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Ideas
April 6, 2016 8:00 AM EDT
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On that special evening when my son was born, I was just 13-years-old and six months pregnant. Everyone had just retired to sleep when all of a sudden I needed to urinate. My water broke but I didn’t know what it was.

My father walked me outside as we had no toilets inside the house. A few minutes later the frequency changed and I needed to urinate again, only, this time, I couldn’t get out of bed. My father and I didn’t know I was in labor but my mother knew exactly what was happening. My son was about to come into the world prematurely in a village with no hospitals, electricity, or ambulance services.

My mother got up and, in her panic, prayed hard—but also started preparing for the worst. Soon I felt my son’s one foot and screamed. My father passed out and my mother took over the delivery. With no gloves or time to think, she put her hand right inside and got another tiny foot and pulled the baby out. But the head remained stuck. My mother instructed my now-revived father to press my stomach so that the baby’s head could come out. My son’s body was almost lifeless as he had inhaled so much amniotic fluid.

My mother threw cold water on him and there was a sign of life. She cut the umbilical cord, wrapped him in very thick blankets and handed him to our neighbor to hold while she waited for the placenta, but it wouldn’t come out. She ordered my father to take me on his motorcycle to the health center two hours away on bad roads.

When we arrived, there was no one there to attend to me so we set off again for a five-hour journey to the big city hospital. There, I was taken straight to the delivery room to remove the placenta. My son was placed in an incubator, with tubes connected from his nostril to his stomach. For three and a half months he was fed with breast milk I begged off other mothers since I was not yet producing any. During this time my family made so many sacrifices to make sure my son and I were fine.

Almost four months after his birth, my son was ready to return home. But in my village of Bawock, Cameroon, having a child out of wedlock is considered taboo. My son and I were ostracized. Moreover, he was born legs first. Many believed this meant he was a witch and must be killed.

My son was called a bastard. I was rejected by other girls, whose mothers banned them from being friends with me. My self-worth plummeted and I was constantly insecure. I felt trapped and scared.

But one day, so tired of fighting with myself, I decided to turn my pain around. I asked myself: “Why was I created? What is my life’s purpose? I also started keeping a journal. Because the subject of my writings was taboo and I couldn’t discuss it with people in my community, this was a means of release. Gradually, I noticed my journal was becoming a journey, not just a simple destination. I’d complete two to three journals a week. They were thick and full and ripe with feelings and uplifting thoughts. My own words became an inspiration to me as I read from my journal whenever I was down. I came to the wonderful self-realization that I am not a mistake. I am not useless nor a failure, or any of the other names I was called.

What others said about me had created negative belief systems about myself. Because of my friends’ testimonies after reading my writing, I know this is a universal struggle. I know now I am not alone, but I wish there was a book that could have helped me when I was growing up.

I made a pact to share my story with others because I believe only shared experiences can help. In order to reach women and girls globally, I started writing inspirational articles on self-esteem and empowerment for online magazines and local newspapers. But with an insatiable thirst for change and action, I took a step further and published three books in a series called False Labels in 2012, which are now are available on Amazon and in many schools in Cameroon, Zimbabwe, and other parts of the world.

I also designed a workshop curriculum that could be used in schools, churches, and women’s groups to teach self-esteem building and other empowerment related issues. Digital media gave me the opportunity to share my story with others worldwide, which has helped other women to use their voices too.

Another project of mine is inspired by my experiences as a teenager in Cameroon. I had no menstrual pads and no opportunity to buy any, so I missed school often. As a result, I started the KujaPads project to end menstrual taboos and stigmas and collect One Million Pads for Progress to help girls from poor homes in Cameroon stay on track in school during their monthly period. We do school visits where we donate sanitary pads to girls and offer empowerment workshops on self-esteem and menstrual hygiene management.

Today I am a nurse in one of the greatest countries in the world. And my son—who was also rejected, and was even supposed to be killed and thrown away as per the culture of my people—is a healthy intelligent young man. He, too, is a nurse and graduated with honors from nursing school.

Although I live in the U.S. now, I am building a movement as a change-maker in my native country and have created an inclusive day-day annual empowerment conference for teen mothers, persons with disabilities, and the general public.

When I return to the community where I was rejected, most people come to see, greet, and learn from me. Many parents have asked for forgiveness. The same families who kept their daughters away from me now want their daughters to be like me. I have become a role model.

I never gave up on my life but stood strong and determined to turn my life around for the best. Native beliefs would have killed my son if I had allowed them to conquer me. My advice to other teen mothers is to never get stuck in traditional beliefs that are not scientifically proven—and to not heed society, but create their own paths and bring their own brand of beauty into the world by believing in themselves.

Parents should not reject their daughters, but continue to support them with love and compassion, as my parents did.

I encourage everyone to learn to speak out, either verbally or in writing. I redeemed myself and found healing when I started using my voice to write and speak to other women. My life is my message to the world and it is enriched and fulfilled each time I empower a soul.

Marie-Claire Kuja is a contributor from the U.S. and Cameroon. This piece was originally published on World Pulse. Sign up to get international stories of women leading social change delivered to your inbox every month here.

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