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A Bright Light in Sierra Leone

I met Isha Daramy-Kabia less than a week ago, but I instantly knew she would be a friend for life. She sparkled from the stage of the Global Women Leadership Network last Thursday as she declared “No woman should die in childbirth in Sierra Leone!” and announced that she would build her second maternity center in Sierra Leone by 2013.

Isha is a midwife. Born in Sierra Leone and trained in England, Isha is committed to improving maternity care in a country that claims one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the world. Until very recently, 1 in 8 women of reproductive age risked dying from childbirth. Almost all births occur in villages, on dirt floors, without skilled care.  Emergency care is often impossible to access – a combination of poverty, distance, and insufficient medical facilities create the perfect storm for pregnancy complications to lead to death.

Isha left a comfortable practice in England to develop a training program for traditional birth attendants in Sierra Leone. She shared her own knowledge while still honoring the indigenous techniques she observed that made medical sense. She taught the birth attendants to utilize all of their senses – to recognize when a woman was anemic, when to encourage a woman to push during the second stage of labor, or when transfer to a health facility was needed.  The training program lasted months and ended with an oral exam, a certificate, and a joyful graduation. Isha next started the Friends of PCMH (Princess Christian Maternal Hospital), an organization to support the largest maternity hospital in Sierra Leone. She raised funds for better staffing, for better equipment, and soon for other hospitals. She went to markets with a bull-horn to advocate for skilled care during deliveries and to inform the public that maternal health care was now free. When a friend gave her money to buy a car for her personal use, she decided the money could be put to better use if she expanded the maternal and child health clinic she created in Port Loko. Her friend was upset that she hadn’t bought the car, but Isha said she believed something her father used to tell her, “Good comes from good.”

Isha’s clinic will serve women from dozens of villages. Women close to the clinic will come for prenatal care and deliveries. Those far away will move into the clinic in the last weeks of pregnancy to ensure timely access to obstetric care when labor begins. The clinic is beautiful, equipped with tiled floors, mechanical hospital beds, and obstetric supplies. However, the clinic could not yet open. There is no light.

I invited Isha to our Berkeley home before her return to Sierra Leone next week, and introduced her to Hal. He brought out a Solar Suitcase, and as the sun was setting, he turned on the LED lights. “Will this help you?” he asked.

“I’m dumb-founded,” she began. Her eyes filled with tears. “My problem is solved,” she continued, “Women die for lack of light. Midwives need to use their senses. They see, they observe, they feel. You cannot do anything in darkness…especially delivering a baby….This is a real life-saver.”

Isha heads back to Sierra Leone with an extra piece of luggage, packed with solar lights, headlamps, phone chargers and a fetal monitor. And in January, she will officially open the Magbil Mother and Child Health Center.




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