Motherhood in Conflict: Achola’s Story

“Women, in short, lack essential support for leading lives that are fully human. This lack of support is frequently caused by their being women.”
– Martha Nussbaum

Across the globe, mothers face difficulties in relation to their experiences of motherhood and well-being. Many of these are recognizable across countries and cultures.

Becoming and being a mother in the context of a conflict lasting over two decades, however, is different. For these women, their highly dangerous situation means daily care of her children becomes a matter of life and death. This was, and arguably still is, the case for many of the women in northern Uganda.

Before I went to volunteer in a women’s counselling centre in Uganda in 2018, I had prepared myself appropriately. Or so I thought. I watched documentaries on the government’s conflict with the Lord’s Resistance Army. I read loads of newspaper interviews, academic articles and NGO reports, and I spoke with professionals in the field.

All of my preparation, however, still came nowhere near to a full picture of what womanhood, and particularly motherhood, during and after war looks like.

Becoming a Mother in a Conflict Zone

During times of war, stories of motherhood – and female experience in general – have been excluded and unexplored. It is time this silence, often resulting from gender blindness, is broken.

To understand maternal well-being in a post-war context, we must realize what women had to deal with specific to their role as a mother.

The following story was told to me by Achola*. Achola is a 54 year old widow, with 8 children. I visited her home in rural Ngetta, close to the city of Lira in the northern part of Uganda. This region has been badly affected by the Lord’s Resistance Army insurgency, which had great consequences for all, and especially for pregnant women and mothers.

Pregnancy can be a challenging time for women anywhere in the world, and especially for women in impoverished regions.

The challenges Achola faced just became bigger and bigger after giving birth. Only two days post-birth, she had to run to a nearby mountain to find safety from the rebels. Her husband ran in a different direction and so she sat alone with their new-born baby.

“We were sleeping in the hut when the rebels came in 2002. I had a baby child and heard a gunshot. I came out and ran into the bush. The child was only two days old. We were hiding at a swamp and throughout it all the body was shaking.”

With no clean toilets, nothing to withhold the bleeding, no painkillers, no food, no emotional support, fear overtook Achola. At this point, she thought about killing her new-born baby.

“I felt like killing the baby I have so that I am left alone. Because I felt I was going to die, the rebel was going to kill me. There were no merits, that was just the sadness showing. I was full of sadness, and the feeling came from fear. Fear was the one thing making me think that … It was so painful, it was so painful in my heart.”

Like all the other families in the area, Achola had to run away from home every few nights for months in a row.

Hiding in the bush, however, came with great dangers and consequences – 5 tombs next to Achola’s hut are a painful and visual reminder of this.

“Those are the bodies of the children … I cannot recall when those children died. I gave birth to thirteen children, now there are eight … they could not even sit, they could not even crawl.

It happened as a result of running to the bush with these children, the mosquitos bit us in the bush and gave them malaria, then that child dies later on like that.”

Achola’s Way Forward

Achola suffered tremendous losses during the war. She tells me that she “cried and cried and cried for many years.” Today, however, she says: “I am feeling better and better slowly, it is not like in the past. I can laugh.

The community counselling centre, run by Ugandan psychologist and trauma specialist Sister Florence, has helped a lot: “I am now recovering from these problems and this pain … I am now getting energy and feeling better.”

Reconnecting with her body has helped Achola in overcoming some of her struggles. Besides the counselling centre, the church is a major source of social support for her. The word of God, according to Achola, is a form of counselling: “I am always counselled from there [church] by the word of God. When I’m in problem and I hear the word of God I always feel better.”

By sharing this story and trying to understand the complexity of post-conflict issues, we can move on from merely reading narratives of pain and loss.

Instead, we can focus on what helps women live more fulfilling lives after conflict – and how we can support them in their journey.

*Achola is a pseudonym. The image accompanying this article does not depict the woman who told this story.

Depression

Sitting in his passenger seat
Enjoying chocolate ice cream in the scorching heat
I felt my heart pound
Like I was being drowned.

This feeling, so strong
Like everything was wrong
Taking my breath away
As though it was my last day.

