Health is wealth in Africa

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Toyin Ojora Saraki’s tragic ex­pe­ri­ence of child­birth left an in­deli­ble mark on her life. For the founder and di­rec­tor of Well­be­ing Foun­da­tion Africa (WBFA), the Pan-African ma­ter­nal health and wel­fare char­ity, it also led to the first step in her jour­ney to be­com­ing a tire­less ad­vo­cate for ma­ter­nal and child health­care on the con­ti­nent.

The qual­i­fied bar­ris­ter built a suc­cess­ful pri­vate sec­tor ca­reer be­fore ded­i­cat­ing the past 21 years to phi­lan­thropy. She is a global ad­vo­cate of the UN’s Ev­ery Woman Ev­ery Child ef­fort and holds decision-mak­ing roles at a num­ber of in­flu­en­tial non­profit or­gan­i­sa­tions.

Ojora Saraki has been recog­nised for her out­stand­ing con­tri­bu­tion to gen­der equal­ity and con­tin­ues to make strides in im­prov­ing the qual­ity

of ma­ter­nal health in Nige­ria and Africa.

What was your mo­ti­va­tion for start­ing the


I was led to the cause of ma­ter­nal and child health through a har­row­ing ex­pe­ri­ence of child­birth in Nige­ria. I trag­i­cally lost one of my twin ba­bies, then had to fight for the sur­vival of the other. Even though I was an in­formed and ed­u­cated woman, I was un­able to pre­vent the need­less loss of my child while un­der the care of the Nige­rian health sys­tem. I quickly re­alised this ex­pe­ri­ence is an un­avoid­able re­al­ity for many women in Nige­ria and across the rest of Africa. Glob­ally, ap­prox­i­mately 800 women die from preg­nancy- and child­birth-re­lated causes ev­ery day. Ninety-nine per­cent of th­ese deaths oc­cur in de­vel­op­ing coun­tries. Many of th­ese could be pre­vented.

Do you be­lieve you have achieved the WBFA’s found­ing goals?

When I first started, I was giv­ing char­i­ta­ble do­na­tions with no real strat­egy and/or plan other than to make a dif­fer­ence. But I quickly re­alised I was just pa­per­ing over the cracks. I needed to en­sure longterm, sus­tain­able change. At the WBFA, we have worked tire­lessly to im­prove the qual­ity of ma­ter­nal health in Nige­ria and achieved a great num­ber of suc­cesses. Our ini­tia­tives have been adopted into the very front lines of the Nige­rian health­care sys­tem.

What does phi­lan­thropy mean to you?

Ed­u­cat­ing com­mu­ni­ties and en­abling in­di­vid­u­als to rise beyond their so­cioe­co­nomic sta­tus is a core pil­lar of my phil­an­thropic mis­sion. So to me, phi­lan­thropy is about em­pow­er­ment and ed­u­ca­tion.

As a suc­cess­ful bar­ris­ter by pro­fes­sion, what are the in­jus­tices you have ex­pe­ri­enced as a woman in Africa?

In tra­di­tional Yoruba cul­ture, women are not of­ten en­cour­aged to speak freely, but I was blessed to be raised in a loving, lively en­vi­ron­ment where I was able to speak my mind. I was also very close to my fa­ther and my re­la­tion­ship with him shaped my views of men as equal, fa­cil­i­tat­ing part­ners. But I am aware that be­ing raised to be seen as an equal to a man is rare in Africa. Many women in Africa are treated as sec­ond-class cit­i­zens. We live on a con­ti­nent where fe­male gen­i­tal mu­ti­la­tion is preva­lent and more than 3 mil­lion girls are at risk of this prac­tice an­nu­ally. In Nige­ria, more than 200 girls in Chi­bok were kid­napped by Boko Haram and we still haven’t se­cured their re­turn.

How do we solve this prob­lem?

We must change at­ti­tudes to­wards women’s rights in Africa. We must teach our boys to treat women as their equals and we must ed­u­cate our girls for the sake of our fu­ture. For Nige­ria to be­come a mod­ern so­ci­ety – so­cially and eco­nom­i­cally – we must invest in ed­u­ca­tion.

Who are your role mod­els?

I would have to say the essence of all African women who put their chil­dren first is my great­est in­spi­ra­tion. In Africa, we have an an­cient tra­di­tion of car­ry­ing our chil­dren on our backs un­til they are strong enough to walk. This essence of un­con­di­tional love, sacrifice and nur­tur­ing is my driv­ing force and moral foun­da­tion.

Your hus­band is a se­na­tor in Nige­ria. Has this al­lowed you to make phi­lan­thropy a civil so­ci­ety topic?

My hus­band’s role as se­na­tor has height­ened my in­ter­est in the leg­isla­tive foun­da­tions of so­cial in­clu­sion. It is through the WBFA and its in­de­pen­dent plat­form that I have been able to raise the aware­ness of phil­an­thropic causes, and ad­vo­cate on a na­tional and in­ter­na­tional stage for is­sues I hold very dear to my heart. Mak­ing a dif­fer­ence for the peo­ple of Nige­ria and build­ing a strong com­mu­nity is our goal.

What is your most mem­o­rable phil­an­thropic ex­pe­ri­ence?

A few years ago, I re­ceived a phone call very late at night about a set of sex­tu­plets who were born in a hos­pi­tal in Ogun State. Their mother was a trader and their fa­ther was a me­chanic, but they did not have ac­cess to a clean, safe and equipped hos­pi­tal that was able to look after a mul­ti­ple birth. We im­me­di­ately sent an am­bu­lance for the small­est two of the ba­bies – they weighed un­der 1kg each – be­cause they would need the most help to sur­vive. Th­ese two ba­bies were swiftly trans­ferred to a hos­pi­tal that had the spe­cial­ist equip­ment and staff. Trag­i­cally, the four ba­bies who stayed with the mother died at the hos­pi­tal and the only two to sur­vive were the in­fants that we man­aged to trans­fer to a dif­fer­ent hos­pi­tal. The two small­est ba­bies are now thriv­ing, which warms my heart, and I reg­u­larly check in with them and their fam­ily. The tragedy made it very clear to me that it was not just money that could have saved them. Rather, de­ci­sive and knowl­edge­able ac­tion at the hos­pi­tal could have kept them alive.

What ad­vice do you have for in­di­vid­u­als in­ter­ested in mak­ing a dif­fer­ence in their com­mu­ni­ties?

Draw from the ex­pe­ri­ence of the peo­ple within your com­mu­nity to truly un­der­stand their needs and how to over­come th­ese chal­lenges. Col­lab­o­ra­tion is the first step to­wards in­no­va­tion. There is a popular African proverb that goes: ‘If you want to go fast, go

alone. If you want to go far, go to­gether.’

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