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Childbirth particularly perilous in Guinea-Bissau

By Krista Larson

Associated Press

Published: Saturday, July 14 2012 8:36 a.m. MDT

The baby is missing part of a leg and waves around hands that have fingers webbed together. One eye socket is completely obscured by a cleft palate that stretches across a head far too large for his little body.

Aissato most likely took some kind of medicine in the early weeks of her pregnancy that caused the severe malformities, medical officials said. It was not discovered in an ultrasound because she never had one.

The decision is made not to show Aissato or her mother the little boy, who instead snores on a table in the corner of the delivery ward.

The midwives don't know whether Aissato's family will take the baby home. Some families don't, others do but only to neglect the disabled child.

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As staff arrive for the start of a new shift in the maternity ward, news spreads of Djau's death from the day before. Why didn't her initial blood tests show how sick she really was? Why did it take so long for her to get there from the outskirts of town? Why did her husband wake up only when the baby started to cry?

"It was her fourth child — how did she not know she was in labor? Why did she choose to give birth at home all alone?" head midwife Maria Antoneta Cabral Barbosa says, shaking her head as she looks over her medical chart. "It stuns me."

At a tidy cottage on the outskirts of Gabu with donkeys tied out front, mourners gather to comfort her 74-year-old widower, who is now left with four motherless girls.

The women crowd tearfully inside the windowless, dark entry room, while the men sit on floor mats in the family's backyard as chickens and children scamper past. Djau's 5-year-old, Halimato, smiles and clings playfully to her father, oblivious to the mourning all around her. Her 13-year-old sister, Roqui, sits on the sidelines, all too aware of how their lives have changed.

"She was a great confidante," Djae Embalo said of his wife of 14 years. "I was sick for six years and she took care of me. Then when she was ill I could do nothing to save her. Now I am alone."

Female relatives bring out Djau's motherless newborn, who is swaddled in a scrap of bright orange and blue cloth, her head a mess of thick curly hair. What to feed her? her father wonders aloud. He's heard of formula but is not sure how it works or how he will afford it.

And what to call her? Her mother died before they had chosen a name.

In the end, the little girl is called Mama Saliu Embalo. It is a boy's name in the Fula language, after a tradition designed to protect children whose mothers have died during childbirth. This way, the mother cannot find the child and reclaim it — a belief that underlines just how high infant mortality is after a mother dies.

In the meantime, Aissato's little boy is taken to an orphanage in the capital.

Aissato did not choose a name for him.

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