From Our Own Correspondent
By Jane Labous
“I’m walking in the forest,” Ndim says. “Sometimes I’m pregnant, sometimes I’m giving milk to a baby.” We’re sitting in a sunlit room in Dakar, as she tells me about her recurring dream. The 35-year old pauses while a younger woman carrying a toddler on her hip wanders past, glancing at us with barely-concealed curiosity. The woman’s flip-flops swish on the tiles. She is laniarel,la deuxieme, Ndim’s husband’s second wife.
Ndim watches her pass in tense silence before speaking up again. “In the dream, the sky’s a little dark,’ she continues in a soft voice, “as if it’s going to rain. I walk quickly, then run with the baby in my arms. Then I wake up.” She smiles, sighs. “I want to live that dream.”
Ndim has been married to Badera, a tailor, for 12 years. After three miscarriages she was diagnosed with fibroids, which can affect fertility – and the couple still have no children together. Treatment here in Senegal is expensive. The operation to remove fibroids would cost over a million CFAs – more than 1,300 pounds // more than 1,700 dollars – more than Ndim and Badera could ever save up in a year.
The couple are clearly in love. It’s obvious from the sweet way Badera treats Ndim, as if she were a cherished piece of china. As they sit together watching TV on their bed, neatly made up with linen printed with love-hearts, he strokes her arm with palpable, slightly heartbreaking tenderness. Heartbreaking because in 2016, Badera took his second wife. A month later, that wife was pregnant.
“People here in Senegal, they talk,” Badera confesses. He’s a habitually cheerful man with an enormous smile, but now there’s a heaviness about his words. His shoulders droop. “Your parents, your friends, they say: ‘But why haven’t you had a child after all these years. Are you ill?!’ Then my wife’s sister had a baby, and her husband accused me of being ill. I was so angry. So I took a second wife to prove I wasn’t.”
Childless women are often stigmatised in West Africa. But Badera’s story also shows the intense pressure on men to father children, and carry on their family line.
He pauses, frowning. When he looks up again his eyes are bright with suppressed tears. “Taking a second wife was simply vengeance, but if it comes to loving Ndim, I love her.” He speaks with passion; I feel this man’s anger and his regret at finding himself torn between his true love and his pride.
“Most of the time, I don’t cry,’ confides Ndim a little later. We stand on her roof where the washing hangs in the hot sun and the birds wheel in the sky, contemplating the jigsaw of rooftops down to the sea. “But I cry inside. Crying inside, that’s much more difficult.”
In Liberte 6 district, I meet Dr Rokhaya Thiam Ba, who runs her own prestigious fertility clinic in a sandy back street of this wealthy enclave of Dakar. An imposing woman in an impeccable pale-blue kaftan and matching headscarf, Dr Ba exudes an air of capability. Her hushed waiting room, decorated with potted palms and statues of mothers and babies, could be anywhere in Europe. In one corner, a woman pacifies newborn twins. “IVF,” Dr Ba whispers to me as we look over, “although the mother will never admit it.”
The first IVF baby in Senegal was born in 1989. Since establishing her clinic in 2007, Paris-trained Ba has personally helped over 100 babies into the world – sometimes even acting as midwife. “Infertility is considered a handicap here,” Dr Ba explains in her consulting room. “An infertile woman is stigmatised, rejected by society. When a woman comes to me and succeeds in having a baby via IVF, she’ll never admit it to her friends and family- she’ll pretend she’s had it naturally. Here IVF babies are en cachette, secret babies.”
In Senegal, pregnancy and infertility are bound up with religion and mysticism. Superstition dictates that a pregnant woman should not show her bump in public. Women who can’t have children are said to be affected by les anges, bad angels, bad spirits. Even as they consult medical doctors, couples will ask marabouts, religious men, for mystical treatments and talismans. “Frankly, we protect ourselves,’ one of Dr Ba’s patients tells me, showing me her amulets, “because we’re in Africa. There are mysterious things here.”
Ndim too, has consulted marabouts, but gave up because the treatments they recommended – potions or powders mixed with Koranic prayers – disagreed with her. Now she’s sticking to medical doctors – and God. “God is my doctor,” she tells me. “He decides, he’s the most powerful. As I’ve been without a child for so long, if I have one … Well, that child – to me – would be like a diamond.”
This essay was first broadcast on 18th October 2018, on BBC Radio 4’s From Our Own Correspondent. Listen here.
The essay was also broadcast on 28th October 2018 on BBC World Service, From Our Own Correspondent. Listen here.