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Seeds of hope: the rise of surrogacy

Seeds of hope: the rise of surrogacy PHOTO BIRD AGENCY [Graphics: Hope Mukami]

For couples in Africa who are unable to have children, surrogacy has been a little-publicised option. Nigerian Toyin Lolu Ogunmade is changing that

SPECIAL FEATURE | BIRD NEWS AGENCY | For many couples, especially newlyweds, the birth of a baby not only spices up their lives but also brings a sense of fulfilment, not to mention the respect and sense of responsibility offered by traditional society.

And when the arrival of that first child is delayed – or does not come at all – for reasons beyond the control of the couple, that can put them, and especially the woman, on an unexpected and often traumatic and stigmatised, new journey.

When Toyin Lolu-Ogunmade and her husband Lolu Ogumade’s love blossomed into a union, they looked forward to being “soon blessed” with a fruit of their love– a child.

“At the heart of all our detailed planning, from wedding to honeymoon, was being parents,” she recounted.

Today,Ogunmade’s life is centred in her office in the heart of the City of Lagos from where she providing hope and holds the hands of others going through experiences similar to hers… which she refers to as the process whereby “hope deferred makes the heart sick”.

The office is a beehive of activity as her staff attend to a constant stream of people, mostly women, seeking help. The walls are plastered with messages about infertility and photos of happy mothers cuddling babies born through surrogacy.

Ogunmade, a human resource management professional for 20 years until she switched careers to become a fertility consultant, said she battled infertility for 13 years, a journey that helped shape her current career and outlook to life.

Ogumade narrated her battle, saying it all started with irregular periods. She did not find that strange, she said, because it often happened in her teenage years.

But what began to worry her was when she started suffering bloating, stomach pains, swollen ankles and heavy bleeding during her menstrual cycle.

“I assumed that what I was going through was a sign of pregnancy and so I started visiting my husband’s family physician.It was at the clinic that a consultant gynecologist broke the news of that I had multiple fibroids and that the bleeding was as a result of the fibroids – but I could still conceive once addressed,” she said.

Ogunmade’s dream slowly started to slip away as months became years and she began a long battle with fibroids, which had to be removed surgically because of the discomfort.

This, too, did not turn out well as she developed post-surgery complications. Already in their 30s, the biological clock was ticking fast for the couple and anxiety gnawed at them. Ogumade was haunted by the fear that her husband, like many other men, would grow tired of waiting for a baby and leave her. Luckily, he stood with her and they walked the journey together.

Nor was Ogunmade deterred by the setbacks. She underwent three more surgeries to enable her to conceive. This, too, did not yield any fruit. Instead, after enduring all the pain and trauma, her doctors delivered an emotionally crushing verdict: her womb was now too scarred to hold a baby.

“I was devastated when the doctors diagnosed me with what they called Asherman’s Syndrome. They told me it meant surgeries that were meant to fix my problem had left my womb scarred and I could, therefore. not conceive,” she said, her voice cracking with emotion.

According to Dr Adewale Lawal, a gynaecologist, “multiple fibroids” is a major contributor to infertility in women, particularly for those of African descent.

Other causes include PCOS Polycystic Ovary Syndrome, a condition in which women experience irregular menstrual cycles, as well as infertility on the part of the male partner.

Never the one to give up easily, Ogunmade sought a second opinion from another doctor who confirmed that she would never be able to conceive a child. However, the doctor refused to let her to wallow in misery and despair. All was not lost, he said – she could still be a mother through what he called gestational surrogacy. Shocked at the option initially, Ogunmade gave it some thought.

“The journey of hope in pursuit of motherhood reached a dead end. Though filled with doubt and many answered questions, I decided to only give it a try as a last resort.”

“Though excited at the prospect, I was still conscious because I did not want to raise my hopes and then get disappointed,” she said.

Still not entirely convinced that she had reached a dead end, either. She made one last attempt at being a regular mother, jumping on a plane and flying to India where she hoped another correctional surgery would help. However, the news in India was the same, if not worse: her uterus was damaged beyond all hope of repair. They, too, advised gestational surrogacy.

She resisted the idea further, her reluctance stemming from the fact that it was considered taboo and not a path explored from where she came from.

Then, in the 13th year of their childless union, she decided to participate in a program that included a surrogate mother and in-vitro fertilisation (IVF). It succeeded at the third attempt.

The couple became the proud parents of a set of twins –a boy and girl. Finally, at 40, Ogunmade was a mother. She named the twins Orinayo and Oluwafikunayomi. Orinayo means “My song of joy” and Oluwafikunayomi means “The Lord has added to my joy”.

“Each time I saw my bundles of joy, because they were literally that, I pinched myself to be sure I was not in a perpetual dream. But it was real, it was real! “she said.

