This is the first of a four-part series called “Women in Battle,” a documentary written and produced by Seth Kwame Boateng. Part 2 of the series airs Monday, June 4 at 8:30PM on Joy News.
In a run-down, straw-roofed hut tucked away in Akplagbanya, one of Accra’s coastal communities, a baby is being born. The makeshift structure is about the size of a tiny provision shop, and is flooded with used pots and pans scattered across the floor. An uneasy silence sits heavy in the air. Overflowing buckets and bags piled on top of each other clutter the space, where 30-year-old Doris Patiafo sits on the ground with her son, who she gave birth to just moments ago. The hut where she delivered her child is a labor room situated inside a prayer camp, where pregnant women come to achieve two goals: conceive children and ward off evil spirits from their unborn babies.
“At times if you go to the hospital and there is no prayer you cannot deliver the baby,” she tells Joy News reporter Seth Kwame Boateng. “So I came here because of the prayer so I can have a safe delivery.”
Doris is one of many women who visits prayer camps as an alternative to hospitals. They’re told that to give birth there is an opportunity they cannot afford to pass.
Doris Patiafo moments after giving birth to her son at a prayer camp.
“Maybe some enemies would not allow you to deliver [at a hospital] and if you go to a hospital you will go through some pains before you deliver,” says Doris. “But here, because of the prayers, it is cool.”
In another section of the camp, dozens of women are found chanting, dancing and beating the sandy ground of a church auditorium. They perform these acts all in the name of God, who they say have the power to keep the devil away. They’re told if they go to a hospital to give birth, they will die.
But health officials give a different story.
“The prayer camps are one of the biggest problems that we are having in this country,” said Director General of the Ghana Health Service Dr. Anthony Nsiah-Asare. “Somebody will tell you that, ‘Oh maybe let’s make some rules [against prayer camps],’ but rules alone will not work.”
Death by the numbers
According to a United Nations report, there are an estimated 378 deaths per 100,000 live births. The study finds that Ghana is unlikely to reach its targeted goal to reduce that number to 185 per 100,000 live births. Why? A survey indicates it’s in large part due to limited access to skilled birth attendants. Only 70 percent of pregnant women have access to them.
Of these deaths, most come from Ghana’s Volta region, the fourth poorest region in the country, according to the World Health Organization. The area holds a maternal mortality rate of 706 per 100,000 live births, considerably higher than the national average.
A woman in labor is wheeled away to a hospital. She is expected to give birth at any moment.
An even stronger cause for concern is where Africa stacks up on the global scale. Of the 830 women who die every day from childbirth-related complications, more than half come from sub-Saharan Africa.
“It is certainly not at the level that we want,” says Dr. Yaw Ofori Yeboah, Deputy Director in charge of Public Health in the Volta region. “There is a lot of room for improvement, and as you can imagine, maternal health is at the core of the health sector. Where we are, we are not comfortable.”
One of the problems, says Dr. Bernard Hayford Atuguba, a medical superintendent at Battor Catholic Hospital, is the methods they use to pray and deliver babies at these prayer camps.
“They do all these things on the bare sandy floor so when somebody bleeds you will not be able to quantify the amount of blood lost,” says Dr. Bernard Hayford Atuguba, a medical superintendent at Battor Catholic Hospital, adding that when they begin to lose blood they, “keep on with their prayers until they go into shock. Before they are referred to our institutions most of them are already gone.”
About 40 percent of women who died from childbirth complications last year were at prayer camps, he says.
But Grace Buaelor, a prophetess and midwife at the prayer camp where Doris’ son was born says she doesn’t “experience any complications. In the name of God, I didn’t experience any problems. People always go to the hospital, but, when it’s time to deliver, they come over here.”
She says the Holy Spirit has allowed her to deliver more than 200 babies.
Ghana loves babies, says Dr. Peace Mamle Tetteh, senior lecturer at the University of Ghana’s Sociology Department. So much so, that some Ghanaians look down upon women who don’t have any.
“We say that as Africans or Ghanaians we are a pro-natal society,” she says.
The reason is multi-pronged, but she says it boils down to three factors: monetary, custom and culture.
A woman holds her baby moments after giving birth.
Economically, "people want children [so they can] work on the farm,” the professor says.
Traditionally, “if you have children then you qualify to be called an ancestor. If you are childless, you cannot be an ancestor.”
But mainly, she believes Ghanaians emphasize childbirth because “that is how society is able to continue – the continuation of the lineage. So if you have a family and you have a wife who cannot have children, or a man who cannot have children, then in a way there is a termination at some point.”
The societal pressure becomes too heavy for some, who eventually wind up at prayer camps. For them, risking it all in the name of a child is a peril they’re willing to take, even if it means death.
It’s a solemn nod to Frederick Torgbor Sai, a Ghanaian academic who told scholars Sylvester Z. Galaa, Umar Haruna and Gordon Dandeebo in a report that “no nation sends its troops to war without guaranteeing their safe return, however for generations, men have been sending women to war to replenish the human stock without guaranteeing their safe return.”
Watch Part 1 of the series here: