The Rhythm in Your Womb is not a Heartbeat
You are walking on Long Street, your steps springing in tune with the fast-rhythmic pace of the street. It reminds you of Oxford Street in Accra, what with the myriad of shops designed to show a specific aesthetic of Africa to tourists. You call it, the colourful land of rhythm. It is in the brightly coloured beaded jewellery and clothing like dashikis and kentes to the drums arranged in the window sills of the shops. Suddenly, you feel it. A violent beat that seizes control of your body till your steps falter and halt, surrendering to its imposition. It is a steadily increasing pulsating beat in your pelvic region. It is the drumbeat of your uterus. For your womb has developed its own rhythm. The pain is relentless, singularly intent on usurping all till everything fades into the background. You stand still, wilting with the streets against this ferocious rhythm.
It reminds you of a moment in secondary school when your classmate, the one who was the best student in the Twi class mesmerized the entire school with her poem accompanied by the talking drums. It was not the poem that held your attention. It was the drums. They spoke a language of their own, arresting and commanding till all that existed were the drums merely accompanied by the poem. Your drum, the one that beats in your womb on the streets of Cape Town speaks its own language. Your womb is faulty. This merciless assault is an expression of the dull and grainy picture of the ultrasound that first admitted to the flawed state of your womb.
When you were 12 you had your first period, a moment you impatiently waited for seeing as how you were one of the last girls in your class to have it. That red blood was to signify your transition into the elusive womanhood. Your excitement quickly turned to dread for you bled too much and your pelvic area felt like it had needles growing in it. Perhaps, multiplying is a better word for they grew indiscriminately, making their presence felt intimately like taps of affection quickly turning violent and abusive. It was all wrong.
Your salvation you thought lay in the fact that your period would last for a few days each month. Unfortunately, that was not to be your case as your monthly stretched and a few days turned into a whole month and a month sometimes turned into two. As you grew older, you had two constants – the pain and the blood. Your friends referred to their menstrual cycles as visits from ‘auntie flow’, but your ‘auntie’ didn’t visit. She was that aunt who moved in without invitation, stretching your hospitality and making herself at home even as you drop subtle hints about her exit. By the time you aggressively attempt to throw her out, she matches your aggression by transforming your home into hers; gradually making you an alien in your own space till you roll over with resignation.
Dar es Salaam
You are squatting on the floor of your Airbnb, feeling your uterus about to fall out of your vagina. You wonder if this is what childbirth feels like. What would be your host’s reaction if you did indeed have a baby on the floor of the apartment? You snort at the thought, but the movement proves too much for your tired body to handle and your womb punishes you for your transgression. It folds around itself, a movement your doctor tells you is impossible. He suggests that perhaps cramps might be a better description. Yet, folding is an accurate descriptor because as you squat, you feel your womb bend and overlap in an unending cycle. The pain is continuous, leaving you with no moment to catch your breath and you feel rather than see your fingers scratch the leg of the chair you are holding unto. Your lower body is a battle ground stomped on by thousands of soldiers with shotguns and swords killing each other. Each stab and shot is felt in your uterus which is simultaneously the dying soldier and the battle ground.
How do you explain pain?
How do you explore pain?
You let it wash over you, seizing you via your womb till you feel suspended in a cocktail of painkillers and blood.
Your diagnosis sounds too heavy requiring you to contort your tongue in unfamiliar ways to accommodate it. You consider discarding it, refusing to acknowledge the name in an effort to silence it. Still, words are not to be silenced and even as you keep your mouth shut, your womb begins to pulsate in that familiar rhythm. Your body screams the diagnosis you refuse to speak.
You count the number of pregnant women in the doctor’s waiting room. 7 of them are visibly pregnant and you think of how any other one of the women could be growing a being inside of her without her knowledge. Perhaps it is the woman in purple with her palms splayed across her stomach. You watch her face for tell-tale signs of pregnancy but the only sign you know of is morning sickness and she certainly doesn’t exhibit this symptom. What do you know of pregnancy and of babies? Nothing.
