Maltreatment of Corpses Reveals Controversy Over Causes of Maternal Mortality in Cameroon

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Maltreatment of Corpses Reveals Controversy Over Causes of Maternal Mortality in Cameroon

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BAI KUKE, CAMEROON – At the center of Bai Kuke village in southwestern Cameroon stands a dilapidated wooden house. The fallen planks from the house’s exterior reveal the living room.


The living room is almost bare, with just two, old, wooden benches lining the walls. Doors without curtains lead to other rooms.  

A long corridor connects the living room to the backyard of the house, where several children between the ages of 2 and 15 play happily in the muddy yard, next to the house’s wooden kitchen. Inside this kitchen sits Paulina Mosaka, a 73-year-old widow, peeling plantains to cook for the countless grandchildren who are living with her.

Mosaka uses her walking stick to inch gingerly to the other end of the kitchen to grab a seat for her visitor. Chronic waist pain afflicts her gait. She carries the little chair along with her and places it on the veranda off the kitchen.

She sits down gently on the bare earthen floor. At the mention of her late daughter, who recently died during childbirth, Mosaka cries in pain, wiping her teary eyes and watery nose with one end of an old cloth.

“Ma pickin, this place wey we shidon so, na for dey wey Rebecca be sleep die body, for down here so, like say yi be be na beef,” she says in Pidgin English, bursting into tears again.

She says that this is the exact spot where her late daughter, Rebecca, was laid the day she died, as if she were a dead animal. She struggles to find the words in her old age, while she cries like a child.

She summons her other daughter to continue the “bad luck” story.

Her daughter, Penda Mokossa, 36, is married with six children, who range in age from 9 months to 11 years old. She recounts the story behind the death of her sister.

“They said my sister died of witchcraft because she died in labor,” Mokossa says.

Her sister died at age 30 in the hands of a traditional midwife after more than 14 hours of labor. Mokossa attributes her sister’s death to negligence resulting from poverty.

“My sister is a mother of seven children,” Mokossa says. “She died when she was about to give birth to the eighth child. She did not attend antenatal clinic even for one day because she did not have money to attend clinic.”

But she says that the community attributed her death to “swine witchcraft.”

In the Oroko tribal community of southwestern Cameroon, it is a traditional belief that swine mystically inhabits the stomachs of some women, who are capable of witchcraft and morph into swine at night. When these women become pregnant, they give birth to baby swine in the bushes and risk losing their lives if they try to deliver their babies in the real world.

Following this belief, many label women who die during childbirth as witches. These women don’t receive a traditional burial.

Mokossa says that when her sister died at about 5 a.m., they carried the corpse to the house and placed it on a bed inside one of the rooms. When community members came to pay their respects, custodians of tradition drove them away.

Women who die during childbirth do not deserve visitors or a proper burial because of their involvement with witchcraft, according to tradition. The custodians told the family that such corpses may not stay inside the house, as is custom in standard burials. Rather, they lay the naked corpse outside on the ground, with just a cloth to cover the woman.

“My sister was laid outside here, on the ground,” Mokossa says, “and my elder brother was asked to cut her stomach in order to remove the dead baby, as tradition demands. I did not see anything because I was pregnant myself. It was said that pregnant women do not come close to such activities, as they may be bewitched just at the sight of the corpse.”

Her mother cuts in that it was a “big, big disgrace” for the family.

“I no go ever forget that kind disgrace until I die,” she says in Pidgin English.

Mokossa says that they had to bury her sister immediately after removing the baby. Tradition also demanded that they bury the mother and child separately.

“The corpse did not last more than four hours,” she says, “as tradition demands that such corpses are supposed to be buried as fast as possible to avoid the spread of ill luck to members of the community.”

Mokossa says that the incident has left a lasting stain and pain in the hearts of her family members, and her mother especially. She says her mother cries all the time, asking questions about who is responsible for introducing her daughter to witchcraft. Some members of the community accuse the mother of involving her daughter in the witchcraft that killed her, but her mother says she’s innocent.

Oroko community leaders insist that the rules governing the treatment of women who die during childbirth are tradition. But family members of these women call the practice inhumane, shocking and disrespectful. Health professionals say that communities should attribute maternal mortality to lack of proper care, not witchcraft. A local nonprofit insurance scheme aims to assist women with medical bills so that they can obtain checkups throughout their pregnancies. Meanwhile, lawyers advise families to prosecute any community leaders who pressure them to disgrace the corpses of women who die during childbirth.

Cameroon is off track to reduce its maternal mortality ratio by 75 percent by 2015 – goal five of the Millennium Development Goals, a U.N. anti-poverty initiative agreed to by countries worldwide. There are 600 maternal deaths per 100,000 live births in Cameroon, according to UNICEF’s latest adjusted data.

In Cameroon, respectful funerals give corpses a night to sleep before burying them. The general public also pays their respect to the dead, and people are allowed to cry and mourn their loss.

