It is privilege for us to have this opportunity to introduce you to the life and legacy of my beloved friend and mentor, UmmSalaamah “Sondra” Abdullah-Zaimah. When we think of her we hear the proverbial wisdom of Ghanaian ancestors whispering, “A child breaks the shell of the snail but not that of the tortoise”.
UmmSalaamah’s journey to become a midwife and her commitment to serve her community and to teach others has been led by her deep faith, the divine guidance of Allah and the calling of her ancestors. She tenaciously and ambitiously pushes the envelope in life attempting what is beyond her own strength yet accomplishing so much through the will of Allah.
In the mid 1970’s, as the African-American movement for self-determination, and equal rights reached its crest, UumSalaamah found herself tending to the needs of her Brooklyn community as the neighborhood “herb lady”. The young mother of three worked as a postal worker and, like many in her community, she had little trust in conventional medicine. She describes the trauma of the highly invasive birth of one of her children in a military hospital, and the subsequent mismanaged care of her nine-year old son by a family physician, as a pivotal time when she had to rely upon the wisdom of her grandmother, who used herbs and natural home remedies to cure whatever ailed them.
In the late 1970’s UumSalaamah, in her new occupation as a New York City police officer, attended her first births, equipped with the emergency childbirth training she had received. She noted this as another call from her community, and began reading Ina May Gaskin’sSpiritual Midwifery and Grantly Dick-Read’s Birth Without Fear. On one occasion she arrived before the midwives at the birth of a baby with a double knot in its umbilical cord. The midwives entered just in time to resuscitate the baby and UumSalaamah was scared into seeking out education and training. This event echoed the voices of the ancestors whispering to her, “If one does not know, another teaches.”
UumSalaamah applied to nursing school in Brooklyn and was accepted. But she postponed her enrollment after composing a 10-page letter to Ina May Gaskin requesting training at The Farm in Summertown, Tennessee. She requested their help in training her to better serve as a midwife at the upcoming birth of her teen daughter’s second child and the families of her Brooklyn community. She boarded a bus with her youngest child in tow and arrived at The Farm during the summer of 1979. The Farm’s mother-centered, natural model of birthing, and model of care resonated deeply within her; she returned to Brooklyn, quit her job, and moved to The Farm to learn from those midwives. She spent the next two years commuting between Brooklyn (taking care of her family and helping her community birth) and The Farm. These years at The Farm, along with her recent conversion to Islam would foster within her an even greater obligation to community and humanitarian service.
In the years that followed UumSalaamah completed nursing school in Brooklyn and then later attended Emory University, in Atlanta, and graduated as the first African-American CNM midwife from this institution. One of her first jobs as a CNM was working for a brief period at the Mary Breckenridge Hospital, home to Frontier School of Midwifery and Family Nursing, in Hyden, Kentucky.
She has worked as a CNM in the states of Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, Florida, Texas and most recently, Tennessee. She has studied the health care system in Cuba and traveled in service as a midwife to communities in Senegal, Honduras and Ghana, often living in these communities for months or years at a time. She is also the Midwifery Director for Birthing Project USA.
She can occasionally be found teaching at The Farm’s Midwifery Skills Workshops. In addition, she spends part of her summers volunteering at the Farm’s Kids to the Country youth program for inner city youth.
UumSalaamah has contributed to the sustainability of midwifery through more than six years of service as a MANA Board member where she chaired the founding committee for NARM and established the Women of Color Region (Midwives of Color Section) later becoming a NARM Board Member and serving as a subject matter expert as well as a “tester of the test”. Her grassroots efforts span decades as a founding member of both Child Birth Providers of African Descent (CPAD) and the International Center for Traditional Childbearing (ICTC) where she served as the Midwifery Director.
Having attended more than 4000 births, UumSalaamah counts her greatest joy in life as being present for the holistic homebirths of three of her eleven grandchildren and two of her fifteen great grandchildren. In 2010 she birthed a new project, Midwives On the Move (MOM), an organization which recognizes the disparities in both infant mortality and maternal mortality in America, Africa and the Diaspora. UumSalaamah is also acutely aware of the difficulty aspiring NARM candidates from communities of color experience in securing preceptors and preceptor sites. She firmly believes in “being the change we want to see” and she developed MOM as the venue to provide oversee preceptorship experience for midwifery students as well as on-site additional training to the midwives at The Abura Dunkwa Midwifery Training Center in Ghana and to the traditional midwives in the surrounding rural villages. Her goal is to demonstrate to all that the birthing experience can be compassionate, safe and inclusive.