BAI KUKE, Cameroon (WOMENSENEWS)–Paulina Mosaka, a 73-year-old widow, was peeling plantains to cook for the many grandchildren living with her. Between ages 2 and 15, they played happily outside in the muddy backyard.
Mosaka used her walking stick to inch gingerly to the porch off the kitchen of her dilapidated wooden house in this village in the southwestern part of Cameroon. She sat down gently on the bare earth floor.
At the mention of her late daughter, Rebecca, Mosaka began to cry. Rebecca recently died at age 30 in the hands of a traditional midwife after more than 14 hours of labor with her eighth child.
“Ma pickin, this place wey we shidon so, na for dey wey Rebecca be sleep die body, for down here so, like say yi be be na beef,” she said in Pidgin English.
Her words meant that this porch was the exact spot where Rebecca was laid the day she died, as if she were a dead animal. Overcome by emotion, she summoned her other daughter Penda Mokossa to continue the “bad luck” story.
“They said my sister died of witchcraft because she died in labor,” said Mokossa, 36, who is married with six children. Mokossa blamed her sister’s death on poverty. “She did not attend antenatal clinic even for one day because she did not have money to attend clinic.”
But she said the community attributed her death to “swine witchcraft.”
Among the Oroko ethnic community here, traditional belief holds that swine mystically inhabit the bodies of some women, who are capable of witchcraft and morph into swine at night. When these women become pregnant, they give birth to baby swine in the bushes and risk losing their lives if they try to deliver their babies in the real world.
In line with this belief, women who die during childbirth are at high risk of being shunned as witches and deprived traditional burials.
Mokossa said that after her sister died, the family placed her corpse on a bed, in standard preparation for burial.
Village Leaders Intervene
But village leaders disrupted that. They told the family that the corpse couldn’t stay inside. It had to lie naked on the ground outside, with just a cloth covering the body.
Mokossa said an older brother was asked to cut her stomach in order to remove the dead baby, as tradition demands.
“I did not see anything because I was pregnant myself,” she said. “It was said that pregnant women do not come close to such activities, as they may be bewitched just at the sight of the corpse.”
Her mother broke in to say it was a “big, big disgrace” for the family.
Mokossa said that the mother and baby were buried separately within a few hours of their deaths. “Tradition demands that such corpses are supposed to be buried as fast as possible to avoid the spread of ill luck to members of the community.”
Mokossa said her mother cries a great deal now and wonders who introduced her daughter to witchcraft. Some villagers have accused the mother of doing so.
Oroko community leaders defend their tradition of ascribing witchcraft to women who die in childbirth.
Benjamin Mbando, 65, the chief of the Oroko community in Bai Kuke, said tradition was part and parcel of a people and they must practice it in order to ensure continuity.
“It is very true that most women who die while giving birth have witchcraft,” he said. “Swine is a common witchcraft practice among the women of Oroko origin.”
Mbando added that while outsiders might not understand the practice, they must respect the community’s traditions.
Calling it Lack of Care
But health professionals are striving to explain it as a simple lack of proper care, not witchcraft.
Cameroon is off track to meet targets to lower maternal mortality by 2015 under No. 5 of the Millennium Development Goals, a U.N. anti-poverty initiative agreed to by countries worldwide. In Cameroon, there are 600 maternal deaths per 100,000 live births, according to UNICEF’s latest adjusted data. In Sweden, by contrast, four mothers suffer fatal complications per 100,000 births.
Pauline Koi is the superintendent of nurses at Pamol Bai Estate Hospital, near Bai Kuke. Koi said a pregnant woman was as fragile as a cocoyam leaf and must have proper medical care throughout her pregnancy and delivery. But she said women around the Bai area did not take antenatal care seriously.
“Most women who come for delivery in our hospital did not attend antenatal clinic,” she said. “Most of such women always suffer from some delivery complications, and some even die in the end. And if they die, they are labeled with witchcraft.”
The women could be saved by medical checkups that could detect severe problems and in many cases save women’s lives, she said.
A local nonprofit insurance program, the Bamenda Ecclesiastical Province Health Assistance, pays 75 percent of its clients’ medical bills. One of its goals is to help pregnant women and lower maternal mortality.
“We are making progress, especially in the direction of pregnant women,” said Nshom Bali, 38, a spokesman for the group’s Buea branch. “And we are gradually erasing stereotypes. This is our goal.”
Some lawyers advise families to prosecute community leaders who pressure them to disgrace the corpses of women who die during childbirth.
“If anybody sees or hears that some people somewhere are carrying on such a dirty practice, they should call me, and I will go there immediately,” Bobga Mutong, a barrister and human rights activist, said angrily. “If I discover people doing that, I will take necessary steps to make them understand that what they are doing is very wrong.”
Peter Mbenga, 39, lives in Munyenge Trouble, a village about three miles from Bai Kuke. His wife died immediately after giving birth to their son. Mbenga said he was shocked to see how his wife’s corpse was treated.
“My wife was laid on a bare ground far off from the home, and she was covered from head to toes with a [cloth],” he said. “She was buried a few hours after she died in an inhuman way.”
Mbenga said the tradition was cruel and must be revised.
“There is no proof that as to whether such women have witchcraft,” he said. “As a result, their corpses should be treated with respect as other corpses are.”
Nakinti Nofuru reports for Global Press Institute’s Cameroon News Desk, covering topics such as education, women’s rights, education, and arts and culture.
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