In January 1983, Sainabou Njie, 63, got married to her current husband. The hope was that she would bear a lot of kids. She was married in a community where a woman’s worth was determined by her ability to reproduce. But months went by, and the years, without any sign of pregnancy. The more she tried to get pregnant, the more nothing happened. Eventually, it became clear to her that pregnancy was elusive.
“Since then, I was never pregnant- not even a miscarriage. I tried everything. I cleansed my stomach several times as instructed by medical doctors. I was also engaged in traditional treatments but nothing came out of it. So I decided to stop every treatment. I stopped going to the hospital 15 years ago,” she narrates.
Infertility in The Gambia, like many other parts of Africa, can cause stigma and social isolation. For Sainabou, the emotional burden of infertility was unbearable. In many Gambian cultures, child bearing is sacrosanct and a woman’s status as a wife is consolidated by motherhood. Children are viewed as a source of pride, strength and economic fortune for the mother and the family. For her, infertility was a shame.
“I was ashamed and I questioned myself a lot. Why couldn’t I have a child like other women was a question I frequently asked myself. I thought there was something wrong with me. It was shameful whenever people asked what I was waiting for to have a child. I also used to worry that I would be easily forgotten after my death because there would be no children that people could point at and say those are Sainabou’s,” she says.
Generally, a woman is held responsible for virtually all cases of infertility. They are often shunned when they can’t bear children. Though Sainabou’s husband supported her and stood by her, the issue of infertility would often come up during their discussions – a whole lot of ethical, moral or practical questions asked.
“There used to be some occasional light talks or arguments over it when he did not have a grasp of it before. But he later came to understand after realizing that I had tried all possible ways to have a child without success.”
Infertility sometimes leads to polygamy – often times a man is forced or convinced by family members to go for another wife in order to have kids. Sainabou’s husband married a second wife in the hope of getting a child by her, but that decision would become the game changer for Sainabou. She built a cordial relationship with the co-wife who went on to give birth to the husband’s kids.
“Her kids became my kids,” Sainabou says. “People couldn’t tell if they weren’t my biological kids. She and my husband gave them to me to look after them. I raised and educated them. She gave me the opportunity to be their mother and I became their mother.
Beyond the confines of their household, Sainabou has also become the mother of other children in the neighbourhood. “I cried for children but not anymore. Everybody entrust me with their children and I thank God for that.”
For many friends and relatives, entrusting their children with Sainabou was a way of putting her mind at ease. In return, she brought up these children and schooled them until they got married.
“Some of these children are with their families in different parts of the world, including the United States and United Kingdom. They consistently give me all kinds of support including financial assistance,” she acknowledges. I no longer feel I’m infertile. Sometimes you don’t have to have your own kids to become a mother. I’m a mother, nothing less. And I’m happy,” Sainabou says.
According to a 2017 report by Anyanwu MO and Idoko P of the Edward Francis Small Teaching Hospital, The Gambia has a fertility rate of 5.8 births per woman. Experts say this high fertility rate underpins the psycho-social and cultural implications for any couple who becomes a victim of infertility.