Opened the window, gasping for air
Suddenly lost in regret and despair
He didn’t notice what I was going through
How could he? It came out of the blue.

I didn’t know what it was
I thought loneliness could be the cause
Ignoring the symptoms like nothing happened
I never knew depression could make me so saddened.

Now I stay awake for countless hours
Struggling to sleep under beautiful stars
I think of that day in his passenger seat
Enjoying chocolate ice cream in the scorching heat.

Read more of Fatima’s poetry

My Not-So-Easy Mental Health Recovery Journey

I’ve noticed that many of the stories I encounter about mental health tend to focus either on the darkest moments or on the triumphant ones – including the stories I’ve shared myself. In between those two opposites, however, there is a long road of treatment, recovery, and daily battles, as well as a lot of gray days that are neither too dark nor too triumphant.

Here is something I wished people knew about my mental health recovery journey so far…

If I say that I see a psychiatrist, take medication and have weekly therapy sessions, it does not mean that I’m always ‘well’ (much less ‘cured’).

I’ve had many people congratulating me for getting help and saying that they’re glad I am working with professionals to address my mental health conditions. But the truth is, doing these things doesn’t mean I’m always well. I still have bad (and even horrible) days, but treatment and recovery have helped me gain skills and tools to better deal with those days.

It may seem ‘easy’ to take medication and go to therapy. But what people who’ve never been on this journey may not know is that treatment for mental health conditions is very difficult, and it’s work — a lot of hard work.

It’s very ‘easy’ to take my three daily pills – one gulp of water and it’s done. But it’s not easy to deal with side effects, and medication changes, and how expensive they can get sometimes even with health insurance. And then there’s dealing with health insurance issues, and not being able to go out with colleagues after work because I have to stop by the pharmacy which is far away.

I have to keep tabs on my medications to make sure I never run out and organize them weekly into my medication container. I have to make sure I don’t forget to take them with me when needed and reach out to my psychiatrist when I need refills — all of which takes time and energy to do; and energy is not something I have much of when struggling with anxiety and depression.

I’ve changed medications several times and have experienced difficult side effects both starting and stopping medications: severe nausea, headaches, and increased anxiety that left me bed-bound for days.

I even had a pretty serious reaction to one of my medications that scared me – my provider couldn’t explain it. Because of how that experience destabilized me, there was even a moment when going into a psychiatric unit was a real possibility (which would have meant taking leave from my internship and master’s program).

Therapy has not been any easier. It’s expensive for me and a weekly commitment means having to say ‘no’ to more enjoyable activities. Therapy has been challenging and uncomfortable. It pushes me out of my comfort zone, which is hard to do even when my comfort zone has been harmful to me. It challenges my thoughts and behaviors. And in all therapy settings I’ve been in, I’ve always had some homework to do during the week (on top of all the work I have to do as a Ph.D. student).

I don’t regret getting help for my mental health, but I do wish someone had told me how long and difficult the journey of treatment and recovery could be.

Sometimes, I feel like quitting. I feel like never going to therapy again or canceling my next appointment with my psychiatrist, because the truth is, I’m tired and recovery is exhausting. I can’t make any plans or decisions without considering my treatment: how is it going to affect my therapy schedule? Will I have enough medication for this trip?

I will always encourage people to reach out for help if they are struggling with their mental health — it is important, and can be life-saving.

But I also believe it’s important that we start a conversation about what ‘getting help’ is actually like — and the truth is that it’s hardly ever easy.

It’s a sacrifice and for some, like me, it’s a life-long commitment. It’s challenging and uncomfortable. And through it all, we’re still experiencing our mental health conditions. It’s having a panic attack and going to therapy anyway. It’s going through a depressive episode and still getting out of bed for a psychiatric appointment.

Recovery for me has been still struggling but knowing I’m not struggling alone.

And though the journey is long and hard, treatment and recovery have given me hope and strength to carry on.

Opinions and experiences published on girlsglobe.org are not medical advice. If you are struggling with your mental health, please seek help from a doctor or mental health professional.

If you or someone you know is struggling with suicidal thoughts, please reach out for help immediately. In the United States, call 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or text TWT to 741741. For a list of international suicide hotlines, visit www.buddy-project.org/hotlines.