“I never thought I would ever have children. The moment I and my husband peeped into the little incubators – they were kept in the hospital – I felt an overwhelming feeling run through me, an unexplainable rush which I still have when I see my children… I knew within me these little ones have captured my heart and I will go to the end of the earth to do anything for them.”

She regularly thanks their birth mother, who, through IVF technology, has brought so much happiness to the couples’ lives.

IVF involves the removal of an egg from a woman’s ovaries, which is then fertilised with sperm in the laboratory. The fertilised egg– an embryo–is then planted in the woman’s womb (or that of a surrogate mother) to grow and develop.

IVF has not been widely publicised as an option for couples who are unable to have children in Africa, largely because of cultural taboos. It can also be expensive. But beneficiaries like Ogunmade are now determined to educate as many women as possible about the option. Suddenly, there is hope for couples suffering from the stigma of childlessness.

Infertility, according to Dr Esther Adelopo of Bridge Clinic in Lagos, can take a significant adverse emotional and physical impact toll on those affected.

“The experience of conceiving, nurturing and giving birth to one’s child is a fundamental desire that is experienced by most women. Infertility can threaten every aspect of an individual’s life; marriage, health, work and relationships, which can lead to stigmatisation, reduced quality of life, reduced intimacy, fear of divorce and separation,” she said.

Ogunmade’s husband, lawyer Charles Ogochukwu, said society needs to embrace surrogacy because it is one of the options for overcoming the stigma of childlessness, adding that it is tougher on women more than men.

“I see my child as an extension of myself, my legacy. I have been married for over 20 years and I knew how I was looked at when we did not have a child, I felt as though I was not a complete man,” he said.

“To tell you the truth I cannot imagine life without my daughter, but I do not feel that I should take joy out of marriage. For my wife I cannot say the same, it took a heavy toll on her, especially mentally, before we were blessed with a daughter.”

While some men stand with their spouses, others succumb to pressure and end their marriages.

Ada Daniels, who was married for five years, is one of those whose marriage ended because of childlessness. She says her mother-in-law saw her as “the enemy for failing to sire a child for her son to make him a man”.

“I was married for five years before separation and then divorce, I think not having a child was part of the problem.Most men do not understand the trauma the women go through when in such a situation. I think for the average Nigerian woman, the experience can be harrowing until she makes the decision to stop allowing people to push her buttons,” she said.

On returning from India, Ogunmade decided to reach out to other women suffering the stigma of infertility. She launched a learning management portal – Precious Conceptions – a consultancy on fertility services, infertility counselling and treatment and other related reproductive matters.

To master the reproductive cycle, she also enrolled for a course as a fertility counsellor, which gave her the further knowledge and experience. Her motto is: We walk with you to Victory.

She has also published books and conducts regular bootcamps on conception. Her book, “Mum at Last: My 13 Year Journey”, has had significant impact on couples who are in the same situation and from the book may have found hope and considered surrogacy as an option.

“Truly amazing book, provides an honest look and captures the emotional journey of fertility and IVF as well as surrogacy from the perspective of someone who has actually gone through the emotions” said Dr Olawale Shittu, a fertility specialist at Bloom Fertility Lagos.

“Thank you for writing your story so beautifully. This is not a testament to God’s goodness and mercy but also your tenacity and resilience. This is my thirteenth year of “waiting”. Your story has energised me not to give up” said “Ella”, who did not want to be named.

For Ogunmade, however, it has not been an easy journey. She has encountered cases of people wanting to engage in child-trafficking and even profiteering in the guise of surrogacy, she said.

“There are a few people who have come under the guise of becoming parents through surrogacy, but their main agenda is suspect. Once I realise their motives, I cut them off and engage those who are genuine in the search for surrogates,” she said.

“Some couples even attempt to bribe the intended surrogates, saying they will pay them more money by engaging straight with them without Precious Conceptions – or ask that the surrogates use their own eggs. Some have the surrogate have sex with the men – a fact that ends up wrecking marriages.”

Because of these experiences, Ogunmade now partners with other specialists including fertility consultants and practitioners, psychiatrists, gynaecologists. nutritional therapists and IVF experts, to ensure those in need receive proper care.

She is happy to be a part of the solution, saying that since she launched her venture, it has helped 67 couples to realise the dream of parenthood, through surrogacy.

“This is not just a number but the lives of people that have changed because of the presence of those precious gifts,” Ogunmade added.

Though surrogacy is legal in Nigeria and many other African countries, policy guidelines are needed, Ongunmade believes, to present it as an option and to fight abuse and the stigma of childlessness, just as she has done and continues to do.

“I am happy to have brought a message of hope, joy and laughter in the homes again. I will be happier to make more people happier,” she said.

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