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Born in the Congo: The Experience of Giving Birth During a Civil War

Emergency medical care in developing countries can be problematic, if not wholly inadequate. Even more so in the 1960s. When you’re expecting twins. In a country in the midst of a civil war. However, when Terry McNamara’s wife went into labor in the conflict-ridden Province of Katanga in the Congo (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo) in 1961, they had to tough it out at a small, understaffed and scant clinic with only a nun, and later, a doctor. With a cigar. He was interviewed by Charles Stuart Kennedy beginning in 1993.

For other riveting accounts by McNamara, who was later named Ambassador to Gabon in 1981, read about his evacuation from Vietnam, his earlier experiences with housing in Elisabethville and his evacuation from the Congo


“You are going to help me with this delivery”

McNAMARA:  My [now] former wife was pregnant during the third bout of fighting. About a month before she was supposed to deliver, the Belgian doctor who was taking care of her discovered she was going to have twins. She kept getting bigger and bigger and bigger. Finally, he decided that there were more arms and legs than would be normal for one baby.

After closer examination, he found that the babies were in a breech position. This was unnerving. Medevacs [medical evacuations] were then unknown to the Foreign Service. These days, if this happened in the Foreign Service, she would be evacuated to the United States or to a modern hospital elsewhere. In those days, that didn’t happen.

As her pregnancy came to term, she woke me one night at about four o’clock in the morning and told me that she thought it was time to go to the hospital. We got ourselves prepared to go to the hospital.

One of the consulate secretaries was living in the guest house in our garden. She came over and took care of the older kids while I took my wife to the local hospital. It was run by Belgian nuns. When we got there, the doors were locked tight.

We banged on the front door for some minutes. Finally, an old African man peered through the door but refused to open the door. He had been given instructions not to open the door to anybody. I spoke to him in French and Swahili. He didn’t seem to understand either language. W

hile I was desperately trying to communicate, the water broke. There I was with a woman just about to have twins, who are supposed to be in breech position, locked out of a hospital.

I was beginning to lose my composure when another man came to the door to investigate the source of the commotion. I explained our problem to him. Miraculously, he understood, let us in and directed us to the maternity ward. I half carried my wife to the maternity wing.

When we arrived, there was nobody in a long corridor with closed doors. Upon investigating, I found an African lady in a scullery, washing pots and pans. After a hurried explanation she went to find a nun in another part of the hospital. This nun took my wife into a side room. I had to help her up on a bed.

The nun examined her, and gasped, “Oh, mon dieu!” She then rushed off without another word. Soon the hospital midwife arrived from the chapel; the nuns were saying early morning prayers.

By this time it was about five o’clock in the morning. The no-nonsense little Belgian midwife then examined my wife. Turning to me, she presumptuously instructed, “You take one arm, I’ll take the other. We’ve got to get her into the delivery room right away.” The two of us half carried her into the delivery room.

Incongruously, my wife was still fully clothed with a pocketbook over her arm. We got her onto a delivery table with stirrups. The nun then informed me, “You are going to help me with this delivery.”

I asked weakly, “Where is the doctor?”

She replied, “I don’t know. We can’t find him. No doubt he’s patching up wounded some place or other. The time has come,” she declared, “we must cope between us. There is no one else to help. When I push and move the babies, you must catch them as they come out.”

She told me to ge

t her a stool and put it next to the table. She mounted the stool, she started manipulating my wife’s stomach. I was never so frightened.

Nonetheless, I knew that if I passed out, the babies would fall on the floor. God, I could see the head of the first baby coming, and I was standing there quivering and waiting to catch.

Just at that moment, the doctor arrived. He pushed me gently aside, placed his cigar on the edge of the delivery table, and made a shoestring catch. He handed this slimy, little baby to me, and said, “Wipe that baby off. Put it in the crib.”

He then made the second catch while the nun continued her manipulations. Thus, we became the relieved parents of two little babies, who were perfect. Other than the bizarre setting, the delivery was normal. The doctor congratulated me, picked up his cigar and departed.

The nun hopped down from her stool instructing me to wheel my ex-wife “to the last room on the right-hand side. Get her into bed.”

I gasped, “What!”

“Yes, and take those babies too. We don’t have any facilities here to take care of anybody. You’re going to have to take care of the babies and your wife.”

My wife could not walk, so I put her on a rolling stretcher. When we arrived in a small but clean room, I helped her undress and get into bed. I then returned for the babies. I cleaned them and dressed them, under my wife’s instruction.

Each day, I brought food for my wife. The hospital could provide no food for her. In fact, the commander of the Rajput battalion sent over his cook to cook for me and the kids. He also prepared delicious food for her while she was in the hospital. This cook was marvelous. He built a tandoori oven in our backyard. The meals were superb.

“We and our kids ate C rations, lived without running water or electricity”

During the fighting, the electricity went out, so there was no running water, electricity, or telephones. We cooked the family meals on a Coleman camping stove that our air attaché flew in for us from Leopoldville. Food was in chronic shortage. My whole family existed on military rations for

about six or eight months.

Our Indian pals would give us rice and potable water that arrived in army trailers called “water mules.” They had one that made the rounds of all of their military positions, to give water for the soldiers. They put us on their rounds. We got water once a day from them. We also had a well in the back of the yard. Unfortunately, the water was contaminated. Nonetheless, we could use it for washing, but not for drinking.

Anyway, my ex-wife had the twins. She took care of them in the hospital herself. We had to manage very much on our own. Luckily, both mother and babies were healthy and strong.

Surprisingly, we never considered evacuation. We and our kids ate C rations, lived without running water or electricity. Indeed, we even had dinner parties using C rations and whatever else we could scrounge up, only kerosene lanterns and a camp stove to cook on. I even cooled our champagne by lowering it into the well in gunny sacks.