- Kiran Stallone y Steven Grattan
- Buenaventura, Colombia
Amid the suffocating heat of Buenaventura, Feliciana Hurtado always walks with a big smile through the neighborhood where she has given birth to many babies in the last 30 years.
68 years old, greets the mothers she has helped and their children. Hurtado lives in a relatively safe area of this largely black port city on Colombia’s impoverished and troubled western coast, but her work as a midwife often takes her into dangerous and troubled neighborhoods.
Buenaventura has a long history of violence and conflict, which led to it being known as the Colombia’s “horror capital”.
Since 1988, armed gangs have been fighting for territorial control of drug routes outside the port and have carried out gruesome dismemberments in the so-called “pique houses.”
In 2014 the Colombian army intervened in Buenaventura to take control from the mafias.
The intervention brought a brief period of stability, but Buenaventura now suffers a new wave of violence, and midwives like Hurtado put themselves at risk by confronting armed combatants to help women living in violent areas give birth.
Hurtado remembers armed fighters stopping her as she tried to enter troubled neighborhoods. “Why are you here? Who sent you? What houses have you been in?” “I would tell them that I was there to help a pregnant woman and what house she needed to go to. So they would go and check. If there wasn’t a pregnant woman there, she would be in trouble,” he recalls.
Traditional Afro-Colombian style delivery assistance has been practiced on the Colombian Pacific coast for centuries.
In 2017, the government declared it National Heritage, in an effort to recognize and preserve the ancestral knowledge of these women.
In Buenaventura alone there are at least 40 traditional Afro-Colombian midwives. In 1988, the women came together to form the Pacific United Midwives Association, under the leadership of Rosmilda Quiñones.
The association supports 250 midwives throughout the Colombian Pacific who attend between 4,500 and 5,000 births each year.
Known as “the midwives”, they wear traditional techniques and remedies in her work, such as tomaseca, a powerful alcoholic analgesic that is made with medicinal plants to prevent labor pains.
Many Afro-Colombians say they prefer the services of these midwives to going to local medical centers.
“As soon as the contractions started, the midwives supported me. You don’t feel alone. I wasn’t interested in going to a hospital because there I would have felt isolated,” says Helen González, a 22-year-old who gave birth to her son nine months ago with the help of Hurtado.
Authority over criminals
For other women living in conflict zones and therefore unable to leave their neighborhoods safely, there is no alternative.
Gender equality activist Alejandra Coll explains that midwives often act as mediators to help women to give birth in neighborhoods controlled by criminal groups.
“When a pregnant woman needs a checkup or is ready to give birth, the midwives intervene with the armed men,” she says. “Often they have some authority over them because they helped their mothers bring them into the world.”
Hurtado has years of experience dealing with gang members.
“I come in and say hello. I ask them how they are and I tell them I’m there to work.” Emphasize that he is courteous and friendly and that armed men respond in kind.
Although criminal groups appear to respect the work of midwives, Asopraupa said that some of the women have suffered threats from armed elements when they worked in troubled neighborhoods.
They have also been caught in the crossfire between groups fighting for territory.
“Once I could not leave because there was a shooting,” Hurtado recalls, of a particularly difficult visit to a pregnant woman in an area where there were active armed groups.
Sitting under a flickering light in her house, while her neighbors listen to reggaeton at full volume on giant speakers, Hurtado discreetly organizes all her tools to help the baby on a low table. Rubber gloves, a stethoscope, a pair of scissors to cut the umbilical cord are carefully arranged for when they have to rush out to attend a delivery.
Midwives are passionate about their work, which for many is a family heritage. Graciela Murillo, 60, explains that her mother was a midwife.
He grew up watching her work and wanted to follow in her footsteps since he was 8 years old. Now, Murillo’s granddaughter wants to continue with the work of her ancestors.
They ensure that the payment they receive varies and that some of their patients cannot pay them anything. Still, they take care of them.
“Sometimes we have to put in our own pocket,” says Murillo, who has continued to care and support pregnant women even during the coronavirus pandemic.
But despite the risks in a dangerous city like Buenaventura, midwives like Murillo and Hurtado remain dedicated to their work.
“It’s part of me. When I hear that someone is giving birth, there I am,” laughs Hurtado. “I don’t care about the risks or what time of day it is.”
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Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.