Reclaiming Dignity


Astou’s life has had shadows of pain. When she was 20 years old, she lost her son during childbirth, but that wasn’t the only tragedy that occurred. In addition to a lasting emotional pain, the trauma of her strenuous labor led to an obstetric fistula condition. What would follow was 20 years of living with an injury that caused embarrassment and shame.

Astou’s first husband left her soon afterwards because of her condition. She then lost her position as a house helper and was forced to move back in with her parents. Astou’s story is not uncommon in the areas we serve. In fact, an estimated two million girls and women live with obstetric fistula in Africa. Many are shunned and abandoned by their communities because they’re often perceived as unclean.

Thankfully, though Astou felt shame for her condition and the way it made her live, she was blessed by her family who continued to stand by her side. Though they couldn’t afford to get Astou medical help, they provided emotional support.

That support even led to a new love. During a family event, she met Mamadou who asked her to marry him. Astou immediately told him about her condition, expecting him to change his mind, but instead Mamadou made an oath: “It won’t stop me from marrying you and doing everything I can to get you medical care.”

After their wedding, Mamadou kept his promise and started saving up to take her to the hospital. A local doctor confirmed her condition was treatable — but it would require surgery, something the couple had no way of affording.

So, the newlyweds waited, hoped, and miraculously welcomed a new member to their small family — their daughter.


Unfortunately, during this time of waiting, another shadow began to weigh on Astou. A small goiter began to grow on her neck. While Mamadou and Astou worried that this new condition could cause trouble for her future, they still lacked the resources to find healing.

Ten years after the goiter was discovered, hope arrived. Astou and Mamadou heard that Mercy Ships was coming to Senegal to offer free surgeries. The couple went for an appointment, at first only seeking treatment for the goiter but while on board, Mamadou decided to take a leap of faith. He asked whether they could receive surgery for Astou’s other condition as well.

The news was more than they could have hoped for: After 20 years of burden, Astou would receive surgery for both conditions, the visible and the invisible!

Astou received her fistula surgery along with 13 other women, many of whom had also spent years looking for help. She spent a few weeks recovering in the hospital wards, surrounded by others who could relate to her journey. “When I was on the ship, I met women who had the same illnesses as me and they did not believe that they would ever be healthy,” she says.

Volunteer Rachel Cooper was one of the nurses caring for Astou. She couldn’t help but notice how Astou came alive after surgery.

“At first, she was reserved and that was common for most of our patients… that they would come, and their eyes would typically be on the ground, or their shoulders would be a little bit swamped. And you could see that there was so much shame wrapped up in being a woman who leaked urine from an obstetric fistula. But as her care progressed, I saw her perk up.”

Astou felt the change in herself as well, especially during the Dress Ceremony, a celebration where healed women are given beautiful new clothes.


“After the surgery, when I looked at myself, I felt that I was not like before,” marveled Astou.

A few months later, she came back to the hospital to have the goiter removed. After the successful surgery, her thoughts immediately turned to her new beginning.

“I can’t wait to go back home to my husband and daughter feeling healthy,” she said. “I am ready to go back to my home without fear that I’ll get sick and stop working.”

Mamadou is also thrilled with his wife’s transformation knowing that her healing runs deeper than the physical.

“Since she has been treated, she is free and happy,” he shared. “She can go out and she can also welcome whomever she wants at home with happiness and full of joy.”


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