Human society can be cruel and unforgiving: a lesson for any adult. At the time of birth however, when newborn takes first breath in this complex, contradictory world, one can hope for gentler circumstance. In Manikganj, for many hundreds of people though they will hardly recall it, the world indeed arrived in such a way, with a first greeting of selfless kindness from a woman called Sonajan. The 68-year-old from Choubaria village in Ghior upazila's Baliakhora union has been providing prenatal and postnatal care, free-of-charge, for fifty years.
Sonajan, who never had the opportunity to pursue formal education, was married to farmer Akel Uddin when she was just fifteen. By age seventeen she had given birth to her first son Siddique, at a time when her mother-in-law was also expecting. When her mother-in-law went into labour, there was no midwife to attend. Only Sonajan could assist.
The young mother hardly knew how to cut an umbilical cord safely. Fortunately a midwife finally arrived and Sonajan learnt how it was done. “For me, that was the most challenging birth I have ever assisted with,” she says, unsurprising since it was her first attempt at midwifery. Her brother-in-law was delivered and something else happened that day, something Sonajan herself could barely have imagined: her lifelong career was begun.
Nowadays Sonajan lives with extended family including her husband, two adult sons and a daughter, and grandchildren. At a time in life when she might well relax a little to enjoy the daily life of the household, Sonajan is busy. She still attends at least five deliveries per month.
By habit, when informed of an approaching delivery, Sonajan stays for up to ten days at the home of the mother-to-be, in any house regardless of religion or status. “I advise all expectant mothers to eat good food, take rest and heed the advice of doctors,” she says. For her selfless service to others, across fifteen villages Sonajan is renowned.
She takes no fee for her services despite the reality of her own economic struggle. Her husband used to cut earth. She worked as a housemaid and sometimes as a cook. “I never thought to take money as a midwife,” she says. “I do it to contribute to society. It is my social responsibility.” Impressively her family agrees. They have always offered encouragement.
“I feel so proud when I help to deliver a baby,” Sonajan says. “According to Islam, everything is created by Allah. A human life is the best creation of Allah. When a baby is born in front of me, I almost feel that I am a part of Allah's new creation.”
For many women in Manikganj, Sonajan is also there at life's end. Along with her midwifery, she gives final ritual baths to the deceased. News of the death of any nearby village woman is sure to find Sonajan's ears. “I will always help others,” she says, “for as long as I live.”