This is my friend and her beautiful girls. The baby girl in this photo was 3 weeks old when we left Swaziland in mid-July. On Saturday afternoon, aged 3 months, she died.
Sitting here, thousands of miles away from my friend, I am powerless to comfort her. I received the news this morning. I am angry and sad. I want to tell her story.
Lihle was a single mother to an 8 year old daughter when she became pregnant with baby girl. But the story does not start there. Lihle’s mother died when she was a child, her father remarried and left her alone to raise her siblings. She had her first daughter aged 17. Single parenthood is the norm in Swazi society. Most children are raised by single mothers, aunts or grandmothers. Many are raised by their siblings. Dads may drift in and out, or may never meet their children. A father cannot obtain a birth certificate for his own child, even if he wants to, as society does not recognise his parenthood.
Soon she was close to giving birth and had not sought any antenatal care, worried about having to have an HIV test. Swaziland has the highest HIV rate in the world, with around 1 in 3-4 infected. The disease disproportionately affects women. In the area we lived, rates amongst pregnant women felt closer to 1 in 2. When she finally went to clinic she was about 36 weeks and had a haemoglobin of 5. Ideally it should be over 11. The most likely cause was iron deficiency. She is a woman who is probably chronically malnourished; her and Ladybird rarely had anything to eat.
Conversation shifted to how she would give birth with no money for hospital fees or transport. It felt futile, but I suggested she ask the father. She laughed nervously. “I can’t. My Gogo [granny] says I must not ask him for too much. Otherwise he won’t give us anything at all.” I made a few comments about how maybe next time he’d like to use some protection if he didn’t fancy the responsibilities that came with fathering children. She covered her mouth as she laughed at my boldness.
“It’s okay,” she said, “I’m not afraid of giving birth alone. I just need to find something to cut the cord with.”
Her words echoed in my mind for the next few weeks. Resilience. Or foolishness. Or denial. Either way, she was made of tougher stuff than me. And also had no idea about her likelihood of bleeding and dying with such a low blood count. I told her she had to call me when she went into labour and I’d be right there. I quietly put an Ikea food clip in my car first aid kit to clamp a cord with. Just in case.
But the night that baby girl was born I was hours away and couldn’t be there. We did what we could from a distance and the baby was born safely. She fed well over her first few weeks. I dropped off a few packages and visited when I could. Lihle was doing her best, but part of me knew that would never be good enough. Ladybird wasn’t in school as she had no birth certificate. This little one wouldn’t have one either. I hugged them goodbye as I left Swaziland, wondering what the future held.
This morning I got the news that Baby Girl had died on Saturday afternoon. Her mother had no food. She thought her milk had dried up. With no money to improve her own diet or buy formula, she gave the baby sugared water. Swaziland is good that way. Sugar is readily available. Gradually, the baby starved. As her mother realised what was happening, she started making her way to hospital. On the way, she breathed her tiny last breath and left her world of suffering.
She died from poverty, she died from ignorance and lack of education, she died from disillusionment, from gender inequality, she died from prohibitive hospital fees, from lack of prioritisation, from unemployment, from lack of motivation, she died from not having a father. She died from injustice.
I am far from my friend. Angry and sad. Wishing I was nearby to comfort her. Wishing I had been there to help. If I had been there, the baby would still be alive. Angry that having a friend with the power, knowledge and money (unjustly) bestowed by a white skin would have meant the difference between life and death for this tiny, beautiful creature made in the image of God. That isn’t fair.
And then God. It would be easy to get mad, to ask why He ‘lets’ this happen. Or to question His existence. I don’t have the answers. I don’t know why this happened to a tiny baby who didn’t deserve to starve to death. I know there were structural factors, I know there were people who could have taken more responsibility. I know that there are human beings who are far from blameless in this story. But still. Why?
In her country, some people will say God is punishing someone with her death, or they will say the Sangoma (witch doctor) put a curse on her. Or they will just accept it, with a familiar degree of fatalism, and move on. Babies die. It happens. But my outrage burns alongside my questions. And it isn’t confined to the story of a poor mother and her daughters living in the hot, dry lowveld of Swaziland. Even in my own country babies die. They die when people have made mistakes, and they die when no one has made mistakes. They die with the best care in the world. They die during pregnancy, despite the best scans and monitoring that one of the world’s best health systems can provide. They have died after I’ve delivered them as quickly as I possibly could, and we never found out the reason. I’ve held their lifeless little bodies and whispered my sorrow that we couldn’t do more for them.
But all I can do is come back to what I know of God.
Firstly, He is good. Always. It might sound trite and too simple to be true. The words of someone who doesn’t know what it is to lose their own child. But I promise you, it’s true. It’s not simple, but a deep mystery that I’m still learning about day in and day out.
Secondly, as angry as I think I am, as sad as I think I am… He is more so. Baby Girl was His beautiful, perfect daughter. Whether there were people to blame, or whether she was just an innocent victim of living in a world marred by imperfection… He weeps more than I do. He grieves more than I do. He rages more than I do. And He understands more than any of us in this story what it feels to lose an innocent and perfect child.
Thirdly, He is big enough to take all of our rage and sadness. Try it and see. We can beat on His chest with fists clenched. Even when we don’t know if really is good. Or if He’s even there. He can take all of our questions and accusations. He wants to hear them. Because that is relationship. That is how He loves. He wants to feel us collapse, weeping as he wraps his everlasting arms around our trembling bodies.
Lastly, he has her tiny, beautiful soul. He caught it as it drifted high in the blue sky above the Lubombo mountains. She has her Father. He has her.
** If baby loss is something close to your heart, please consider attending this event run by Ivy Church
** For more about food insecurity in Swaziland see this post.