For my first review (I know, it's been a slow start!) of this year was going to be a non-fiction book for a change, so welcome to my stop on the tour for Belly Woman: Birth, Blood and Ebola, The Untold Story by Dr Benjamin Black. Huge thanks to Kelly Lacey at Love Books Tours for my invitation and to the publisher for my review copy.
‘This book will stay with me for years.’ –ADAM KAY, author of This Is Going to Hurt
What happens to pregnant women when a humanitarian catastrophe strikes?
Belly Woman shines a light on a story often left untold.
May, 2014. Sierra Leone is ranked the country with the highest death rate of pregnant women in the world. The same month, Ebola crosses in from neighbouring Guinea. Arriving a few weeks later, Dr Benjamin Black finds himself at the centre of an exponential Ebola outbreak. From impossible decisions on the maternity ward to moral dilemmas at the Ebola Treatment Centres. One mistake, one error of judgment, could spell disaster.
An eye-opening work of reportage and advocacy, Belly Woman chronicles the inside journey through an unfolding global health crisis and the struggle to save the lives of young mothers. As Black reckons with the demons of the past, he must try to learn the lessons for a different, more resilient, future.
‘A must-read for our times – riveting, illuminating and humbling.’ — Aminatta Forna, author of The Memory of Love and The Devil That Danced on the Water
‘An inspirational story of compassion and dedication in the face of a brutal epidemic.’ Leah Hazard, author of Hard Pushed: A Midwife's Story
‘Brave, moving, and vital. . . Read it.’ — Damien Brown, author of Band-Aid for A Broken Leg
Belly Woman, pronounced 'be'leh 'uman', is Krio (one of the main languages in Sierra Leone) for a pregnant woman.
Early summer 2014 the Ebola virus passed into Sierra Leone from Guinea. Obstetrician Dr Black was on his way from London to Sierra Leone, travelling with NGO Médicins Sans Frontières (MSF). But he wasn't going to fight Ebola, nobody expected it to reach Gondama, where he was to be based. Rather he was going to help with the care of pregnant women as Sierra Leone already had one of the highest mortality rate for this societal group. He could not have imagined how these two issues would come together. This is his personal account of two very tough years.
Through this book we get to witness the horror of the Ebola virus, the sad personal stories, the inadequacies of the medical facilities, the difficulties encountered by pregnant women, the risk of disease, complications and death. But also the unwavering commitment of medical professionals, their unwillingness to give up, their determination to do their best and, where possible, improve things through sexual education and birth control.
This is the account of someone on the ground, right in the middle of the storm. It's told in a very matter of fact way but you can feel the author's frustrations, and his anguish, sometimes guilt, at some of the difficult decisions he had to make, the pride in, and admiration for, those working along side him. The local staff who worked ceaselessly and provided continuity when the international staff took breaks and moved around deserve so much credit. Dr Black too, for helping establish a way forward for treating pregnant women and educating communities.
This was a really worthwhile read, but a tough, hard hitting one too. It's raw, it's real and it's bloody. I needed to harden my heart to read it, otherwise I would've been in floods of tears at so many of the stories told here. And there are many we didn't hear, out in the wider communities. The author says at one point 'Every admission was a tragedy not being told.' But it's also a story of dedication, humanity, hope and determination, and that's the takeaway for me.
Dr Benjamin Oren Black is a consultant obstetrician and gynaecologist in London and a specialist advisor to international aid organisations. His focus on sexual, reproductive and maternal healthcare for populations in times of crisis has taken him to many countries. Benjamin has supported the response to various infectious disease outbreaks since the West African Ebola epidemic. Throughout the Covid-19 pandemic he provided frontline healthcare to pregnant women and helped develop international guidelines. Benjamin also teaches medical teams around the world on improving sexual and reproductive healthcare to the most vulnerable people in the most challenging of environments.