Like most African women, when Akeyo gets married she is expected to give birth to children in order to crown the marriage. But it soon emerges that she can't conceive, which strains and nearly breaks up their childless 15-year-old marriage. What starts as a happy marriage soon turns into a source of misery, mistrust and violence.
In Sheila Ajok Lubangakene’s 2019 debut novel titled Still a Mum, Akeyo recounts the numerous fertility doctor visits, painful procedures, the pain and trauma that comes with stillbirths and miscarriages, the stigma, irritating in-laws and other infertility challenges in an African society where childbearing is considered one of the main expectations of marriage.
Akeyo meets her husband Mark at her friend’s housewarming party in Kampala. Mark is a lawyer in the Uganda People’s Defence Force. They fall in love and get married in 2003.
“It turns out that as committed as we were, two years later I could not get pregnant. No matter how hard we tried, we couldn’t seem to come up with a pregnancy,” Akeyo says.
The first fertility doctor they visit tells them they have no issue. The doctor suggests that Akeyo tries taking Clomid, medicine meant to stimulate egg production, for a couple of months. This preliminary prescription fails. Four months later, Akeyo and Mark head back to the same doctor who recommends a sperm analysis and an ultrasound scan to ensure there are no problems with Akeyo’s fallopian tubes or uterus.
“The semen analysis tests turned out viable ruling him (Mark) out, while mine on the other hand indicated a blocked fallopian tube. The doctor scheduled an appointment to carry out the procedure of flushing my blocked tubes. About that time, Mark was scheduled to be away on official duty, leaving me with no support system. I needed a confidant who would easily relate with what I was going through. My mother was the next option to walk alongside me through the procedure. I remember her spending the night at our home before D-day and us praying together,” Akeyo says.
Six months later, Akeyo gets pregnant and she and Mark are overjoyed. They decide to keep it their little secret until they feel safe to share. But their joy is short-lived.
Akeyo suffers a miscarriage when she is 11 weeks pregnant. She quits her job at the bank because of her continued absence and long working hours.
Misfortune strikes again when she is 20 weeks into her second pregnancy and this time she nearly dies. The doctor explains that the foetus had been dead in the womb for two days and this would have resulted in her death if Akeyo had not received immediate medical attention.
About three months later, Akeyo gets pregnant for the third time after seeing a different fertility doctor who recommends an in-vitro fertilisation (IVF). She gives birth to Hannah by caesarean, but the baby dies on the fifth day.
Akeyo recalls how the burial of Hannah is the beginning of a different kind of pain for Mark and herself, the beginning of questions that haunt their dreams at night and won't leave them alone during the day.
Although it is a work of fiction, Ajok says she was inspired to write the book after listening to many stories about infertility and the struggle women face to get pregnant.
“I have stood with friends, shed tears, buried friend’s babies and I have had two miscarriages. It is a lonely place to be in. For me, Still A Mum is for that woman out there who continues to struggle with fertility doctor visits, endless lab exams, ultrasound scans, tubal flushing, tubal cannulations, fertility medication, and repeat miscarriages. I see this book as a way to reach out and touch hearts as well as give assurance that you are not alone in this,” Ajok says.
Still A Mum is available in Uganda at Aristoc Booklex and Jumia; at African Book Hub in Kenya; and the House of Wisdom in Tanzania.