Doña Santos promised to draw me a chicken. I needed index cards with different pictures on them for a game I was planning to play with the mothers at Casa Materna Mary Ann Jackman, the ProNica partner project that works to reduce maternal and infant mortality in rural Nicaragua, where I interned this summer.
To prepare for the game I had enlisted some of the women, including Doña Santos, to help me with the drawings. Doña Santos drew intently until she pulled away to reveal fantastical, patchwork color chickens.
From then on, whenever the women began to color, a favorite pastime at Casa Materna, Doña Santos drew chickens. Her chickens became moderately famous. I often heard other women commenting on her talent for drawing them. Ironically, chickens are my biggest fear—a source of trepidation that became fodder for gentle yet frequent teasing among the mothers at Casa Materna. But Doña Santos, pregnant with her 13th child, was not afraid.
In a phone conversation with my parents later that week, I told them about Doña Santos’s chickens.
“Another day in magical realism,” responded my stepfather.
He was referencing a quote I emailed to him by Salman Rushdie from his book on revolutionary Nicaragua, The Jaguar Smile. Rushdie writes, “In Matagalpa, Macondo does not feel so very far away.” Macondo is the iconic town in which Gabriel Garcia Márquez’s seminal novel 100 Years of Solitude is set, and thus is semi-synonymous with the style of magical realism.
I know what Rushdie means. In Matagalpa, the air seems to permanently smell of maduros, or fried sweet plantains, even if you can’t pinpoint the source. From any angle on the city’s steep streets, you can see the pure white of Matagalpa’s central cathedral pressed against a backdrop of green forest. In the evening, the sun sets pink over the city, which itself appears to be floating on the trough between waves of mountain.
The bells of ice cream carts and the strange, haunted cries of street vendors selling leche and quesillo form the soundtrack to Matagalpa. Garcia Márquez’s fictional residents of Macondo would feel at home here, I like to believe.
Casa Materna sits perched above the city, absorbing those smells and sounds, and ushers in hundreds of mothers every year from all over the region.
Doña Santos lives 11 hours away from Casa Materna. To get here it takes her six hours in a bus, half an hour in a truck, and two and a half hours on foot. She had gone to a casa materna in Waslala that attends mothers with lower-risk pregnancies, but she was transferred two days later to Matagalpa because her high-risk situation due to multiple pregnancies and age.
Casa Materna Mary Ann Jackman in Matagalpa is safer due to its proximity to the hospital and superior medical attention. Doña Santos sent a message to her husband over the local radio with the news of her move to Matagalpa, but she didn’t know if he got it. For all he knew, she was still pregnant in Waslala.
One morning at 11 a.m., Doña Santos went to the hospital with labor pains. At that time she had some bleeding and was diagnosed with placenta previa, requiring an emergency Caesarean section. Placenta previa causes extreme bleeding in many cases, and can lead to death of the mother or baby.
While operating, the doctors offered her a tubal ligation. Though she hadn’t planned on having the operation beforehand, because the birth was so difficult, Doña Santos gave her consent. (Assistance for tubal ligations is one of the programs sponsored by ProNica together with post-operative medicines to help prevent infection).
Later, back at the Casa Materna, I asked doña Santos how she was feeling about decision.
“Calm,” she replied, “because what am I going to do about it?”
“Doña Santos is very strong,” Elizabeth whispered to me when doña Santos told us about what happened in the hospital. Elizabeth, 22, with beautiful eyes and—according to one of the other women—una voz de miel, a voice of honey, had a Caesarean later that week; the baby was cruzado, or in a transverse position.
We were sitting and talking in the post-partum bedroom at Casa Materna, which houses four beds for mothers who stay for a few days or even a week after giving birth. Doña Santos was waiting the obligatory seven days to get her stitches out before returning home. The lights were dim, and her baby girl was sleeping on the bed next to her.
The baby wore a tiny, knitted white hat and had a head full of thick dark hair. She was safe and healthy. She was also well-dressed, thanks to a generous fellow mother doña Santos had met in the hospital who, after buying tiny pink clothes, had given birth to a baby boy. The woman gave the pink clothes to doña Santos who had arrived in Matagalpa without clothes for a newborn.
On her last day at Casa Materna, after getting her stitches out, and just before embarking on her 11-hour trek back home, I asked doña Santos if she wanted to help with another project. This time, the mothers were drawing pictures of themselves and their families to place inside a large drawing of Casa Materna. Doña Santos sat down and eagerly began to draw. Now, nestled among the drawings of pregnant women and their families, sits a family of purple, orange, and blue joyful chickens—ones that seem straight out of Macondo.
All the mothers at the Casa stood outside to wave goodbye to doña Santos as the Casa Materna ambulance left to take her to the bus station. As I watched her go, I thought back to the conversation we had several days before.
“What are your hopes for your daughter’s life?” I had asked doña Santos. “Take good care of her,” she replied. “La última como la primera, The last baby just like the first one.”
Doña Santos can’t read or write and never went to school. My hope for doña Santos’s daughter is that she goes to school, someday learns to read García Márquez, and also to draw chickens. For we live in a world that is both magical and all too real.
Jemma Benson is an anthropology and pre-med student at Haverford College where is currently in her senior year. She spent the summer at Casa Materna Mary Ann Jackman in Matagalpa through a grant from Haverford’s Center for Peace and Global Citizenship. For more information on Casa Materna, click here.