Mothers wait outside an East African medical clinic to have their little ones immunized. Photo by: Margo Head
Just over a year ago, while reviewing the itinerary my cousin Thom and his wife Dr. Jean had put together for our trip to Africa, Thom asked “Is there anything else you want to add?” Never having travelled to that side of the globe I couldn’t think of what else I might want to see or do. It was a case of not knowing what I didn’t know.
This trip, blind-siding my bucket list, came about one sunny afternoon when, standing in my kitchen, cousin Thom planted a seed. “You should come to Uganda” he said, “as a female photographer, perhaps you could contribute to the Save the Mothers story.” His suggestion resonated more deeply than he could know; I had been waiting for the right opportunity to use my passion for photography for something more than personal gain. It was that humble conversation that led me to travel agents, clinics, itineraries, and a trip across the world that, ironically, began on International Women’s Day.
Travelling under the cover of darkness to Uganda Christian University in Mukono, home of the Save the Mothers program, I was astounded by the road-side bustle. Our driver explained that Ugandans love to be up half the night visiting one another.
Later, during a visit to a local school, I had the opportunity to chat with two young female teachers’ assistants. They were curious about what had brought me to their country. As I explained about Save the Mothers’ role in Uganda, they both acknowledged knowing women who had died during childbirth. It seemed everyone knew at least one woman in their family who had fallen victim to this maternal tragedy. What surprised me was the blank looks on their faces when I shared that it was the exact opposite in Canada; rarely do Canadians hear about maternal death. But such loss of life is the norm in Uganda. Thankfully, the Save the Mothers program has developed and people are learning it doesn’t have to be that way.
Two steps forward, one step back
While touring a middle school, I had the opportunity to chat with the principal, Ivan, a graduate of the STM program. You can read about his journey in Dr. Jean’s new book. He acknowledged the need for education around maternal health issues, including family planning, and has set up several after-school programs to accomplish exactly that.
Hearing such stories, we celebrated the progress that has been made. However, challenges remain. A generator at a village heath care facility needed a battery so that the refrigeration system could keep vaccines cold. Staff proudly showed me around the facility, yet did not seem to sense the urgency to replace the battery. Meanwhile, mothers and grandmothers, who had walked several miles to the clinic were waiting to have their children immunized.
It was experiences like this that made me realize there is much work at the cultural level still to be accomplished. For such a time as this, Save the Mothers has come alongside East African women to offer a new outlook – and new hope – for maternal health, teaching that every mother has the right to a safe delivery with access to basic medical help, and that even simple changes can improve the chances of survival for mothers and babies.
We can’t all do what Dr. Jean has done; however, each one of us can play a part in the Save the Mothers’ story. For me, travelling to Africa to embark on a photo journey was a huge financial and emotional commitment, but I sensed it was all a part of doing my part. Now, the faces of the Ugandan women I met are forever etched in my heart, and I will tell their stories every chance I get.
Why not consider what your part of this story might be?