Meet baby Umi:
When I met Umi she was eleven weeks old and weighed just under five pounds. At an age where babies are normally holding their heads up, beginning to roll over, smiling, and babbling, Umi had not yet reached my son’s birth weight and was barely able to grasp onto my finger.
Umi’s case is extreme, but unfortunately it’s not isolated.
In her village in the Western Province of Papua New Guinea it’s been the women’s responsibility to gather sago – a local food sourced from a tree root – for generations.
Because her mother was out gathering sago each day to provide food for herself, her husband, and their three children, Umi was only being breastfed two-to-three times a day.
“She sleeps all the time,” said Umi’s mother, Komi, through a translator, “so she is fed when she wakes up.”
Clearly Komi didn’t understand that newborn babies must eat around the clock or else they won’t even have the energy to be awake enough to cry for food.
As a foreigner it’s easy for me to say, “That’s crazy, just send the husband out to work so the mother can look after and feed the baby.”
But it’s not that simple.
You can’t elbow your way into an age-old culture and demand change because you think you can see a better way. History shows that many well-meaning people have brought a lot of offense by ill-thought-out “improvements” and “change”.
And yet obviously change needs to come.
A three-month-old baby should not look like a frail, starving premie.
So how do we help Umi? How do we help her mother, Komi, and others like them?
Umi’s father died of tuberculosis (TB) the week before I met them. Umi’s mother—Komi—appeared sick as well, but our clinic workers didn’t have the lab resources to test for TB so we’re unsure about the exact state of her health.
We left rice and flour, canned tuna and beans. We left baby clothes and a blanket to keep Umi warm. We left vitamin drops for the entire family and made sure they all had critical immunizations. We left a teddy bear for her big brother and sister to share.
We also tried to further explain to Komi the importance of feeding Umi several times a day, even if she needed to be woken to eat.
As much as I personally loathe filling in charts, I scratched out a hand-drawn chart in a notebook to leave with her, showing her how to fill in a box each time she feeds Umi until she reaches at least eight feeds each day.
Together with our doctor and midwife, we again reminded her that feeding Umi is a matter of life and death.
And then we prayed. We prayed… and left.
Back to my “normal” reality.
Two weeks later I sit in the comfort of my four-bedroom home – closets bursting with clothes for every season, a kitchen packed full of fresh, healthy food, more clean water than my family could ever possibly drink, cook with, or bathe in – and I wonder…
How Umi is doing?
Is she gaining weight?
Has she fallen ill?
Is she alive?
And I wonder about Komi…
Is she using the feeding chart?
Is she waking Umi to eat?
Has she lost hope? Is she hanging on?
To lose your husband to disease and watch your baby lay listless in your arms, while your other two small children look on, their own tummies rumbling for food… That. can’t. be. easy.
How does Komi maintain hope? Or does she?
I believe that our connection to Umi’s village was no accident. Our workers visited her a total of four times over three weeks. As hard as it was to see her suffering and literally teetering on the edge of death, we were also encouraged to see she had gained 400 grams (0.8 pounds) during that time – that alone a small miracle.
How do we help to bring lasting change to this village? How do we ensure other babies don’t get left behind while their mothers are out harvesting the scare food that the area offers?
Before leaving Bamio I spent time interviewing several mothers (and one man) in Umi’s village, wondering why they didn’t wear their babies in slings or wraps and carry with them to the fields so that they can nurse when they’re hungry.
“Can you wear your babies and take them with you to get the sago?” I asked, explaining again that newborns need to eat around-the-clock. “Instead of leaving them with their siblings or grandmother or father to look after them at home, is it possible for you to wear them and bring the babysitter with you to look after the babies near where you work? Then you’ll be able to pause and feed them several times through the day as they need it.”
“Ah, yes!” one villager piped up. “Like a baby bilum?” (A bilum is a woven satchel commonly worn throughout Papua New Guinea.)
“Exactly,” I responded. “What about using baby bilums?”
At the mention of baby bilums they looked at me blankly while my interpreter said, “But we don’t have fabric.”
This was no joke.
I glanced at one of the women sitting next to me – the same one I sat behind in church the day before. She had a hole in her shirt, torn from shoulder to shoulder. It was obviously the only item of clothing she had – her “best” for Sunday church with the foreign visitors.
I knew immediately that if there was an extra sarong or piece of fabric it wouldn’t be used for babywearing, it would be used as a much-needed skirt or other article of clothing.
