Woman with 38 children: 'My hormones aren't compatible with contraceptives'

Mariam has 38 kids and may just be the world’s most fertile woman – and although making ends meet is a challenge, this single mom adores her brood.

Ever since she was a little girl, she’d wanted lots of babies – new life to help ease the pain of a childhood shrouded in abandonment and death. Six kids was her ideal number, she thought, enough to fill the house and her heart. But by the time Mariam Nabatanzi had been pregnant six times she was already the mother of 18 kids – and things didn’t stop there.

Over the past 26 years this 39-year-old Ugandan woman has given birth to six sets of twins, four sets of triplets and five sets of quadruplets. Of the 44 children Mariam brought into the world, six died from complications that often arise in multiple births.

Today she has 38 kids, making her one of Africa’s most fertile women. Using oral contraceptives isn’t an option for Mariam because they aggravate a hormonal condition she has.

Raising her big brood has been tough on the single mother, whose husband walked out on her and the kids three years ago.

“All my time has been spent looking after my children and working to earn some money,” Mariam said. She manages to put food on the table by turning her hand to everything: hairdressing, event decorating, collecting and selling scrap metal, brewing local gin and selling herbal medicine.

It takes up to 25kg of maize meal to feed her family for just one day, she says, so she hustles to make sure her kids don’t go to bed hungry. Fish or meat are rare treats. The money she makes from her many jobs is swallowed up by staple food, medical care, clothing, school fees and keeping a roof over their heads.

The older children help look after the young ones while Mariam works, and everyone chips in with chores such as cooking and cleaning the house.

Her eldest son, Ivan Kibuka (23) had to drop out of secondary school when she couldn’t afford to pay his fees. He does what he can to ease his mother’s load but it’s Mariam who endures the backbreaking pressure of supporting so many people.

“Mom is overwhelmed. The work is crushing her. We help where we can, but she still carries the whole burden for the family. “I feel for her.”

Mariam’s desire for a big family has its roots in tragedy. Three days after she was born, her mother abandoned her, her father and her five siblings.

“She just left us,” she said sombrely. Her father remarried but Mariam claims her stepmother killed her siblings by mixing crushed glass into their food. Mariam escaped because she was visiting a relative at the time.

“I was seven years old then, too young to even understand what death actually meant,” Mariam said. Five years later her father and stepmom married her off to a man 28 years her senior. At age 13, Mariam gave birth to twins.

After her first set of twins were born, Mariam went to a doctor who told her she had unusually large ovaries and advised that birth control like the pill might cause health problems. Although she wanted children, at one point it all became too much, and Mariam took the risk and used an intrauterine contraceptive device. She started bleeding and was hospitalised for six months, she told Al Jazeera.

“The doctor said my hormones weren’t compatible with family planning.” So, the children kept coming. Now Mariam’s family is believed to be the biggest in Uganda, where the fertility rate averages out at 5,6 children per woman.

In her home village of Kabimbiri, she’s known as Nalongo Muzaala Bana (the twin mother that produces quadruplets).

Her father had 45 children with several women, and they all came in sets of twins, triplets, quadruplets and quintuplets, she said.

Dr Charles Kiggundu, a gynaecologist at Mulago Hospital in Kampala, Uganda, confirmed Mariam’s extreme fertility is hereditary.

“Her case is a genetic predisposition to hyper-ovulate (releasing multiple eggs in one menstrual cycle), which significantly increases the chance of having multiples,” he told Ugandan newspaper the Daily Monitor.

The single mom and her 38 kids live in a set of four cramped houses made of cement blocks and topped with corrugated iron in a village surrounded by coffee fields about an hour outside the capital, Kampala.

Twelve children sleep on metal bunk beds with thin mattresses in one small room. In the other rooms, some kids are lucky enough to pile onto shared mattresses while the rest sleep on the dirt floor. Portraits of some of the children proudly graduating from school hang on one wall.

A roster on a small wooden board nailed to another wall spells out washing and cooking duties. “On Saturday we all work together,” it reads.

Many hands may make light work, but Mariam admits she nearly reached breaking point when her husband abandoned her three years ago.

To compound matters, she had just given birth to her last set of twins and one of the babies had died in childbirth.

“My man put me through a lot of suffering,” she told Reuters, clasping her hands as tears welled up. “He was violent and would beat me at any opportunity.

Despite the fact that it’s an arduous task, she’s happy to be raising her kids on her own. “I started taking on adult responsibilities at an early stage and I have grown up in tears. It’s not easy to take care of my children but I made it easy because they are my children. “I will never abandon them. I love them.”