To court the favor of pregnant women, the hospital began offering free pain relief during childbirth. But Elo would have none of it. In a dry dusty terrain with no access to health care, Fulani women squatted behind trees and noiselessly birthed their children. Or so Elo believed. She believed a couple of things. When her mother whipped her with the koboko reserved for her rambunctious escapades, Elo believed her mother was intent on humiliating her. So she held her breath when the whip cut through her skin. Her mother would never have the pleasure of seeing her cry. The whippings were so frequent, Elo quickly gained mastery. At school, she became the girl who took fifty lashes without flinching. One day, she stared down her mother as she peppered her body with whips. The stare was cold, mocking, teasing. Her mother slapped her hard on her mouth.
“God punish you, no dey look me.”
Elo held her gaze. Her mother quit whipping her from that day.
In the labor room, Elo rubs her swollen belly and grinds her teeth. She came into the labor room just before the night shift nurses finished their handoffs. They all thought it was Braxton Hicks until one of them examined her cervix and noticed that the membrane was indeed ruptured and her cervix dilating. The delivery nurse assigned to Elo helped her peel her turtleneck top from her neck. She examined Elo’s delivery bag and nodded in agreement. She removed two pads. These pads, which are stored for emergencies, are mostly sold at discounted prices to other patients, along with vials of oxytocin, cannulae, IV infusion sets, and packets of misoprostol. Elo stripped naked and wrapped a cloth around her breasts. She laid on her left side as instructed and shut her eyes.
No one has yet noticed her noiselessness. The labor room is bustling with activity as nurses attend to four laboring women. If all goes well, the staff will be rewarded with cans of Coca-Cola and cash gifts from effusive and grateful husbands. Apart from Elo, all the laboring women are in different states of nudity. They should be covered with cloth as taught during Antenatal care but it is a common consensus that labor makes you shameless. Take for example the woman at the far right of the room. On a good day, she is the kind to mull over her wig collection, unable to decide between the bobbed Vietnamese DD or the Indian bone straight for work but now her hair is plaited into five uneven cornrows and in need of detangling and shampooing. The woman opposite her has her hair in tiny neat braids. Her toenails and fingernails are painted bronze but she is stark naked and restless. She has walked, squatted, and mounted her bed in the hands and knees position but she can’t find relief. She is an hour away from her epidural. The third woman who just had an epidural was skeptical when the anesthetist said it was free. She told him she had delivered three children in the hospital and had never been given anything for free. It was then the anesthetist admitted that the procedure was free but the drugs and epidural pack had to be bought. She was certain she wouldn’t need an epidural, after all, she had delivered three children without one. But this labor was different. After the epidural, she wondered if her perception of pain increased because she was given an option that was 50k less than usual.
Two of the laboring women are delivered four hours later and the third taken to the theatre for an emergency CS. As the women recover from the stress of labor, the nurses fuss over them, helping their newborns latch onto their nipples and doling out advice for their stitched perineum. It is then the nurses notice the static in the room that seems to be throbbing like an engorged vein. They try to ignore it but eventually they all shift their attention to its source; Elo, who is still lying on her side as instructed. You can tell she is in pain. She jerks her left foot and rubs her belly. A bead of sweat hangs from her upper lip. A nurse asks the anesthetist if she has taken an epidural. The anesthetist says “no, she refused it.” Another nurse scans her folder and sees that she is almost 8cm. She can’t remember when this patient was admitted and now that she thinks of it, she can’t seem to remember the patient’s presence in the room. The nurse assigned to Elo asks if this is her first time in labor and Elo nods her head. She checks the contractions and sees that they are strong. She is amazed.
In fact, all the nurses are, along with the nursing mothers who have shifted their attention from their infants to the quiet woman on the bed. One of them wonders if Elo is Fulani. The one with the bronze nail polish remembers her labor and flinches. She looks at her newborn and quickly forgets. The nurses have nothing to fuss about Elo. They can’t tell her to cover up, they can’t tell her sorry or endure or be strong. They can’t treat her in the usual way they treat all laboring women; with pity, condescension, and amusement, like a teacher cleaning snot from a toddler’s nose. These nurses who have seen labor rip women to shreds, suck their teeth at patients who sass them during ANC, and tell them “wait until your labor starts,”meaning, “wait till you almost walk out of the labor room naked and I have to pull you back inside,” or “wait till I slap your thighs and tell you to shut up and use your energy to push,” or better still, “wait till I clean your shit, blood, and liquor.” They fuss about her vital signs instead. They check her blood pressure and heart rate, her baby’s heart rate, and her contractions. They check her urine and measure the amount of water she has taken. They say she is strong and very brave but what they really want to say is why are you not in pain? Instead, they bring the doctor to do it for them.
