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Laito's courageous birth story, as told by her mother Chacha, unfolds as a desperate race against time, yet her experience is commonplace in areas of South Sudan where access to healthcare remains remote and challenging.
Illustrator Ella Baron brought Laito’s story to life after visiting Pibor.
We come from the village of Mallodin, many days walk from Pibor. Laito was pregnant with her first child. When her contractions began, I called our neighbour who is skilled with births. For three days we tried to help Laito to deliver. But still, the baby would not come.
“I’m sorry, I don’t know what’s wrong,” said our neighbour. “In Gumuruk town there might be MSF midwives who can help. But it’s many days walk from here… I don’t think she’ll make it.” I told her, “Laito is strong, we’ll get there.”
Before sunrise, we started walking. The contractions were so bad that Laito couldn’t walk alone so I had to support her. It is rainy season, and the path was full of water; sometimes we were wading up to our waist.
When darkness came, we were still walking, and I worried that we’d have to sleep by the path. But then we spotted a house. They were strangers to us but when they saw Laito was pregnant they welcomed us into their home.
The next morning our host blessed our journey. By now, we were very weak. For days we’d had no food. When Laito fainted, we’d stop to rest in the shade of a tree. But we are no strangers to hunger. I remember hunger when Laito was a child. There will be hunger again.
Despite Laito’s weakness, I knew we had to keep walking. Eventually we reached a river too deep to walk. I paid two men to help us cross. They had no boat – only a plastic cloth. The men placed the plastic on the water and swam it across. We are not able to swim. Only this thin sheet supported us. I thought the sheet would fold and we would fall. Then the crocodiles would come. Or we’d just sink deeper and deeper until all three of us drowned. Laito was so afraid.
It took us two days to walk to Gumuruk. But at the clinic, they couldn’t help us. “I’m so sorry,” a nurse at the MSF clinic said to us, “you have to go to Pibor where they have better facilities. It’s possible she needs a C-section.”
“But the path’s flooded,” I said, “we’ll never make it.”
“I’ll message MSF Pibor – they’ll send a boat,” said the nurse.
All we could do was wait and hope. But I worried to myself. Perhaps they will not come. Perhaps the baby is already dead. Perhaps I will lose Laito, too. We waited two days and then Maria the midwife came by helicopter.
MSF sent midwife Maria by helicopter because, at that time of year, the river is too thick with weeds for boats to travel. Maria, incidentally, is who Laito named her baby after.
After the helicopter arrived, many things started to happen very fast. Then, when it seemed the contractions had lasted eight seasons instead of eight days, everything came to a standstill. Except for her. And she was the only thing that mattered.
Chacha, Laito and baby Maria safely returned to Gumuruk three days before the worst floods in living memory hit Pibor.