By Freja Lykke Herrik
Teenage pregnancy in Sierra Leone continues to be a complex issue on a large scale. Pregnant girls are told throughout their pregnancy that their condition is shameful and irresponsible by family, politicians, teachers, doctors, and others. In my fieldwork in Sierra Leone, I followed this line of inquiry, but as I was witness to a childbirth, I realised that the issue was more complex. Although pregnancy at a young age is connected to social and economic problems, such as stigmatization and isolation, it is also a transition into love and a deep sense of responsibility and pride.
I spent large parts of my fieldwork sewing small knitted patches together into blankets alongside young mothers and pregnant girls in a women’s centre in Freetown. The centre offered different classes, where the girls could learn about pregnancy, childcare, and different practical skills such as knitting, sewing and making jewellery. Also, I spent a lot of time with the girls outside the centre. We braided hair, cooked, or visited their friends and family, or I went with them to markets or to get their obligatory check-ups at the hospital. During my fieldwork, I have had many experiences which have made a significant impression on me, both academically and personally. These experiences have been beautiful, hard, fun, educational, strange, fantastic, and sometimes also quite awkward.
One of the most memorable experiences I had, happened in the last month of my fieldwork. It was morning and I was on my way to the women’s centre, where I had my last day, so I was going to say goodbye to the place and the girls there. I had just gotten of a bike and was walking towards the centre, when I met Aminata, one of the pregnant girls from the centre. She was in labour and on her way to the hospital to give birth. She could not get into contact with her mother, who was at the other end of town, so we went to the hospital together. We spent all day outside the maternity ward waiting for a bed to be vacant for Aminata. The hospital was completely full, so it was only possible to get a bed right before the birth. Multiple times we asked one of the nurses if Aminata could have a bed, but they calmly answered that she was not giving birth, so she did not need a bed yet. Aminata was visibly in pain. The pains came in waives and made it difficult for her to talk. But sometimes she smiled or laughed, often at me and my confusion about the whole situation. Ever since I met Aminata, she had repeatedly told me that she wished to give birth before I left for Denmark, so I could see her baby. As we were waiting outside the maternity ward she laughed and reminded me of her promise of timing the birth right.
Many other women in labour were waiting with us. Aminata was 16 years old and clearly the youngest one of them. Almost all the women were looking at us. A few of them smiled and offered advice for Aminata to withstand the pains. But most of them just stared at us without saying a word. To be young and pregnant in Sierra Leone is widely stigmatized. As a pregnant teenage girl, you were not allowed to attend public schools, and most of the interlocutors were kicked out of their homes when their parents found out that they were pregnant. Strangers would frequently address the girls with comments like “you should be more careful”, when we were walking in the streets. Also, only a few of the fathers were still in the picture. The father of Aminata’s child had left after learning of her pregnancy and denied any knowledge of the child.
Later in the afternoon, we got a hold of Aminata’s mother. She arrived at the hospital and embraced both Aminata and I, laughing and crying. In the evening Aminata was finally given a bed and I waited outside the hospital with her mother. The delivery started and late the same evening we were allowed into the ward to see Aminata. She was in her bed smiling, tired and proud. With her was a very small and very beautiful little girl with giant brown eyes and tiny dark curls.
Before I left the hospital, Aminata and her mother told me that they believed it to be God’s will that Aminata and I had met that exact day and for me to be part of the birth. Aminata would name the baby Freja. Two days after arriving back in Denmark one of the other girls from the centre called and told me that she had given birth and that she had also named her baby after me. Granted, the baby was a boy, but as she said, no one knew the name Freja, so it did not really matter if it was a girl’s name. I thought it was a beautiful gesture and a great honour to have two little namesakes in Sierra Leone. It is also a strong incentive to, hopefully, go back soon and visit Freetown again.
The experience gave me several new perspectives on my fieldwork. Throughout my fieldwork, I had focussed on the many problems arising from pregnancy among teenage girls in Sierra Leone such as stigmatization, shame, exclusion from the school system, economic difficulties, worries about the future, and rejection from family and partners. But being part of the birth made me aware of the complexity of the situation. Pregnancy, no matter the circumstances, is also about bringing new life into the world. It’s about motherhood and the love and joy that it brings with it. This perspective might seem self-evident, but throughout their pregnancies these girls are told by family, politicians, teachers, doctors, nurses, and others that their condition is wrong, shameful and irresponsible. Therefore, these were also the sentiments which came to dominate the girls’ own accounts of their situation, and it therefore also became one of the main attentions of my fieldwork. But the love, pride and sense of responsibility that Aminata clearly felt towards her new-born daughter reminded me, and perhaps even herself, that pregnancy and motherhood is much more than the stories that had come to dominate.
Teenage pregnancy continues to be a widespread and complex issue in Sierra Leone. In a way, the birth of Aminata´s daughter was the embodiment of this complexity, where pain and love coexisted. In this transformative event, the close and physical emotions and actions took prominence and the political and social discourses that up until then had directed the young girl’s reality, fell to the background. At least just for a moment.