In the waiting area, Elo’s husband sits with his hands tucked between his legs. Bloated mosquitoes hum around his head but he doesn’t bother to swat them away. Instead, he examines the calluses on his palm and briefly thinks about the yam seedlings buried in the hot earth in his farm, thirsty for rain. His mind fleets to the chickens, the turkeys, the goats, and the ugu leaves that need harvesting. He’s a svelte man who knows how to work with his hands, hoeing, cutting, taming relentless weeds, and collecting freshly laid eggs. He knows how to bargain with his buyers, he knows how to walk away from a fight.
But he still doesn’t know how to bite his wife’s nipples. She tells him harder and he hesitates, afraid of drawing blood. They met at a street lined with women who seemed to be waiting for a bus to take them somewhere important. There were a lot of women to choose from but he was interested in her because she didn’t call him honey or baby or strike a pose to get his attention. After a week of meeting in a motel, he collected her phone number. He liked her. With time, she grew to like him and when she saw that he would rather stuff his hands in his pockets and leave the house for days than hit her, she learned to keep her peace. Sometimes she intentionally lifts hot pots from the stove to feel the burn but most times she is content. He is not aware of this. He is also not aware of her previous boyfriends, as explosive as they were brawny; men who fought with her and eventually concluded that making her whimper would cost them blood from their shoulders, lips, ears, and fingers. They quickly left her for less energetic women.
The nurse who invited him to the labor room doesn’t bother to look behind her to see if he is following. Instead, she walks hurriedly, making him panic the more. In the labor room, his wife is flanked on both sides by nurses while the doctor stands by the foot of the bed. He closes his eyes, opens them, and walks to her bed. He quickly takes in her sweaty face, her swollen ankles and purple batik cloth with white crisscrosses. He almost laughs with relief. The doctor and the nurses look tense so he suppresses the urge and squeezes his wife’s palm instead.
“Your wife doesn’t want analgesia,” the doctor begins.
“I don’t need it,” Elo interrupts.
“She doesn’t need it,” he adds.
The doctor dabs the sweat on his brow. He is a very efficient doctor. When the nurse informed him of the patient who looks like she is not in labor, he was mildly interested. His interests are bleeding patients thirty minutes away from dying, women in need of an emergency cesarean section, or a hysterectomy. He can open up the uterus in twenty minutes tops. When he saw Elo, his mild interest evolved into curiosity and, ultimately, ambition. He plans on presenting this case at the next clinical meeting and, if possible, publish an article too.
“Your wife looks like she is not in pain,” the doctor says.
“I am in pain,” Elo says with irritation.
“But you don’t look like it.”
“I’m almost there. All these will soon be over.”
What Elo really wants to say is, “if I stay still the pain can’t see me,” but she doesn’t want to startle them or her husband. If she tells them pain is a dragon and she must be the slayer, will they understand? The doctor nods in agreement and ushers her husband away to lobby his consent.
At 10cm, Elo has an urge to push. The nurses do not know she is fully dilated until she announces that she wants to poop. They spread disposable sheets between her legs and tell her to hold her ankles and look at her belly button. Before they say this Elo has positioned herself. She has been watching YouTube videos on how to breathe and how to push to save energy. She knows how her baby will make his way down her birth canal. She knows he will first tuck his chin into his chest, his face towards her spine. Next, his head will crown from her vagina, like a flower opening, and his body will rotate by a quarter. As the pain spreads down her waist, she remembers the time she passed a worm from her anus as a kid. She was given drugs by a campaign targeted at schoolchildren. She remembers how she thought it was a very difficult stool until she bent and saw a long white worm dangling inside the toilet bowl. When she saw the worm, she focused her energy on pushing it out and imagined she was giving birth.
Her baby’s head crowns and the nurses wait patiently. They both think of the best way to tell this story as soon as they get home. The first nurse thinks in the line of, “I deliver one woman for labor room today. You no go believe am but she no shout at all, she no even take injection for back.” The other nurse already sees herself telling the story to her husband after their midnight fuck, animating the events of the woman who “look like say she no dey labor.”
The delivery room is quiet, except for the clanking of forceps against trays, the jostling of the IV tree as a nurse hangs an IV fluid, the scratching of the doctor’s pen on paper. Elo’s baby glides out slick and red, his eyes and nose closed, his lungs wet. The moment his umbilical cord is cut, pressure builds in his chest. He screams. His voice is shrill and lusty. It disrupts his mother’s static and his hearers are happy to feed on it.
© Nzube Ifediba
[This piece was selected by Sommer Schafer. Read Nzube’s interview]