October 19, 2005

The Baby Who Was Sentenced to Death

1543 story4 capOU MUST KILL IT, SHANTA. THIS KIND of child is not meant to live!"

Exhausted after having given birth to her first child, the young mother was stunned to hear those dreadful words. It? Shanta's eyes filled with tears as she looked down at her precious baby, a little girl. My daughter, Shanta thought.

After nine months of excited expectation, Shanta and Laxman, her husband, were devastated. Like any young parents, they had looked forward to the day when their first child would be born. Now they were faced with an agonizing decision. Their little girl had no top lip; her gum was horribly deformed; and she had a hole in the roof of her mouth.

1543 story4As word quickly spread throughout the village, curious neighbors peered into Shanta's tiny hut, eager to catch a glimpse of the child.

Nepal. A land of mystery and beauty. But in some isolated villages, the birth of a child with any kind of deformity is considered to bring bad luck to the entire community. Such was the burden on Shanta and her husband. In addition to the grief and pain that ripped at their hearts, they also had to deal with deep-rooted traditions that labeled their child as unworthy of life.

Understanding that the clock was ticking fast on the village leadership's counsel to kill her child, she turned to her husband for solace. What he said next chilled her to the core of her soul.

"What have you done to bring this great sadness upon us?" Laxman asked his young wife in anguish. "We must not let her live. The gods have given her this curse. Her life is of no use. I have spoken with Mother and Father, and we have decided that you must not feed her. She will die before the passing of many days."

Death Watch
And so began the desperate wait of a mother watching her first child die. Shanta ached with longing to breast-feed her daughter. But little Ambika cried and cried. When Shanta could stand it no longer, she placed a finger in the tiny mouth, and watched as the baby tried desperately to extract the nourishment that would never come. For a moment the crying stopped.

After four days little Ambika's cries started to weaken, and Shanta knew that her life was ebbing away. That's when she decided to go against the orders of her family--something that could be punished severely in their remote Nepalese village. As darkness fell on that fourth day, she finally put Ambika to her breast, and the tiny baby eagerly sucked. That night Ambika slept the first peaceful sleep of her short life.

Shanta kept this secret from her family for many days. And when they discovered the truth, they were unable to dissuade her. The instincts of a protective mother saved Ambika's life. People in the village could not believe that it had survived four days without milk. Perhaps she was meant to live after all.

Field of Hope
A few months later, as Shanta worked in the fields with Ambika strapped to her back, a woman from another village walked by. Catching sight of Ambika's tiny face peering out from the shawl that held her tightly to Shanta's back, the woman hurried over. Shanta felt a protective anger rise to her throat.

Shanta had grown tired of curiosity-seekers staring at her child. But this woman brought good news. Excitedly she told Shanta about the ADRA* clinic in Banepa, 30 miles away, where doctors fixed the faces of children like Ambika. "They do surgery every week," she told Shanta. "And best of all, the surgery, food, and accommodations during the two-week stay at the clinic are free!"

Laxman quickly made plans for his wife and 4-month-old baby to travel to Banepa. The long day's ride along a very bumpy road, in an uncomfortably full bus, seemed a very small price to pay for such a miracle.

1543 story4As the nurses took Shanta's daughter into the surgery, Shanta watched, frightened, but with a glad heart. Around her stood other mothers with children who shared the same deformity. Shanta felt the warmth of a shared burden. She had no idea that others shared this common fate. She had believed that her child was the only one.

As a nurse brought Ambika out of surgery, Shanta thought she would burst with happiness. She never expected that her little girl could be so pretty. With Ambika's new face, she would be able to live out all the hopes and dreams every mother has for her child. No longer would she be an outcast, and a shame to the village.

As mother and child left the clinic two weeks later, Shanta cried as she thanked ADRA's staff again for the great gift they had given her. Her parting words were, "I will share the gift you have given us with everyone I meet. Other mothers must know about the gift of Banepa."

ADRA/Nepal has provided these life-changing procedures for the poorest in Nepal's society for the past decade. During that time almost 2,000 faces have been reconstructed. Each year teams of Australian and Japanese volunteer medical staff conduct two-week surgical programs at Banepa.

A third team, led by Dr. Narayan Thapa, a local Nepalese surgeon who volunteers his services to ADRA, operates at the Banepa clinic every Thursday. When asked why he volunteers his time, Dr. Thapa responded, "My instant response to a question such as that is, Why not? However, a more considered answer is that even after 12 years of ADRA CLPP (Cleft Lip and Palate Program) [work], we still get large numbers of patients who are well past the recommended optimum age for operation on cleft lip and palate deformities. That clearly demonstrates that there are still people with this easily correctable condition deprived of the opportunity for treatment. Therefore, the work needs to be done, and I am happy to have started this program with ADRA/Nepal. I will continue the work as long as funds are found in the future."

Lasting Hope
While these wonderful people provide new life for Nepal's babies and children born into poverty-stricken villages, ADRA is one of many ministries of restoration working together to improve quality of life, and purpose of meaning.

*Adventist Development and Relief Agency International.

Melinda Archer was the public relations and marketing officer for ADRA/Nepal when she wrote this article.