Sav­ing moth­ers, one mod­est step at a time

Train­ing Africans to lead their own grass­roots change, start­ing with new cul­tural at­ti­tudes

The Hamilton Spectator - - COMMENT -

In sub-Sa­ha­ran Africa they call child­birth “war.”

If you’re a woman about to de­liver a child in that part of the world, this is your fate. Imag­ine it. You’re young. (Younger than most Cana­di­ans can imag­ine.) You’re poor. You’re alone.

Alone, be­cause war eas­ily leads to death. And death is the one ex­pe­ri­ence that any soul, any­where, will face alone. This much you re­al­ize. Yes, this Mother’s Day could be your last day on earth. Or maybe not. You’re hope­ful.

You bring your hope to a lo­cal Ugan­dan hospi­tal. It’s noth­ing like in Canada. Many African women, in fact, be­lieve it’s the one place where the war will be lost. But that hospi­tal might have what any mother needs: a birth at­ten­dant with skill, es­pe­cially in case of emer­gency, and some ba­sic medicine.

So you ar­rive with your bucket and scis­sors and gloves and gauze and fear and hope bun­dled to­gether. There are other sad-eyed moth­ers-to-be, barely out of the play­ground — one in four teens in Uganda are preg­nant or moth­ers al­ready.

There they sit and lie, bal­loon-bel­lied, like thou­sands upon thou­sands in de­vel­op­ing na­tions, on the floor, wait­ing for the pain and all that will un­fold, this with­out the dig­nity of even a bed.

Some news­pa­pers tell of the dan­gers, how the blood of life can drain so eas­ily from even the strong­est of moth­ers. In a rich na­tion like Canada, in one year, the num­ber of moth­ers per­ish­ing in child­birth is about the same as moth­ers dy­ing in Uganda ev­ery sin­gle day. Ev­ery. Sin­gle. Day.

Years ago, when I first ar­rived there, you could open a pa­per for months with­out see­ing any­thing about this. Now, in 2017, Uganda’s pres­i­dent talks about it. School kids sing and dance about it, to ed­u­cate oth­ers. African me­dia is telling the story.

My wife — a St. Joseph’s Hospi­tal ob­ste­tri­cian known sim­ply as “Dr. Jean” in places like Uganda — has had a hand in this. See­ing some of the world’s need­i­est moth­ers years ago, she imag­ined some­thing. She imag­ined things can change. She imag­ined they can turn around.

She told oth­ers. Some caught the vi­sion. Then, in Uganda, she planted a seed, a pro­gram named, suit­ably enough, Save the Moth­ers. Her team of Africans and Cana­di­ans and oth­ers got to work. That was 2005.

Since then, 450 East African pro­fes­sion­als — par­lia­men­tar­i­ans, jour­nal­ists, ed­u­ca­tors, ac­tivists, clergy — have stud­ied in this univer­sity-based pro­gram. Its ge­nius is train­ing in­dige­nous Africans to lead their own grass­roots change, start­ing with new cul­tural at­ti­tudes.

Now Uganda’s gov­ern­ment re­ports that from 2011 to 2016, that na­tion’s rate of ma­ter­nal deaths fell by about 25 per cent. That’s thou­sands of lives of women who, in a way, are our neigh­bours. Your neigh­bours. It’s a re­mark­able story.

“It’s a great gift for you to leave with,” is what one re­porter said be­fore my fam­ily re­cently said good­bye to our Ugan­dan home. And it is.

Even as Save the Moth­ers and other or­ga­ni­za­tions in­volved in ma­ter­nal and child health know there’s more. In 2017 about 5,700 Ugan­dan moth­ers will still per­ish dur­ing de­liv­ery. Across the de­vel­op­ing world that num­ber is about 230,000.

But then these steps of change. Even mod­est steps.

My wife is not a tall woman. So to­mor­row morn­ing, at the Dun­das Driv­ing Park, as usual on Mother’s Day week­end, she’ll stand on a pic­nic ta­ble and talk about it all, in warmth or cold, about that hope and dig­nity and grace needed by any mother or new­born any­where.

Then lo­cals will walk and run and roll around the park in a fundrais­ing and aware­ness event called Steps to De­liver Change. What started in Dun­das is now birthing and grow­ing else­where. In Stoney Creek. In St. Ja­cobs. And Van­cou­ver, Cal­gary, Toronto, Mon­treal, St. John’s and, this Mother’s Day, a dozen other cities.

That’s good news too. So good that you might be there to learn more and take your own steps.

Learn more about Save the Moth­ers and its walks at www.savethe­moth­ and watch “Step For­ward This Mother’s Day.” Thomas Froese writes about news, travel and life. Find him at www.thomas­


A girl and her sib­ling in Uganda look hard into the cam­era. Early preg­nan­cies of teenage girls, many who are out of school, is one cause of high ma­ter­nal death rates across the de­vel­op­ing world.


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