The average global fertility rate today, which measures the average number of children that each woman on Earth has given birth to, is currently around 2.5—meaning that the typical household worldwide has somewhere between two and three children.
For 39-year-old Mariam Nabatanzi of the Kasawo region in Uganda, though, that number is one she hasn’t seen since she was just 13 years old.
Nabatanzi was married off when she was just 12 years old, escaping a terrifying home life where her stepmother had poisoned her five older siblings by crushing glass into their food while Nabatanzi was off visiting a relative. While she had hoped to have six children with her new husband, though—right around the average for African women, where the fertility rate is just under six children per woman—her first set of twins left her doctor sharing some unfortunate news.
Thanks to a rare genetic condition, Nabatanzi has larger ovaries than the average woman. Birth control, which she and her husband were prepared to use, was likely to cause health complications for the young teen—and she carried a much higher risk for delivering multiples, which has left her with a staggering 42 children born over the course of the last 26 years.
With multiple quadruplets, triplets and twins, Mariam Nabatanzi has one of the highest birth rates ever recorded. But after her husband abandoned her, she’s having to provide for the children by herself. @samholdertv reports. #AfricaJournal pic.twitter.com/VrHOmQSt6V
— Reuters Africa (@ReutersAfrica) April 26, 2019
Not all of her children have survived, including one of the two twins that were born just under three years ago. Still, the caring mother has delivered a total of five sets of twins, four sets of triplets, and five sets of quadruplets. All but six of her children have survived, leaving her with nearly one mouth to feed for every year that she’s been alive.
Things are even tougher nowadays, as her husband vanished right around the time she delivered their last set of twins. That leaves a single mother with 38 mouths to feed, scrambling to make sure that there’s food, clothing, medical care, and education all while keeping a roof over their heads.
“I have grown up in tears, my man has passed me through a lot of suffering,” she said in an interview, shared by Reuters Inc. “All my time has been spent looking after my children and working to earn some money.”
Still, despite her backbreaking pressure and responsibility, the love Nabatanzi shows for her children is abundantly clear.
When Reuters lists the various ways that the matriarch herself earns money, it looks like she practically runs their small rural village. She’s taken on work hairdressing, event decorating, collecting and selling scrap metal, brewing local gin, and selling herbal medicine, doing anything and everything to make sure that her children are happy and loved.
Then there’s the home she’s provided for them.
Her oldest child, 23-year-old Ivan, explained just how much she still does even with the older children helping out. “Mom is overwhelmed, the work is crushing her, we help where we can, like in cooking and washing, but she still carries the whole burden for the family. I feel for her,” he explained.
They live in a set of four homes strung together in the middle of their village, which is surrounded by coffee fields and about an hour outside of Uganda’s capital city, Kampala.
In those homes, 12 of the children sleep on metal bunk beds, while the others alternately share mattresses or sleep on the floor in another room. One of their rooms has an entire wall dedicated to her pride and joy for the children, though, with photographs of some of the children graduating from school hung. The gold tinsel that adorns their necks in the photographs shows that Nabatanzi tries to provide joy and sparkle wherever she can.
She keeps a board nailed to the wall that organizes who takes care of what chores, with “On Saturday we all work together” spelled out across the top.
Her own life is tired, hard, and full of difficulty. But for her children, the sacrifice that they see her make could lead to the inspiration for a more promising future.