“I’d be happy if I could just give birth today,” Hafsat sighs, “I’ve been having pains all week. My kids even asked me this morning if I was coming here to have the baby—they’re so excited!”

Hafsat sits in an empty side ward at the International Rescue Committee clinic, where new mothers can recuperate and bond with their babies. A handwritten sign on the wall above the bed reads ‘Ten tiny fingers, ten perfect toes’ in neat cursive. She fans herself with an edge of her long, lemon yellow hijab­—it’s a swelteringly hot day in Bakassi displacement camp, northeast Nigeria, with all the humidity of the rainy season.

She brightens with the mention of her young family, three girls and one boy. “I think I’d like a baby boy this time so my son has a brother to play with,” Hafsat says, then pauses. “But I don’t really mind. This baby is a gift from God.”

Ruth measuring the blood pressure
IRC midwife Ruth checking up on pregnant mother Hafsat at an IRC clinic in Bakassi displacement camp, northeast Nigeria.
Photo: IRC / Tom Saater

Hafsat’s family have lived in Bakassi for over three years now, and their story is much like that of the thousands of other families in the sprawling camp. “We lived a normal life in our village, we had a family business, and I saw my parents regularly. But then we had to flee.”

Hafsat looks straight ahead when talking about that day. “Our village was attacked so we fled to the mountains—we hid there for two months.

“But my mum didn’t get away—the last I heard, the armed men took her to Sambisa Forest. I haven’t heard anything now for three years.” Hafsat’s voice is steady. “My dad passed away before the crisis began, my brother was killed in the attack. Our village was burned to the ground. Mum is the only one I’m waiting for now.”

Tragically, her family’s pain is all too common. 22,000 people have been registered missing during the last decade of conflict in northeast Nigeria. Each one of them with loved ones like Hafsat who don’t know if they’re alive or dead. More than half of those missing are children.

Ruth, Hafsat’s midwife, sees dozens of expectant mothers at the IRC clinic in Bakassi each day. “We save so many lives here,” Ruth smiles. “We’re here 24 hours, seven days a week. Recently I was caring for a woman with a serious antepartum hemorrhage (heavy bleeding). We transferred her by ambulance to a specialist facility. Without that, she would have died.”

Ruth checking a pregnant woman's belly
“We save so many lives here.” Ruth's work as a midwife can be the difference between life and death for mothers in northeast Nigeria.
Photo: IRC / Tom Saater

Proper care can be the difference between life and death for mothers in northeast Nigeria, Ruth explains. The maternal mortality rate in the region is one of the worst in the world—for every 100,000 births, over 1,500 women die. That’s more than one in a hundred.

Hafsat agrees. “I’d go to any length to access antenatal care,” she explains. “Back home, I would walk to the neighbouring village for care during my first two pregnancies. But during the crisis, when I was expecting my third baby, I had to go without any healthcare. And it’s so important.”

And the other mothers at Bakassi know it too. Urged to attend by IRC volunteers in their communities, around 150 women each month come to give birth at the IRC reproductive health clinic. Care is free, including referrals to hospitals in case of emergency—because all mums deserve to give birth safely.

“I can’t count the number of women I’ve supported to deliver their babies,” Ruth muses. “So many. But it’s amazing being a midwife. When I see pregnant women I just love them.”

Ruth standing next to her client
Around 150 women each month come to give birth at the IRC reproductive health clinic in Bakassi displacement camp.
Photo: IRC / Tom Saater

Learn more

In northeast Nigeria we’re providing free, quality healthcare to mothers like Hafsat to keep them safe and well during and after their pregnancies. The IRC gives displaced families a sense of home when theirs have been taken away. IRC reproductive healthcare services at Bakassi are made possible by USAID.