BBC, Radio 4,
From Our Own Correspondent
Of Diamonds and Angels
By Jane Labous
Producer: Joe Kent
Introduced by Kate Adie
Dakar, Senegal, 2019: JUST before midday in a sunlit room in Dakar, Senegal, Ndim, 35, tells me about a recurring dream she has. “I’m walking in the forest. Sometimes I’m pregnant, sometimes I’m giving milk to a baby.” She pauses as a younger woman carrying a toddler wanders through, glancing at us with barely-concealed curiosity. The woman’s flip-flops swish on the tiles. She is la niarel, la deuxieme, Ndim’s husband’s second wife.
Ndim watches her pass in tense silence. Only when the woman disappears does she speak again. “In the dream, the sky’s a little dark,’ she continues in a soft voice, “as if it’s going to rain. I walk quickly, then run with the baby in my arms. Then I wake up.” She sighs. “I want to live that dream.”
Ndim has been married to Badera, a sportswear tailor, for 12 years. After three miscarriages she was diagnosed with fibroids, and the couple so far have no children together. Medical treatment here in Senegal is expensive. There is no government support. The operation to remove fibroids would cost over a million CFAs, more than Ndim and Badera could ever make in a year.
Clearly, the couple are in love. This is obvious from the sweet way Badera treats Ndim, as if she is a cherished piece of china. As they sit together watching TV on their bed neatly made up with love-heart sheets, he strokes her arm with palpable, slightly heartbreaking tenderness.
“People here in Senegal, they talk,” Badera confesses. He’s a habitually cheerful man with an enormous smile, but his shoulders droop as he recounts the events of 2016, when his second wife got pregnant immediately after they married. “Your parents, your friends, they say: ‘But why haven’t you had a child after all these years. Are you ill?!’ Then my wife’s sister had a baby, and her husband accused me of being ill. I was so angry. So I took a second wife to prove I wasn’t.”
He pauses, frowning. When he looks up again his eyes are bright with suppressed tears. “Taking a second wife was simply vengeance, but if it comes to loving Ndim, I love her.” He speaks with such passion. I can feel this man’s anger and his regret, the silent tragedy that he should find himself torn between his true love and his pride.
“Most of the time, I don’t cry,’ confides Ndim a little later. We stand on her roof where the washing hangs in the hot sun and the birds wheel in the sky, contemplating the jigsaw of rooftops down to the sea. “But I cry inside. Crying inside, that’s much more difficult.”
Over in Liberte 6, I meet Dr Rokhaya Thiam Ba, who runs her own prestigious fertility clinic in a sandy back street of this wealthy enclave of Dakar. An imposing woman in an impeccable pale-blue kaftan and matching headscarf, Dr Ba exudes an air of knowledge and capability. Her hushed waiting room, decorated with potted palms and statues of mothers and babies tastefully dotted amongst the middle-class clientele, could be anywhere in Europe. In a corner, a woman and her sister pacify newborn twins. “IVF,” Dr Ba whispers to me as we look over, “although the mother will never admit it.”
The first IVF baby in Senegal was born in 1989. Since establishing her clinic in 2007, Paris-trained Ba has personally helped over 100 babies into the world – sometimes even acting as midwife at the birth. “Infertility is considered a handicap here,” Dr Ba explains once we’re inside her consulting room. “An infertile woman is stigmatised, rejected by society, sometimes by her husband. When a woman comes to me and succeeds in having a baby via IVF, she’ll never admit it to her friends and family. She’ll keep it a big secret, and pretend she’s had it naturally. Here IVF babies are en cachette, secret babies.”
Reissa, one of Dr Ba’s patients, had IVF treatment earlier in 2018. A successful accountant who’s been trying for the last five years to get pregnant, Reissa feels she is running out of time. At 39, she is one of a new generation of university-educated Senegalese women, who are leaving it later and later to get married and have children. “I married at 35,” Reissa explains. “I had boyfriends, but there was never anyone serious, and I really wanted to pursue my career. I never thought I’d wait so long to have a child, or that I wouldn’t have one at all.”
After the IVF transfer, while waiting to find out if she was pregnant, Reissa – a devout Muslim - rose every night at 2am to say an extra prayer. “I asked God for the IVF to be successful. In the end, it was negative. Sometimes now I look at the calendar, telling myself that today, I would have been three months pregnant. But it’s God’s will.”
In Senegal, pregnancy and infertility are bound up in religion and mysticism. Here, superstition dictates that a pregnant woman should not show her bump in public. Women who can’t have children are said to be affected by les anges, bad angels, bad spirits. Even as they consult medical doctors, couples will ask marabouts, religious men, for mystical treatments and talismans. “Frankly we protect ourselves,’ says Reissa, showing me her gri-gris, “because we’re in Africa. There are mysterious things here.”
Ndim too, has consulted marabouts, but gave up the treatments because the potions – water or powders mixed with Koranic prayers - disagreed with her. Now she’s putting herself in the hands of medical doctors - and God. “God is my doctor, he decides, he’s the most powerful. As I’ve been without a child for so long, if I have a child… Well, this child – to me - he will be like a diamond.”