In the maternity ward, space is at a premium. I hover in the hallway at first, half-reading a poster about the importance of breastfeeding while I try to work up the courage to speak to people – babies must be breast fed within thirty minutes of birth; nothing but breast milk for the first six months; breast feed your baby as much as they need. One of the midwives notices I must be able to speak Indonesian, so she approaches me with a gentle smile. We discuss how many babies are born in the hospital each day.
“Some days, it can be as many as seven. Usually, maybe three, or five. Last night we had two,” she tells me, rattling the words off in a newly-familiar Sikka accent. “Last week, we helped give birth to 27 babies.”
We talk about what the birthing process is in the hospital. She tells me that some women can be in the hospital for days, labouring away for as long as three days all up, but that once they have given birth, they get sent home the next morning. I exclaim surprise, and she just shrugs. “We don’t have enough beds,” she explains.
To prove her point, she takes me down the hallway, to the ‘class three’ wards, where ten or twelve women are lying on beds with their day-old babies. Class three is where the poorest women are placed. Almost every woman is surrounded by family. Only one is alone with her baby. I talk to her, and she tells me softly that her baby isn’t doing very well. I take a look; he’s tiny, with skin made of nothing but wrinkles and folds. The nurse explains that the mother is about to be taken in for surgery.
In the other class three ward across the corridor, a young woman beams when I ask whether her baby’s a girl or a boy. “A girl,” she smiles. “My third child.” She looks too young to have three children already, but when I ask again, she confirms she does – her first was also a girl; her second, a precious boy. Her baby, too, is a tiny bundle of pale brown wrinkles. I wonder if she was premature, but my friend later tells me most of the babies in Flores look like that when they are born. He isn’t sure why, but guesses it is probably to do with poor nutrition.
I ask the woman if she has given her new daughter a name yet. She shakes her head; “not yet”. She says she will be going home today, and will talk about the name with her husband later. I bid her goodbye, and wish good health for her baby. She thanks me, and I leave the ward with ten pairs of weary mothers’ eyes on me.