Allow us to introduce Mariam Nabatanzi, a 39-year-old Ugandan mother of 42. Or perhaps 44. It’s not altogether clear. She has had four sets of twins, five sets of triplets, and five sets of quadruplets. All but the last were natural births. Several have died, leaving her with 38 mouths to feed.
Uganda has one of the highest birth rates in the world, at 5.4 children per woman, but Ms Nabatanzi leaves them all in the dust.
And she is a single mum.
She was born into a Muslim family and is largely uneducated. Sold into marriage at 12, she had her first child at 13. Her Catholic husband abused her and deserted her after her last birth. She had inquired about birth control, but she told journalists that doctors discouraged her for reasons which are unclear. A gynaecologist interviewed by Al Jazeera explains that she is unusually fertile.
Ms Nabatanzi manages her family in a cluster of huts made of cement blocks and corrugated iron about 50 km north of Kampala. She has been in the media a lot over the past few years, but she is still dirt poor, although she works at several jobs. She says that she hates to beg. She has skills as a hair-dresser, bricklayer, cake-maker, decorator, tailor and purveyor of herbal medicine and she uses them. A GoFundMe page in the UK to help her raised only £2,552 (US$3,200) of a £5,000 ($6,300) goal. In the same time span an Australian GoFundMe page appealing for money to save baby bats raised A$27,593 ($19,300) of a A$25,000 ($17,500) goal.
It would be easy to make Mariam Nabatanzi into a poster girl for zero population growth or reproductive rights. A victim of the patriarchy, a baby factory, overweight, poor, abused, unschooled … one of the wretched of the earth.
It’s hard to know exactly what she thinks and how her life has unfolded from the sketchy reports in YouTube videos and newspaper reports. Besides, there's a cultural and linguistic wall.
But some things are clear. She is not miserable. She is not bewildered. She is eloquent and cheerful. She sees her family as a blessing. She says (translated):
“I can’t say I am inconvenienced. I made it easier. I can’t say they are nagging because they are my children. I can’t say I will abandon them because they are my children and I love them. But it’s not easy to take care of my children but I made it easy because they are my children.
There’s one word for a woman like this and it’s not “helpless”. It's not “dysfunctional”. It's not “victim”. It’s indomitable.
Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet