Tara Suri is the Marie Claire and United Nations Population Fund winner of the fifth annual Americans for UNFPA Student Award for the Health and Dignity of Women. Tara is blogging directly from her weeklong visit to Sierra Leone.
I love car rides. I love the opportunity to zone out, to settle into the maze of your own thoughts, to shamelessly sing along to the radio as the car sails along the road.
At the outset of our journey today, such enjoyment seemed impossible. The road before us was the bumpiest of roads, a potholed dirt path that snaked its way through districts and villages, over hills and down inclines. Bodies were flung back and forth. Heads hit ceilings. Arms smacked arms. I plastered a smile on my face, hoping it would subdue my mounting discomfort.
A plastered smile, given the nature of my visit, wasn't even necessary. Somewhere along that leg of the journey, I realized that we - the UNFPA staff, the driver, and Angeline, the Americans for UNFPA staff-member
I'm traveling with, had turned the bumpy road into a game. "Ma-he-he! Trouble ahead!" we'd shout as we anticipated a particularly gruesome-looking pothole. Then we'd squeal like children as we swung out of our seats (I especially enjoyed the giggle of the Assistant Country Representative for UNFPA, Mrs. Diara, affectionately called Mama Diara). We'd examine the Madonna stickers on the lone cars that passed, and we'd watch as dozens of men dangled from the tops of lorry trucks, loaded with hundreds of plastic buckets, on their way to collect palm oil from a remote plantation.
The trip – full of jolts and bumps and rockiness – began to acquire its own rhythm. By the time we arrived at our destination, a hospital in the rural village of Mattru, my initial apprehension had been eroded by smiles and laughter. The only real evidence of our journey was the car, which had been coated in a fine red dust (that somehow also found its way onto my pants…).
Yet while we had been able to turn the driving conditions into a source of lighthearted fun, at the hospital I became acutely aware of the road's graver implications. What did such a road mean for the seriously ill? What about pregnant women, or women in labor? Could they ever see the road as we did – could they ever joke and laugh about it?
I knew the answer was no. Nurses and staff at the hospital specifically emphasized that the road is one of many challenges to maternal health in the region. For pregnant women, who are already often discouraged from giving birth in a hospital because of cultural and economic factors (though the government has sponsored free healthcare for women to mitigate the latter), the lack of infrastructure poses one more barrier and compounds risk of complications for both mother and child. One such complication – generally preventable through a C-section delivery at a hospital - is obstetric fistula, a condition that causes women to leak urine and even feces and face stigmatization in their communities.
Mr. Joseph French, a hospital staff-member in charge of the operating theater, highlighted that it used to be even worse. Even worse. How is that possible? I had thought as he went on to explain that during Sierra Leone's civil war, Mattru Jong Hospital had been shut down, forcing women to travel an even longer distance to the regional hospital to receive attention. The hospital had only just reopened – through collaboration between First Lady Koroma and UNFPA - and even more startlingly, had only just received full electricity and running water.
Joseph also made it clear that the hospital will continue to face tremendous challenges. These include the state of the road, access to drugs and resources – the facility had just run out of sutures - and the need for additional staff, especially doctors.
In Joseph I also saw the only force that will be able to reckon with these challenges – a force that I have seen in many throughout my week here, and that astounds and humbles me: dedication. "I have been here for nearly forty years," he told me, "and when the hospital calls for me in an emergency in the middle of the night, I always come running."
It is because of people like Joseph, I can see change happening in even the direst of circumstances, and it is because of people like Joseph that I have faith that the bumpy road to Mattru won't remain bumpy for long.
Read all of Tara's blog posts:
En Route to Sierra Leone With Hope for the Future