Wednesday, September 23, 2009
Today, we travelled with the caravan to Makeni, in northern Sierra Leone. The trip from Freetown took us about three hours, and we arrived in Makeni to a festive welcome. We were greeted by young women in traditional dress doing a traditional dance. They had painted their faces and wore bushels of leaves on their backsides. They danced around us and wiped our faces with a cloth (we were sweaty) when we entered town. Then we were escorted by the dancers along with a band and dozens of people in a slow (very slow) parade to the village chief’s headquarters in the center of town. Once there, the village chief, a tall man, welcomed us and took us into a covered space for a small chat, where he told us how happy he was to have us come to Makeni to talk about maternal health.
The AI delegation split in two because we are a pretty large team. The team I joined went to the hospital and the other went to meet with local civil society organizations. We then travelled to the government hospital of Makeni to meet with the hospital staff and to talk with women in the maternity ward there. This is the home town and district of Ernest Koroma, the current president of Sierra Leone. The hospital here is similar to the one we saw in Freetown. The maternity ward has 13 beds, all of which are full, and there is one labor room with only one mattress for women to rest on. If more than one woman is in labor the others have to rest on the floor. There is only one doctor who can perform deliveries and conduct surgery and we met with him during our visit. He said a major problem in the country is the lack of doctors – he tells us there are less than a hundred in the whole country! There seems to have been a major brain drain during and then after the war here.
We met a young woman (who looks to me about 14 years old) who had to be rushed here because she had a retained placenta after giving birth to her little girl. She delivered the baby at home, as most women do here, despite a new government plan that has stated that all deliveries should be in a clinic or hospital. The current capacity in the hospitals could never manage that. The young woman had a dilation and curettage at the hospital and seems to be recovering well. The doctor and nurses told us that all the services they provide are free and no one has to pay. But when we visited a private hospital later in the day and spoke to community members, they told us this was not true.
This afternoon, we had a large event in the center of town with the caravan. Hundreds of people attended, mostly children who had been brought there by their teachers. We arrive to the event to smiling faces of little children in bright school uniforms and street clothes. They scream, “hey, hey, hello” and laugh at us. We must be quite the spectacle to them with our cameras and video equipment. They giggle as we pass by, like they‘re in on a joke we will never really understand. I think of how many of these children have lost their mothers and will never get to know the warm and reassuring stroke of a mother’s hand on their faces like my daughter knows. The impact of maternal mortality touches them in a way we will never really fully comprehend. They are left to aunts, grandmothers and friends to be raised.
At the event, Irene Khan, the secretary general of Amnesty, is made the first ever woman village chief of Bombali, the region we are in. Irene uses the opportunity to ask the community to consider the role of women and to allow them to have a greater voice in the issues that impact them.
During her address at the event, Irene asks once again how many people know a woman who has died during child birth or during pregnancy. Most of the hands in the crowd go up. It’s sad to see such little arms raised around such a devastating reality. The fact is that Sierra Leone is not alone in facing this crisis, and it really is a crisis – a human rights crisis. More than half a million women die every year giving birth. It’s a global crisis which we are beginning to highlight here in Sierra Leone. But Amnesty is doing a similar report in Burkina Faso and we will be doing a report in the United States as well. Even in the richest, most powerful country in the world, the United States, women die during child birth because they cannot afford health care.