How Kenyan Women Are Decreasing Infant Mortality

BlogHer Original Post

After a first full day of learning about home healthcare visits and HIV testing, day 2 of our trip to Kisumu was dedicated to learning about maternal and newborn health in Kenya.

The stats: Kenyan women and girls have a 1 in 38 chance of dying in pregnancy and childbirth, compared to 1 in 4,300 in the United States. Most of these deaths result from pregnancy complications which may occur before, during or after delivery, usually due to inadequate or improper care. So bright and early Tuesday morning, Dr. Kayla Laserson, the director of the Kemri/CDC Field Research Station in Kisumu, accompanied us to Lwak Nutritional Centre, to meet with "village reporters" -- women and men who visit pregnant and immediately post-delivery mothers to check up on them and make sure that they are receiving adequate care and support; in addition, they monitor for the possible presentation of malaria, tuberculosis and other diseases which may compromise the health of the mother or the newborn.

Given the seriousness of the issues we were planning on attacking today, we all boarded the bus with an appropriately sober attitude. Imagine our surprise then, when we rolled up the driveway of the Lwak Nutritional Centre, and were promptly greeted with this:

Kenyan Villagers


About 50 village reporters -- maybe more! -- met our bus with joyous singing and dancing. We were stunned and really moved by their so generous reception, and they didn't stop after we'd all exited the vehicle. We all wandered around with our mouths open, laughing with delight as they continued dancing, occasionally stopping to hug us, or exclaim Karibu! (welcome!)

When it was clear after a minute or two that they had no intention of stopping, we did the only thing we could do.

We joined them.

It was so wonderfully welcoming, and I think all of us were quite overcome. Eventually, of course, we all settled down, and after they performed a song for us (!), a few of the village reporters addressed us all, describing how the work that they were doing was showing an undeniable decrease in infant mortality, directly attributed to their efforts.

These women delivered their speeches with unabashed passion -- they clearly loved the work they were doing in their communities. It was so inspiring to watch. And so, after they finished, to celebrate ...

(Incidentally, I'd like to go on record as saying that I believe if Corporate America followed the lead of these women and began and ended business meetings with singing and dancing, I think corporations would be much happier places to work. Just sayin'.)

Eventually, of course, it was time to get down to some serious business. First of all, we moved to a quieter corner of the Lwak campus to meet the incredibly regal Rael, a Traditional Birth Attendant, or "TBA":

Rael is 56 years old, and is someone who we in the west might call a "herbalist," or an "alternative holistic medical practitioner." She makes her living by selling herbs which heal people, an art that was practiced by her mother, and her mother's mother before her. She learned the practice from when she was a very young girl, around 15, when her mother and grandmother would send her out into the bush to gather herbs for their clients. Nowadays, she also helps assist pregnant mothers deliver their children at home, and maintains that she has herbs that can help the baby turn into the proper position for childbirth, or even stop hemorrhaging. She does admit, however, that at times she has referred mothers to the emergency room or medical clinic.

Here's what I loved about meeting Rael: besides the fact that she was a fascinating person to listen to, I love that KEMRI and the CDC treat her with so much respect. Clearly, as modern medical practitioners, they do not advocate or recommend the practices of Rael and those in her line of work; however, they work hard to treat these practitioners, who are highly regarded in their communities, with the utmost respect. I love that instead of simply mowing down any idea which might fly in the face of modern medicine, they have figured out a way to work in parallel with them, thus gaining their support for the work KEMRI and the CDC are doing. It was really inspiring.

After thanking Rael for sharing her stories, it was time to visit a new mother. We split up into groups, and my travel companion for the day, Jyl Johnson, and I climbed into a car with a Village Reporter whose nickname was, illogically, Rat.

Rat was a very tall, handsome man with a loud, deep, basso voice (imagine if James Earl Jones were about 25 years old and loud, and you'll pretty much get the idea). Rat has been doing the Village Reporter job for several years, visiting young mothers before and immediately after giving birth, to ensure that they are staying on their medications (if applicable), that they're getting adequate help and nutrition, and providing emotional support. He loves his work, and talked about how his relationships with many of the families that he visits has transformed into a sort of "uncle" status.

On this day, Rat took us to meet a young mother named Lydia, who had given birth to twin boys about 9 days ago. The boys' names are Valencia and Shem Emmanuel.

Lydia actually spoke nearly flawless English (she had comparatively high secondary education before having to drop out of school because of lack of funds), so at Rat's prompting, Lydia told her story without the need for a translator: Her pregnancy was relatively uneventful (although she didn't know she was having twins until she was 7 months along!), but her delivery was quite complicated. She didn't deliver the second baby until five hours after the first. Bless her heart. But because of Rat's visits during her pregnancy, she knew that if she felt ill at any time (and knows that if her children don't seem to be well), she should go straight to the hospital or the nearby clinic for treatment.

Toward the end of our visit, Shem decided that he was very, very hungry, and so as Lydia began to feed him (with her mother holding Valencia), we took our leave.

Now, what's amazing? This post only takes you up to mid-morning today -- we did so much more. There were visits to fishing communities and tuberculosis testing centers and ... well. Suffice to say that I could keep going, but this post is long enough. So I'll have to save some of these stories for when I return to Houston. Right now, however, I'm exhausted, and am going to call Marcus and Alex before turning in to bed.

See you tomorrow, friends. And thanks so much for following along.

* * * * * * *

I'm traveling to Kenya at the kind invitation and expense of The ONE Campaign, a nonpartisan, advocacy organization dedicated to the fight against extreme poverty and preventable disease, particularly in Africa. ONE works to convince governments (the US, as well as others) to invest in smart programs that help to eliminate poverty and preventable disease in a sustainable way. This week,along with 9 other bloggers, I'll be bringing you images and stories of how the organizations for which ONE advocates are effecting real change in Kenya.  If you're moved by anything you read here and you'd like to help, please consider adding your voice and join ONE by simply filling out the form below.  Your information will remain confidential, I promise.  And if you're already a member, and would still like to help, I'd love if you'd spread the word by sharing this post with your friends and followers.

(In addition, for fun, if you'd like to follow along on our trip and help by performing a "daily action" while we're here,be sure to check out the ONE Mom trip page.)

That's all there is to it.  Because ONE never asks for your money, just your voice. 

As always, thanks so much, friends.

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