￼She’s not got the anorak, she’s not got the tracksuit, she’s not carrying the hiking sticks, but the 27-year-old mum with the eight-day-old baby in her arms shares something with Jo Brand. She will walk a marathon today.
It’s 13 miles for Fides to trek from her Zambian village to the Mwembeshi health centre, deep in the bush, many miles from the capital Lusaka. She must get to the clinic and back before dusk to avoid the risk of being beaten or raped on the dusty tracks that criss-cross the nut-brown veld. In a month the rains will come, turning unmade roads into swollen rivers, and bringing with them the mosquitos and malaria. It’s a marathon Fides walked only last week for her baby, Jacob, to be born. She’s back today for his check-up (above).
When they set out at dawn, Jacob was freez- ing, which explains the incongruous blankets and fleece hat, pulled tight over his tiny head, even at the height of the day in 30°C sun. Too tiny to regulate his own temperature, Jacob is bundled up in Fides’s arms as she hovers in the shade behind scores of other young mothers with babies waiting for their vaccinations. The men are notable by their absence.
With its four-bed delivery ward and 19 midwives, this clinic is a magnet for the 600 mothers a month who walk miles to give birth. In a country where the risk of a woman dying in childbirth is as high as one in 37 and where one in 15 children dies before their fifth birthday, it is, in every sense, a lifeline.
And the injections are, too. In Zambia, where Aids remains an epidemic and levels of infection among women stand at 15 per cent, the use of antiretroviral drugs has reduced the rate of mother-to-baby HIV transmission to 2 per cent.
Beyond the walls of the clinic the old mission station still stands from 1924. But how much has changed? By and extra-ordinary conscience, one of our party, here to see the worked that is being funded by Sport Relief, married the granddaughter of a missionary who lived and died here. He now helps to run Rolls-Royce. How many of the mums in Mwembeshi are living a life so different from their great-grandparents?
The British missionaries might have gone the way of the white settlers whose Dutch names can be found on the gravestones in the over- grown cemetery, but some things stay the same.
Between the mud huts a boy passes, making his way to pick up his dinner from the women who have cooked it. He’ll eat it 50 yards away, with the men. In a world where men and women can’t sit down to a meal together, what chance of a husband slogging 26 miles with his wife to a maternity clinic? Perhaps when Jacob grows up, things will have changed. Until then, young mothers such as Fides will have to take their chances.
Which is where you come in. Two years ago, for the last Sport Relief, Radio Times readers raised more than £91,000 to support clinics such as the one at Mwembeshi. Your money goes some way to providing this lifeline for hundreds of babies like Jacob and mothers like Fides – who don’t complete marathons for fun, or even money. They walk them because they have to.