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Talking Sticks

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Stories from a midwife in Guatemala

 

Within the community of Lago Atitlan Guatemala, Hannah Deriemaeker is a notably famous midwife working within the villages. This Belgium native not only just about birthed her own child at age 29, but she has single handedly been responsible for hundreds of successful births in Guatemala. Her stories reveal the knowledge of a true veteran of the birthing process.  Hannah's inspiring story working as a midwife in Guatemala takes us to the heart of what it really takes to dedicate your life to serving women through childbirth. 

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Where are you from and what is the story behind how you came to Guatemala?

I am from Belgium and when I was 16 I wanted to go to India but my mother wouldn’t let me so I suggested Guatemala instead. I went and visited a small casa materna (birthing house) that was founded by two Belgium midwifes. It was far away in the mountains and I stayed and lived in a tiny clinic for a month.

 I just loved it! So, after that I traveled and learned Spanish, and then went back to Belgium.

When I got back I studied artistry, and then began traveling again. But, suddenly, it became very clear to me that I should become a midwife. I said;  “I’m going to study midwifery” and then at the end of my studies I went to Uganda, Africa. While I was in Uganda I found this job posting for a midwife in Guatemala, back at the same village I had volunteered! I thought, it’s not possible... So I messaged them, and said “you may not remember but I’d love to come back.” But they did remember me, and that’s how I ended up at my first project in Guatemala where I lived for two and a half years.

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Tell us about the two and a half years in this village

It’s one of the toughest villages in Guatemala. There is one road, and it is six hours to the nearest hospital.

It's a strong community that is completely isolated. My work there was more then just attending a womb birth, I was more like a general physician. In the beginning, I was 24 and I thought, “I am not able to do this.” It was a lot. I lived in the clinic, so it was a 24-hour job. 

I became used to seeing people die, mostly people with parasites or intestinal infections. Children would come to us after waiting too long to reach out for help. I remember one child was dying so we were quickly trying to drive the 6 hours to the hospital, and at a certain point the mother said she needed to step outside with him. So we take him out of the car, and he is pooping and vomiting... but it’s full of worms. Hundreds and hundreds of long worms. Then she carried him back into the car, and 30 minutes later I looked back at them and the boy was dead in her arms. 

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What is the work of a midwife?

A midwife is a mother figure that will attend the woman during her birth and often times she is a mother herself. The job is also to take care of the newborn after birth.

Here a comadrona, the midwife of Guatemala, is very different from a western midwife. For a traditional mayan women if she is to become a midwife it is because she was born with the gift from Gia Spirituál. It is believed that before she is even born, the Gia spirituál will determine if a baby should become a midwife. When the baby becomes 8 she will begin dreaming of childbirth, being taught through her dreams how to deliver a baby and attend a woman. Then, this young woman  gets to the point of having their own children, but many of them will loose children. This is because they see it as a part of life, and needing to experience that suffering.

So the mayan midwife, or comadrona,  doesn't receive any education, but rather it’s a spiritual calling, a “don” which means gift.  They hold a huge value in the community because they are believed to be healers.

But these traditions they are loosing now because of western influences. But the intuition that these midwives work with is unbelievable. Sometimes I will even be like, how do you know these things…but they do, they just know because of a deeper spiritual element. 

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Tell us about birthing your own son

Well I got pragnent on accident, but it’s a good thing. Having a baby changed everything for me as a midwife because the women accepted me here. I learned the whole process of being pregnant and giving birth.

So during my sons actual birth, my babies head got stuck. But I didn’t feel anything, I was full of adrenalin. It took three hours of pushing, and I was getting overwhelmed by the pushing. But I didn’t feel pain. And then once my baby was out, oh my god, the feeling was so overwhelming. It just blows your mind, just  your own power and strength.  There's this feeling that you’ve given birth, and now there is nothing that you feel like you can’t do. It puts you in your full power, your full potential. It should be like a passage in life, like your entering a new spiritual place. 

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But I feel like in the west, you don’t get the opportunity to see the full power of giving birth. The women are put in a hospital, and every woman is treating the same. For example, they choose when to enduce you, and then an epidural takes away a lot of that hormonal play in your body. When you give birth you get a rush of epidosin, the same chemical you get when you die, and the feeling blows your mind. I can’t explain it, your just full of pure love, it’s the most beautiful experience ever.  But birth is so spiritual, and every women should get to experience this.

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What advice would you give a women looking to give birth?

First think about birth, how do you want the process to be, what are your options. Many women don’t feel like they have options, but she is the one choosing how to give birth. Talk to mothers, hear birth stories, because then you are able to learn what is possible. Get information, and talk to midwifes. Doctors don’t get excited about a normal birth, because they aren’t trained too.

All the women that have so many fears around birth, it’s because they don’t think to trust their bodies. I always ask the women how did their mother give birth, because if their mom has been talking about it like it was the worst experience of her life, that gets passed down from generation to generation. Those anxieties, which then induce more difficult births. 

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What value do you see of raising your son here?

Being close to the essence of life. For him to be able to be a child and just play outside in the village. I love village life, community life. It does take a village to raise a child, and we all share responsibilities here. and that’s beautiful! As a mother I don’t have to just go back to my house alone, we aren’t surrounded by screens, but instead I get to sit in my garden. My son has started talking to the birds and the plants. So for him to grow up here, I know he will be able to stay close to the essence of life. 

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What are your dreams for your work?

I want to try to help preserve traditional midwifery here in Guatemala. We are really loosing it, and I want to be able to keep working with indigenous women.  I want to keep being at the side of pregnant women helping guid them through birth. The women that give birth, they are the teachers, they teach me. I write down the stories from every birth because they teach me so much. 

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Any last words you’d love to share?

In indigenous communities there is a lot of suffering. You have malnutrition, alcoholism, violence, deaths and midwifery isn’t a fairy tale job. There is a very dark side to our work. And here now, Guatemala is going through the industrialization of birth, its far more popular to give birth in a hospital because it shows your wealth. They are loosing their value for midwifery. Even I question my own presence, I feel like I am bringing something of the west, which may inhibit the preservation of traditional Mayan midwifery. But we have to be able to ask ourselves this question during the whole process, why am I doing what I am doing? At the end of the day, they have the control, and I just facilitate, I just help build the trainings and programs to help support and value their work. 

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amanda daum