26th April 2019

Speaking to the mothers at the clinic

We began the day in the maternity ward, talking to the new mothers, hearing their stories and doting on their babies. One mother had been at the Aberdeen Women’s Centre for 3 months. She had safely delivered her 4th baby via c-section last week. She lives far from Freetown. 12 months ago AWC found her during an outreach visit, suffering quietly with the indignity of fistula. The surgeons at AWC repaired it and advised against further pregnancies. A few months later, when AWC heard of her new pregnancy, they brought her to live here, to ensure the care her fragile uterus would need. She returned to her village yesterday. Mother and baby doing well.

Another mother was still in the labour ward. She had arrived yesterday, unconscious, vomiting blood, fitting, sky-high blood pressure - eclampsia. AWC was able to provide an emergency c-section and save her life and that of her baby. She was sitting up feeding her little girl as we were with her, apparently none the worse for wear.

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WMD AWC STAFF
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World Malaria Day

We joined the AWC team together with employees from a local company who were sponsoring the work and headed to some of Freetown’s many slums. Our first destination was beachside. A fire had destroyed the shanties last year so people are sleeping on the sand. A narrow beach, It was jam-packed. Many of them were fisher-people, with buckets full of enormous, vicious-looking barracuda. Colourful, old wooden fishing boats crammed the water's edge,  women with over-laden buckets on their heads wandering around hoping for a sale, children with their hands out looking for lollies, the area Chief, proud of his people but worried for their welfare... while in some ways the scene was idyllic (golden beaches, palm trees etc), the reality is anything but. Armed with megaphones, the team wandered through the community, advising people to visit the local hospital if they had a temperature, to make sure they slept under mozzie nets and the take their medicine if diagnosed. They called for pregnant women to come forward to be tested on the spot - a finger prick, blood droplet onto something that looked like a pregnancy test and the result in a few seconds. In many cases, anti-malerials had to be provided with advice to attend AWC. There were throngs of people sticking their fingers through our bus window as we tried to drive away, all desperate to be treated, but the tests are expensive and the drugs in limited supply. We had to ration our testing to pregnant women. How we wanted to help everyone...

Speaking to the community

We chatted with the team while driving to the next community. One young woman had a seven-year-old daughter. When I asked her if she would like another, she stiffened and said there was no way on this earth that she would ever give birth again in Sierra Leone. Last week she and her friends had a party to celebrate her friends imminent birth. She showed me photos of them - beautifully dressed, makeup, dancing, laughing, they could have been in Sydney. This friend was lucky, she could afford private care in Freetown’s best hospital. The next day she was dead. No one knew why, no autopsies here, no one even appeared surprised and certainly, this young friend told us, no one cared enough to investigate. This was the second of her friends to suffer the same fate this year. Now I understood her determination never to give birth again. She implored us to do what we could to strengthen maternal health here.

At the AWC Training Hostel

Our afternoon was uplifting, moving, so hopeful. We spent 5 hours in the new AWC accommodation hostel that the Aminata Maternal Foundation is funding. Our own Aminata (of the 10 staff and girls there yesterday, 5 were called Aminata - the Sue Smith equivalent haha) was delirious with happiness and pride. I wish I could capture the joy on her face and in her heart as we spent time there. The team are ironing out the wrinkles with a pilot team of 5 young women and their babies. All are thoroughly vetted to ensure they will benefit to the maximum from our programme. They all come from the slums of Freetown and are victims of abuse, neglect or have no family. Desperately poor, when they arrived at the hostel some were too weak from malnutrition to talk and interact, much less to care for their babies. They were without hope, with no prospect of a job.

5 months into their stay and they greeted us with loving enthusiasm, teenage delight, giggles, laughter, immaculately dressed in their hospitality training outfit- white shirt, black jeans, black and white striped shoes, a beautiful 1 year old on each hip - all dressed in their best outfits, starched, bows in hair. I can’t tell you the effort they had gone to - I think we were their first guests to test their new skills on - remember these young women have never lived in a house before - didn’t know what a kitchen was... It will be quicker if I list their efforts:

  • a welcome song and speech in English
  • a spread of at least 8 dishes they had shopped for, cooked
  • waiter service
  • a beautiful, enormous plaque to mark our efforts for them
  • a special song they had written for us, about Aminata
  • hand decorated shoes for each of us
  • a display of their cake making skills
  • a letter, written by the Mums on behalf of their children telling us what our support means to them

Overwhelming! AMF’s efforts meant everything to them, and they wanted all our team and supporters back in Australia to share in their deepest gratitude. We wish you all could have been there.

We would, of course, be deeply concerned if after 6 months with us they were returned to their communities to suffer as before. Ann Gloag from Freedom from Fistula is trying everything to ensure that doesn’t happen. Now that they have domestic and service skills, the AWC team are working with local and international hotels, restaurants and child care centres to place them in jobs and ensure their self-sufficiency. AWC will be the middle-person to protect the women from future exploration.

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I could go on and on about our afternoon. I haven’t even begun to tell you about Aminata the house manager - that will be in tomorrow’s update. Suffice it to say, I have rarely seen such determination, such extraordinary achievement, and all from a self-made young woman from the slums, forced into teenage marriage and motherhood to a much older man... if the world was full of more women like the house mother Aminata what a world it would be.

Penny Gerstle

Chair of the Aminata Maternal Foundation

 

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