But the Orokos maintain the tradition of treating some human corpses like dead rats. If a woman dies during labor or a few minutes after giving birth, the community believes that she was a witch and that witchcraft killed her.

Community members disgrace the corpses of these women by placing them in the backyard. The bodies are naked, except for a cloth covering them from head to toe.

If the body swells after death, a rope is tied around the neck of the corpse to drag it into the grave. The corpse lands in the grave and is buried without any adjustment.

Community members immediately carry out a short rite. As opposed to the traditional cerebration of life, the rite is as cold as ice, and family members are not allowed to cry or mourn their loss.

Mourners are then dismissed from the funeral ground. People start to make up stories and spread gossip about the dead woman, conjuring reasons for why she was a witch.

Benjamin Mbando, 65, the chief of the Oroko community living in Bai Kuke, says tradition is part and parcel of a people, and they must practice it in order to ensure continuity. Mbando says their forefathers studied situations carefully before coming up with guiding laws and principles.

“It is very true that most women who die while giving birth have witchcraft,” Mbando says. “Swine is a common witchcraft practice among the women of Oroko origin.”

He says these women shouldn’t bear children.

“When they have swine, they are not supposed to get pregnant,” he says. “If they happen to get pregnant, then the woman who introduced them to the witchcraft has to be present during labor in order to ensure that the woman in labor is delivered successfully. If the witchcraft teacher is not present, the woman then dies in labor. And if she dies in labor, we just have to do what tradition demands.”

Mbando says a lot of people do not understand the validity of this practice. But he insists strongly that people must respect their communities’ traditions.

Peter Mbenga, 39, lives in Munyenge Trouble, a village five kilometers away from Bai Kuke. His wife died immediately after giving birth to their son. Mbenga says it was shocking to see how his wife’s corpse was treated.

“My wife was laid on a bare ground far off from the home, and she was covered from head to toes with a [cloth],” Mbenga says. “She was buried a few hours after she died in an inhuman way.”

Mbenga says that he had been living with his wife for six years and never saw any signs of her being a witch.

“A lot of people tell me that my wife died because she had swine witchcraft,” he says. “I am still wondering whether this story is true.”

Mbenga says such tradition is cruel and must be revised.

“There is no proof that as to whether such women have witchcraft,” he says. “As a result, their corpses should be treated with respect as other corpses are.”

Mbenga says it pains him to think that his wife’s corpse was disgraced to that extent. He agrees that some people do practice witchcraft, but the majority of women are falsely accused.

Pauline Koi is the superintendent of nurses at Pamol Bai Estate Hospital, an estate located two kilometers away from Bai Kuke. Koi says a pregnant woman is as fragile as a cocoyam leaf, so they must obtain proper medical care throughout their pregnancies and deliveries. But she says the women around the Bai area do not take antenatal care seriously.

“Most women who come for delivery in our hospital did not attend antenatal clinic,” she says. “Most of such women always suffer from some delivery complications, and some even die in the end. And if they die, they are labeled with witchcraft.”

But Koi disagrees with this reasoning.

“I don’t believe it is witchcraft,” she says.

Rather, Koi says that various medical conditions may affect pregnant women.

“Maternal death may be caused by different pregnancy complications,” she says. “If such cases were attended to medically, it could reduce maternal death rate.”

Only medical checkups can reveal these complications, she says. For example, health care professionals may advise women at risk of having eclampsia during pregnancy to come for a cesarean section to avoid labor complications and death.

Nshom Bali, 38, serves as the public relations officer of the Buea branch of the Bamenda Ecclesiastical Province Health Assistance, a health insurance scheme that assists clients with medical bills. Bali says the scheme pays particular attention to pregnant women in order to reduce maternal mortality.

“We pay 75 percent of the bills of female clients during their first antenatal,” Bali says. “This is because a lot of women find it very difficult attending clinic because of the high medical bills during first antenatal clinic, which is due to medical checkups.”

Bali says the goal is to reduce maternal mortality.

“Maternal mortality is still very high in Cameroon, especially in the villages,” he says.

He cites the tradition of the Orokos.

“Most often, it is attributed to witchcraft,” he says. “Meanwhile, it is negligence.”

Bali says the nonprofit scheme is located in villages in order to help women help themselves.

“We are making progress, especially in the direction of pregnant women,” he says, smiling. “And we are gradually erasing stereotypes. This is our goal.”

Bobga Mutong is a barrister and human rights activist in Kumba, a town in southwestern Cameroon. He calls the tradition of desecrating the corpses of women who die in childbirth repugnant. He adds that perpetrators should be prosecuted.

“If anybody sees or hears that some people somewhere are carrying on such a dirty practice, they should call me, and I will go there immediately,” Mutong says angrily. “If I discover a people doing that, I will take necessary steps to make them understand that what they are doing is very wrong.”

Mutong says that even corpses have rights.

“Such a custom of the Oroko people is gross violation of human rights, and legal actions must be taken to stop it,” he says.