Post 14: Wise Woman

01 March 2011

The French word for midwife is “sage femme”, which translates literally as “wise woman”.  Nothing could better describe our sage femme here in the Am Timan, the expat supervisor for the maternity department.

Born in Kenya in 1956, Marisa considers herself of the “post-colonial generation”, having witnessed both the triumphs and tragedies of successive post-independence governments.  Of these, she sees the provision of free primary education in her home country to be a major triumph; its annulment in the late 1970s a far-reaching tragedy; and its reinstatement in 2003 an absolute necessity.  She herself benefited from free education, as well as from parents who valued it enough to ensure all 8 children, including the 3 girls, went to college.

After studying nursing and midwifery, Marisa spent 13 years working with the Kenyan Ministry of Health in various national, provincial and district hospitals and health centres.  In 1993, feeling frustrated with the lack of resources available to provide a minimum level of care to her patients, she left the public sector and moved into the NGO world.  She worked for 10 years with different international organizations in Kenya, vaccinating babies and training traditional birth attendants.

Unlike many African expats, Marisa did not work as a MSF national staff prior to being hired as an expat.  She clearly had an abundance of experience and was hired directly as an expat through the Nairobi recruitment office in 2003.  She was promptly sent to Congo-Brazziville for her first mission and has been catching babies for MSF ever since.

And somewhere along the way she became an outrageous Micheal Jackson fan.

Marisa doing the moonwalk at the Christmas party.

Marisa pours her mind, heart and soul into all her work, whether cradling newborns or making the schedule for her hygienists; however, a piece of each remains in her home village in Kenya.  For the past 5 years, Marisa has been personally sponsoring the education of 10 girls – 1 in primary school; 7 in secondary school and 2 in university!

Her recently started foundation was inspired by her mother, who, at 77 is one of few women of her generation who can read and write.  Her mother keeps close tabs on the girls in the community, identifying those who may need assistance and advising Marisa about their progress.  Marisa says that she is blessed to be a woman in an African country who has received education and wants to give that chance to other girls.

There are three “Western” women in our project – myself, a quirky Quebecois and a bubbly Brit.  The stories from Marisa’s delivery room that she quietly recounts baffle us, stupefy us, and more often than not, evoke the raging feminist within.  Stories of young women with numerous children, having undergone female genital circumcision as a child, and suffering from various unnecessary birth complications.  Like the rest of us, she deeply laments the suffering of many of the women she sees every day.   Here in Chad, she can ensure they have a safe delivery and send them on their way.  Back home in Kenya, she is cutting deep to the root of the problem.  Her project to educate the girls of her village is the hope that I so often fail to find here in Chad.

Marisa may not be a raging feminist, but she is one hell of a sage femme.

Marisa at work in the maternity ward.