So here’s where we come in.
Umi’s village—Bamio—is a village of roughly 500. I don’t know exactly how many of those 500 are mothers – I know for certain that many of them are children… and those children definitely came from mamas. And nearly all of those mamas are responsible for harvesting food for their families.
Next year I would like to bring baby slings for the women of Bamio so they have an alternative to leaving their newborns behind while they work to provide food for their families.
Although leaving a supply of baby slings will not “solve” the problems in Bamio, I believe it’s a practical, achievable part of the approach we can take in educating and equipping these dear women (and their husbands) in regards to the importance of maternal availability during the newborn and infant stages.
My hope is to leave them at the aid post with Josephine – the village’s “unofficial” birth attendant – to distribute among new mothers as needed.
Say hello to Josephine:
Isn’t she absolutely lovely? Perhaps I’ll tell you her story one day soon, too.
[Note, I've since shared Josephine's story. It can be found here: A drink of water.]
Do you think something as simple as a piece of fabric can change a village?
Not entirely, but it’s a start – a part of the solution.
The gorgeous women of Bamio need a catalyst for change…
I want there to be no reason that an infant goes hungry while her mother is off supporting the family.
I want Umi to live… and I also want her story to count for something – for her suffering to get our attention so that collectively we can work to make her world a better place.
Certainly she is worth our attention.
Does there need to be development in Bamio in terms of sustainable food sources and clean water and microenterprise and education and healthcare? Yes and yes and yes-yes-yes.
There’s much work to be done in Bamio.
But friends, can we start with giving these babies the gift of their mothers back? Because in those early days, a mother’s milk is a baby’s life.
How to contribute a ring sling:
If you would like to contribute a sling, please send it to me (address below) before March 2013 and I will ensure it gets to Bamio in the Western Province next year when our YWAM Medical Ship returns. It’s important that you send a ring sling.
Why a ring sling?
A few reasons:
1. A moby-type wrap can be used for something else (clothing, bedding, etc.) and I want to tackle this issue head-on, leaving no reason for babies to be separated from their mothers.
2. A circular hammock-type sling (with no rings) isn’t adjustable for different size babies and mothers/care-givers.
3. A few hundred backpack-type carriers (like my favorite – the Ergo) are far too bulky to pack and store on our ship where space is very, very precious and mostly reserved for medical supplies and food.
So it’s ring slings I’m after for Bamio.
You’re welcome to pass along a used one, but only if it’s in pristine condition. (They deserve our best, not our throw-aways.) You can also buy or make one. Feel free to embroider a personal message somewhere on the sling or personalize it in another way if you’d like to. Remember that this is going to help a woman – a mother – care for her most precious and vulnerable. Don’t just think of this as an act of charity, think of it as your personal gift to a sister in need.
If I receive more slings than we need for Bamio, I’ll then look at how to distribute them in other villages as well. But for now, we start with Bamio – Umi’s village, Komi’s village.
Dear friends, can you help us bring change in Bamio?
P.S. Many of you have asked about donating baby clothes, blankets, etc. Yes, we do have need for baby bundles to give to families in need. Useful items include: wash cloths, soap (bars), receiving blankets, folding cloth diapers and baby pins, onsies, newborn beanies, newborn footie pajamas, and baby clothes of all sizes up to 24 months. (All need to be free of stains, rips, and broken zippers/snaps/buttons.) We can also accept skirts (knee length or longer please) and loose-fitting shirts (no sleeveless) for the mothers, unopened toothbrushes and toothpaste, used prescription eyeglasses, and (new) school supplies. Please email me (or leave a question below in the comments) and let me know what you’re thinking so I can ensure we have space to include your donations during our next outreaches. If you are overseas, please also keep in mind that shipping costs to Australia are not cheap. (Then again, everything of worth costs something… right?)
Send ring slings to:
Project Baby Bilum
c/o Adriel Booker
PO Box 6221
Townsville, QLD 4810
*If you send a ring sling for Project Baby Bilum, please make sure to include your contact details (and an active email address!!) so I can let you know when your package has arrived.
More on the women of rural Papua New Guinea:
Bokoro’s Story: Giving birth in the mud
Josephine’s Story: A drink of water
Giving birth along the Bamu River: Stories from Papua New Guinea
Bloggers for Birth Kits: Helping to reduce maternal mortality in the developing world