with the ins and outs of giving birth. And, as a refugee who recently escaped ongoing violence in her home country of Burundi, she is more than familiar with the challenges of being pregnant in such an environment. Unfortunately, Citegetse is not alone. 

The doctors at this hospital see an average of 120 patients per day. As refugees transferred to Mtendeli from the overcrowded Nyarugusu camp three hours to the south at the rate of 1,500 a week, that number continued to grow. Of those 120 daily patients, 50, on average, are pregnant. Walk into the hospital any day of the week and you will hear the cries of newborns and see their mothers breastfeeding. Walk throughout the camp and you will see pregnant women everywhere. One doctor tells me that the high fertility rate of Burundian women is their way of replacing the many they have lost. It is a heartbreaking way to think about new life in the world.

Wireyeimane Anittra, 23, fled Burundi in September, when she was just over three months pregnant. She is one of the lucky ones. Her husband and son managed to escape with her. She was the first woman to give birth in the new hospital. She says she felt better after arriving because she was supported by medical staff. In appreciation, she named her son Sospeter Mtendeli; Sospeter after her nurse, and Mtendeli after the hospital. Just two weeks old, he nurses at her breast, ten tiny fingers and toes, soft wavy curls of dark hair plastered to his head by the heat.

“I hope my life will be better here,” Wireyeimane says, “but I worry about his health. There’s not enough food and milk for nutrition.”

Running a maternity ward with unreliable electricity

Construction of the Red Cross Mtendeli hospital is ongoing, but the maternity ward is clean and inviting, a rarity and refuge in an otherwise chaotic environment. There is no ultrasound machine. The head of the hospital, Dr George Lukindo, teaches staff to read the signs of fetal stress through other measures. Electricity is not always a given, so equipment is often sterilized through propane fire. But there is an oxygen machine and heat lamps for premature babies. Patients receive a prepared breakfast, lunch and dinner, and the beds are larger than many maternity wards across the continent. Currently, women who need caesarian sections have to be referred to the local hospital, but plans for an operating theatre will enable doctors to perform them onsite. According to Dr Lukindo, one of the biggest issues is that pregnant mothers do not come into the hospital until just hours before birth. To counter that, the Red Cross Health Information Team (HIT), refugee volunteers who go door-to-door to let people know about service availability and health promotions, have been spreading the word about the hospital, particularly to pregnant women.

Citegetse’s first child and husband were killed in Burundi right before she fled. In addition to working in the Tanzania refugee camp, she has also received prenatal care and plans on giving birth here. While the memories of her family still haunt her, she finds a joy in her work in the maternity ward. “I love my job,” she says. “It is joyful to have social relationships with others and not think about the past.”

The blog post was written by Niki Clark, a Senior Associate, International Communications at American Red Cross.