Jan Bastard, founder of Motherlylove, describes how her time working in Africa inspired her
After qualifying as a midwife in 1969 – I was already a registered nurse – I applied for a nursing sister job for the Anglo American copper mining company in Zambia. The hospital they sent me to was on the Zambia/Congo border. I was 23 years old.
To reach my far-off destination I first flew from London to Nairobi. From there I travelled to Lusaka and then after a very bumpy flight (barely skimming the tree tops) in a tiny plane, I landed in Kitwe to be greeted by the local children looking over the fence at me. There was a small corrugated building at the end of the strip runway, and I was highly relieved to find my suitcase there! A very jovial chauffeur drove me to my new home, which I was to share with two other UK nursing sisters.
On my first day at Wusikili hospital (the hospital for the Zambian mine workers), I was put in charge of “casualty” – there were no doctors – and there was only me to see a long line of people. I couldn’t speak their language and they couldn’t speak mine. I was very nervous. My saving grace was James, a very knowledgeable African medical assistant. Mothers came to the hospital with very sick babies in their arms and often a toddler on their back. Many of the babies had diarrhoea and vomiting, and when I went to check their very sunken fontanelles my fingers came away covered in black sticky gunge. I soon learned that these babies had been treated by the witch doctors and that because the muti (medicine) wasn’t working the mothers would bring their collapsed babies to the hospital. James was wonderful and was teacher and translator to me. He could find a vein on babies who were near to death to get the vital fluids into their frail little bodies. I learned so much, and quickly. James taught me that toddlers who had red hair, swollen stomachs and legs had kwashiorkor (a severe form of malnutrition associated with insufficient protein intake). Chicken pox was lethal here, and leprosy was prevalent. One very strong memory is of a mother who gave birth to triplets vaginally – and I delivered number three!
The Zambian nurses always had a smile on their faces and were just amazing. On dry days during the rainy season they would make me laugh as they appeared with their rolled-up umbrellas balanced on their heads. I tried to balance books on my head, but I am hopeless. You have to be able to keep your upper body still and sway your hips.
The Zambian people were so grateful for everything I did, and I was often presented with a live chicken with its legs tied together. The Zambian nurses explained that I should accept the gifts gratefully. It was very hard for me to just stand there as they clapped their hands and bowed to me, as I would want to hand the present back to them because this was such precious food.
One day I was offered a tour of the copper mines underground. The lift was very small, and travelling down into the depths of the earth I felt hotter and hotter, until sweat was even pouring from my scalp. I was allowed to press the handle to blow up another section of the mine. This tour was very useful as it helped me understand the conditions that these men worked in. The lashers had to physically pull trolleys filled with rocks away from the tunnels. I then understood why a new lasher came to casualty one day and said he couldn’t work. He showed me where the ropes had torn into his hands. If there was a mine accident, we could hear the sirens but we knew that it would take a while to get all the casualties out. This gave us time to phone a doctor to get help to the hospital. These situations were different from road accidents (of which there were many), as there were no ambulances available to transport mine casualties to the hospital – even people with multiple injuries would be brought by car.
Our incubator was a wooden box with a light bulb in it, and the nurses would switch the light on and off depending on whether the premature baby felt too hot or too cold. We often had two or three babies in the one box.
The children’s ward was always full and it wasn’t unusual for there to be bed-sharing, with one mum and her baby at the top of the bed, and another mum and her baby sleeping with their heads towards the bottom of the bed. All these children were breastfed, so every mum came in and stayed with her baby. We would keep a baby with a chest infection with another baby who had a chest infection, both with their mums in the same bed, and we did the same with babies who had diarrhoea and vomiting.
Our oxygen cylinder had no wheels, so we would have to drag it to a collapsed child who needed resuscitating. If a child died, the mother would ululate (produce a high-pitched sound with her tongue). It was very hard emotionally to see this.
During this time I was always amazed at the beautiful skin of the mothers. It was traditional to apply oils extracted from trees and plants that had been used for thousands of years. Most of the women, who would normally have a child every year, had very few stretch marks, as they oiled themselves every day as a matter of course, which for many took the place of washing, due to the scarcity of water.
On leaving Zambia I did an anaesthetics course at Oxford’s John Radcliffe Hospital, and there I met a nurse who was working in Kenya. She suggested that I join her. I then spent two years working at The Nairobi Hospital.
During this time my older brother and my mother moved to Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). In due course I followed them there. I worked as sister in charge of the intensive care and coronary care unit at the Andrew Fleming Hospital in Salisbury (now Harare), and while I was there I met my husband. I moved to South Africa after I had to wave a semi-automatic pistol around to chase away some intruders. My husband was away at the time and I was 8 months pregnant.
My daughter and my son were born in Pietermaritzburg, Natal (now KwaZulu-Natal). Having children reawakened my interest in midwifery.
I returned with my family to the UK in 1986 and worked in both community and hospital midwifery. Keen to back up my beliefs with science (and knowing that the medical profession would then accept them more readily), I studied for a degree in Complementary Therapy (Aromatherapy) at Greenwich University. I produced an academic paper, ‘Aromatherapy and Massage for Antenatal Anxiety: Its Effect on the Foetus’, which was published in the journal Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice. It was the most read paper in the journal in 2007 and is still in the top ten most read articles today. As a result I became internationally recognised for my contributions to the medical understanding of complementary therapies and was instrumental in the movement in the 1990s towards domino and home births.
I stopped working when I was diagnosed with breast cancer, and my family encouraged me to pour my knowledge and expertise into producing the oils that would bring traditional relief to the stresses of pregnancy and modern living. This took me right back to those first days in Zambia and the beautiful skins of the mothers there. And so Motherlylove was born, which now produces a range of luxurious oils that have been carefully and ethically developed – and of course, like everything I do, are backed by science!
Jan Bastard is a mother, a grandmother and the founder of Motherlylove.
Motherly Love Knows No Boundaries 06/11/2016, 08:27