You look around and notice the pictures of smiling babies all over the walls. Every time you look up and see one, you feel a familiar beat in your womb almost as if your heartbeat has descended and found a new home in your womb. When you are to describe your pain to the doctor, you pull out your phone and proceed to pick from the list you have created over the years.
In his office, there are no pictures of smiling babies. There are only certifications, proof of his expertise that are meant to reassure you. You focus on them and far from being reassured you wonder why even with all these certifications he has no answers for you. The truth is, he has prescribed a solution – childbirth. His solution is a mirrored image of his waiting room with the pregnant women and the smiling babies. However, you were 19 when he first mentioned pregnancy, too young you surmised to be a mother. Even as you grew older, you stayed the same in thinking of yourself as too young for a baby. Now at 26, the solution hasn’t changed. As a matter of fact, he’s more insistent in his urgings. Since you haven’t changed either, unwavering in your search for another solution, you wait, and he urges, and your visits become more frequent.
Months ago, you were on your way to meet your lover wearing under your unassuming jeans and t-shirt, lingerie your best friend swore was the sexiest thing she had ever laid her eyes on. You were excited for she had shown you a few love tricks. As you step out of the train and move towards him, smile widely, let your walk break into a run, and jump into his arms proclaiming your love. It sounds dramatic to you, like a scene from those telenovelas Africans are obsessed with that play across African television with dubbed versions into African languages for greater consumption. You think of the scene she paints and wish for a narrator and a dubbed version into Twi. For some reason, you think of your classmate and the talking drum and perhaps this is a precursor of doom. As the train glides to a stop, you feel a trickle down your thighs and when you step out of the train, your walk is extremely hurried with your hands pulling on your jeans to soak the blood to keep it from leaving a trail behind you. The telenovela is lost, and your lingerie is ruined beyond repair. Maybe it’s a sign, a sign that the relationship is doomed.
The next time, you meet your lover, you have another sign. As the plane hits the tarmac, you feel the trickle down your thighs like a welcome gift. But you don’t have the privilege of a passport that allows you to cross borders with ease and you stand in the queue feeling the double indignity upon yourself. You do the hurried walk to meet him with your every step a stabbing sensation in your pelvic region that causes you to falter and curse your uterus.
When your lover suggests another trip and checks his calendar, you commune with your womb pleading for permission to travel as it is in fact your calendar. This is a futile quest. Your womb does not reply, and you think of what a curious thing it is to travel the world with a dysfunctional womb, one that makes each trip like your life unpredictable, uncontrollable and messy.
“There’s a party on Friday. I hope your stomach doesn’t suddenly hurt,” your friend mockingly says.
You always told people your stomach hurt, neglecting to mention that it is in actual fact your uterus that is dysfunctional. That the pain, cramps, vomiting, diarrhoea and uncontrollable bleeding that you struggle to hide are caused by its flawed state. Stomach seems easier, polite and for public consumption. Once you tell a friend the truth and she reacts perplexed and disgusted, wanting a sanitized version as if you have the luxury of living such a life. Your womb is messy and as such your story is too. Regrettably, people do not want the truth. They do not want the messy story that thrusts them into your unsanitized private life. So, you lie. Repeatedly. Till you run out of excuses and decline all activities.
You lose your friends.
What does it mean to be a woman with a faulty uterus
to feel a million needles nestle in your womb?
Needles do not nestle
and no matter how snug they try to be
they are meant to prick.
So your womb becomes a battleground
home to pain
unreceptive to comfort.
How do you explore pain?
You write poetry bleeding your trauma through the words. Poetry is meant to collect your pain and your grief leaving your body free to exist without them. You learn too late that writing your trauma immortalises it and poetry, the container meant to free you is a leash that repeatedly drags you to revisit and wade in your trauma.
