“Every community should have their own midwife. Someone who understands their culture, who they already trust, who is a part of their community, who they’ve known since they were children.” ~ Umm Salaamah “Sondra” Abdullah-Zaimah, MN, CNM, CPM
Umm Salaamah “Sondra” Abdullah-Zaimah will be turning 70 this month and has been practicing midwifery for nearly 35 years. She will be honored this year at the upcoming MANA convention with the Sage Femme Award. MANA volunteer Nermari Broderick recently interviewed Umm Salaamah so we could all learn more about her and her work.
Umm Salaamah’s career began when she was seeking maternity care options for her daughter and goddaughter, both teenage mothers-to-be with a high distrust of the health care system.
“I found a group of midwives working with a doctor at a free clinic in the Bronx, but by the time I found them, she was five months pregnant, so they wouldn’t take her on,” said Umm Salaamah. “I had been through the emergency childbirth training that they gave police officers. Both of those babies were born at home, during a snow storm that shut everything down. Only the national guard was out in New York City.” Both mothers and babies were healthy and as Umm Salaamah describes it, “I was dumb and lucky. Blessed, really.”
Umm Salaamah was studying to become a nurse with the goal of becoming a nurse midwife when her daughter became pregnant again. This time, Umm Salaamah reached out to Ina May Gaskin and the Farm community for training. Recalling an initial training at the Farm, Umm Salaamah says, “I fell in love with how they did things at the Farm. I came home, I quit my job, I bought a van and wrote a letter and told Ina May I was on my way.”
Umm Salaamah spent two years on the Farm, and then returned home to her family in Brooklyn to work with her community. She went on to also become a certified nurse midwife and has worked with communities across the country and the world, including Georgia, Florida, Texas, Kentucky, Mississippi, Tennessee, Honduras, Ghana and many others. She has helped to launch or support a number of international projects, including a maternal health clinic in Senegal. Sharing her insights with others working internationally: “If you go in with an attitude of respect and love, you see other people - as if they are your sister, your daughter, your mother. If you don’t see the outside of a person, but you see that they love their children, want the best for their children, they want the same things you want, if you love them and respect them and are willing to share, rather than coming to tell people what to do, you have a much, much better relationship and you are in a position to learn. It has to be a sharing, compassionate, loving relationship.”
She is particularly focused on ensuring that her knowledge - and the knowledge of other elder midwives - gets shared with the next generation of midwives. “The more I can train women to recognize when they need to transport, to recognize problems, and pass those on, the more I am sharing good practices among women. There’s an African proverb that says if you teach a man, you teach an individual. If you teach a woman, you teach a nation. She is going to share with her community.”
Umm Salaamah has devoted significant time and energy to the midwifery community, including serving on the MANA board, chairing the committee that became the North American Registry of Midwives (NARM) and serving on the NARM board.
Umm Salaamah provides critical support to a number of organizations, including serving as the midwifery director for Birthing Project USA, an international organization and resource center for improving birth outcomes for women of color. She is a founding member and director of midwifery education of the International Center for Traditional Childbearing. The organization was created to promote the health of women and their families and to train Black women aspiring to become midwives.
She is also a founder of Midwives On the Move (MOM). MOM is a committed group of midwives, aspiring midwives, doulas, nurses, birth activists, consumers and volunteers working together in the U.S. and Ghana, West Africa, to exchange midwifery skills, knowledge and ideas.
Today, one of her goals is to ensure that all women have access to community-based midwifery. “I think that every community should have their own midwife, someone who understands their culture who they already trust, someone who is a part of their community, who has known them since they are children. I don’t think it is good for a people to have to take their most most vulnerable members - their pregnant women and brand new babies - off to another culture, that is not always respecting their rituals or their culture.”
One midwife is chosen each year to be the recipient of The Sage Femme award. It honors a grand midwife, past or present, who has practiced the art of midwifery over many years. One whose work, perseverance and dedication will serve as an inspiration to midwives future and present. Learn more about the Sage Femme award and MANA’S 2013 convention, Birthing Social Change.
[eds. note - new photo added 10/8, provided by Aima Bey]