In 1971, my first year as a 20 year-old Peace Corps volunteer in Zorgowee, Liberia, my role was to teach health education to mothers regarding antenatal and well-baby care. In the 70s, infant mortality in the first two weeks of life and maternal mortality was 40%, respectively. This meant that 4 in 10 mothers and infants died from childbirth complications – many preventable. As a licensed practical nurse with just a few months training, I had witnessed a country child birth performed by indigenous midwives in my small village. It was then I knew what knowledge they needed to make deliveries safer. So, I took it upon myself to take education one extra step.
In Part III, chapters “Country Birth” and “Indigenous Midwives” of my memoir, In Search of Pink Flamingos, I narrate the details of observing that country delivery by indigenous midwives. Later on I developed a training workshop for 12 of the midwives by using cardboard cut outs. Crude and antiquated you may say, but this was all I had – no educational tools. This was the simplest way to communicate in 3 languages to women with no ability to read or write. Here is the steadfast lead midwife, Bendu, who supported me 100%.
So what was the real outcome data of my work 50 years ago? Over the decades since my departure, two civil wars (many in my village were killed or fled due to the war conflict), AIDS, and Ebola all took their toll on human lives and infrastructure. I frequently pondered the question, “What good had I done, if any?”
In 2019 I had prepared a PowerPoint for former Peace Corp volunteers in my area. I was shocked by the WHO statistics, that despite all the atrocities and devastation the country had encountered, the mortality of infants and mothers had decreased to nearly single digits. Women had learned that delivering in a safer environment led to better survival. Many were now being delivered in clinics with trained staff. After the civil wars, training of Liberian nurses to become midwives helped in this effort (Some of these projects are funded by Friends of Liberia, a non-profit organization to which I belong).
This still left a gap in my knowledge of how, why and where? In September 2022 I met a former Peace Corps volunteer, Cary Virtue, who had returned 3 years earlier from a PC Response mission to Liberia. He explained that a program called Maternal Waiting Home (MWH) is a government sponsored program primarily funded by non-profit organizations that build small homes with beds next to facilities with trained midwifery staff. Here, pregnant women can stay days before delivery allowing access to this skilled care. Because of this effort, the maternal and fetal mortality continue to decline. The last recorded statistic is about 1%. Despite that good number, Liberia is still the 7th worse maternal mortality rate in the world. Below is a photo of pregnant women awaiting their due date in a MWH in Nimba County, near my village in 2019.
Maybe I’m taking a big leap, but I want to think my 1971 cardboard cutouts and the midwifery workshop helped plant a seed. I believe that teaching improved sanitation and basic childbirth principles were the beginnings of better care.
I think the mothers and midwives believed it too.
If you want to help support this program and others to promote these efforts, go to Friends of Liberia (FOL) by clicking here to designate your donation for our health programs.
A happy woman peering through the MWH window in my village of Zorgowee in 2019.
Post Note: Maternal hemorrhage is one of the major causes of postpartum death. In Part VII, Chapter, Give Twins a Chance,” I tell the story of a postpartum woman hemorrhaging after her birth of twins. I demonstrated to the indigenous midwife how to externally massage the mother’s uterus, and we ultimately saved the mother’s life. Read about it in In Search of Pink Flamingos. I can only hope this midwife passed her learning on to others.
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4 thoughts on “Planting a Seed”
I am sure your cardboard boxes helped plant the seed. Those mothers passed on the information to others, including the younger mothers-to-be. You should be proud about your efforts all those years ago.
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I can only hope that I made a difference. Even in healthcare today, it is very hard to measure change from educational efforts. I must forge forward and continue to do the right thing. Thanks for reading.
“Planting A Seed” is such a beautiful, and descriptive explanation for what I feel I might have ever accomplished as a Peace Corps Volunteer. Not only for the Liberians that I interacted with, but in my heart as well. That seed was/is “empathy”.
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Hello Phil, it is so difficult to measure the good that we did over 50 years ago. But in speaking to the newer volunteers that have recently been in the country, the Liberians still remember us and the good that we did.