How do you explain pain?
You stand in front of strangers at a poetry reading in a foreign country and attempt to unburden your trauma unto them before you realise that trauma is often not to be shared. Your poem makes others uncomfortable. You see it in their averted gazes and shrinking postures that accuse you of overstepping boundaries. The public is meant for respectability and you with your poem about faulty uteruses threaten this space. Later, privately, they ask you for its meaning.
Endometriosis, you say and watch their mouths struggle to adapt to the word the way yours did. Instead, their struggles are short-lived and minimal for the word has no meaning to them. They abandon it and the word is immediately silenced and suppressed. For you, this silence is threatening for it invades your space, viciously dragging the trauma of the diagnosis back into your body.
You are lying on the examination table, feeling the doctor rummage through your vagina. He apologises for the discomfort and attempts to commiserate with you but he like his office reeks of sterility and his attempt seems hollow and somewhat quixotic.
The nurse repeatedly mutters sorry to you, tenderly stroking your forehead in a way that reminds you of your lover, now your ex-lover. You broke up during your last trip when your uterus decided to violently seize your body, restricting you to the hotel room in a state of unending pain.
“It’s not you. It’s me.” he said.
He must have uttered other reasons, but your ears refused to listen and all you remember is his mouth moving and his hands gesturing wildly till he walked out of the room. Often, you wonder if it was indeed you and not him like he mentioned.
Did he get tired of your frequent drowsy painkiller induced state?
Maybe it was the constant blood all over the bed sheets.
Perhaps it was the lack of sex.
If it hurts, we will stop because since it will hurt there is no point till sex became a sore point, avoided and dismissed.
So, you ignore the nurse and focus on the oddity of the situation. As usual, you are naked, save for the blouse you are wearing which is pushed up to expose your abdomen. The nurse has pulled the curtains around the bed to give you an inkling of privacy. An irony for what privacy do you have when a stranger’s hands are in your most intimate part? Your legs are in stirrups, flinching at their coldness and you think of how this must have been a medieval torture device for women. Your legs are wide open, and you feel a device being inserted into your vagina, cold like the stirrups. You feel it poking around and you think of that aunt who constantly pokes you on Facebook. The latter is irritating and occasionally annoying, but the former is downright excruciating. Consequently, you don’t try to hide your pain and the tears begin to fall down your face.
You remember your father and the only piece of advice he gave in every situation.
“Be strong and do not let them see your tears”, he would say earnestly, staring at you as if attempting to brand the words into your brain through your eyes. Perhaps that was his intention. After all, the eyes they say are the windows to the soul. However, strength is overrated and, in that moment, all you have left is your pain and your tears. So, you do exactly what your father cautioned you against. You cry. Agonisingly.
Later, he gives you another diagnosis – uterine fibroids. He mentions surgery and children and IVF treatments. All you hear is a timetable being created for your life based on a dysfunctional body part. “It cannot be empty. It wants children and you have to give it what it wants”, the doctor says gravely. You wonder if it cares what you want.
What does it mean to be a woman with a uterus?
What does it mean to be a woman with a faulty uterus?
What does it mean to be a woman without a uterus?
You consider a hysterectomy. However, as your mother hovers over you in your morphine induced state of short-lived relief, you see yourself in her and in you, your daughter. It feels odd, thinking of yourself as a mother. But your womb is growing in size. You look pregnant and every time someone congratulates you, you reflect on the irony of the situation.
The next time in the doctor’s waiting room, the framed pictures of smiling babies seem to mock you. The beat in your womb is not a heartbeat.
Nikitta Adjirakor is a Ghanaian academic and creative writer who writes from Accra. Her works focus on the intersections between women’s health, trauma, language and belonging. Her latest work is an essay on language preferences in Ghana on the website Africa is a Country. She writes regularly on www.morethanperiodpain.com and on Instagram @nikitta_dede.