On a cool July evening in Malawi in 2009, 20-year-old Agnes Musolo went into labor.
She was only 24 weeks pregnant and, after having already suffered four stillbirths, she feared the worst for her unborn child.
But she was struck by another surprise—the “baby” was, in fact, a stone.
Interestingly, it wasn’t the first time Musolo had given birth to a stone, nor was it the last time that such cases would arise in the country.
The story was immediately picked up by the Malawian media and became a spectacle, but it points to a graver problem.
Some women suffering reproductive difficulties in Malawi resort to extreme measures in order to feign pregnancy rather than face the shame of being barren.
“Fertility is very important in Malawian culture,” says Faith Phiri, executive director of the Girls Empowerment Network (GENET) in Blantyre. “You can have nothing—no money, no house, but if you have children, it means you have wealth.”
And having children also garners a family esteem.
“Without children, if you are a woman, you don’t have respect,” Phiri continues. “It doesn’t matter whether you don’t have money to feed them . . . as long as you bear many children, you are woman enough.”
When a woman is unable to conceive, it is, as Phiri puts it, nothing short of a “disaster.”
“If a woman cannot conceive, that woman faces a lot of rejection,” Phiri explains. “People will ridicule you, they will blame you for not conceiving, for not being a real woman.”
For all of the rejection, humiliation, desperation and sadness that a woman must endure when faced with reproductive difficulties, it’s no wonder some are trying to disguise their condition.
As Dr Francis Kamwendo, professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology at the College of Medicine, explains, some women will simulate pregnancy then shift the blame when the baby they were meant to deliver turns out to be a stone. Others will experience a false or hysterical pregnancy, where the symptoms of true pregnancy are experienced but the woman is in fact not pregnant. Yet others will even go to the extent of stealing other people’s babies from the hospital.
Most recently, a woman from Mangochi in the Southern Region of Malawi delivered what The Daily Times described as a “rock-like object.”
And just two weeks earlier, Leticia Wyson, 26, from the Dedza District in the Central Region of Malawi delivered two plastic bags containing a piece of charcoal, two mango seeds, a millipede, nine stones and a snail.
Both women had faced multiple miscarriages prior to their bizarre birthing experiences, and in all of the cases mentioned, the fetus’ transformation was attributed to witchcraft.
While science cannot explain witchcraft, there does exist a clinical explanation for the “stone” baby phenomenon.
According to Dr Kamwendo, it’s possible for a woman to have a miscarriage where the dead fetus is not effectively dispelled from the womb. As weeks and months go by, it calcifies, becoming more or less like a stone.
Agnes Musolo did eventually give birth to a healthy baby boy.
But while her days of ostracization may be over, the issue of fertility shame remains entrenched for some women who face reproductive difficulties.
For Phiri, education is the key when it comes to changing current attitudes and curbing such extreme practices.
“We need to mobilize the whole community to support women and not to look down on women, whether they are able to conceive or not, whether they have children or not.”