Battling Sierra Leone’s Child Mortality Rate

CRS’ West Africa information officer, Lane Hartill, traveled to villages in eastern Sierra Leone last week to see how CRS is helping pregnant women living in isolated areas.”

Hawa is someone you don’t easily forget. When I met her the other day, she’d woke up at sunrise, ate a few wild bush yams, then hiked 5 miles, barefoot, through the rain forest to a health post that CRS had constructed. This wasn’t a stroll through the Boboli Gardens either. In the mountains of eastern Sierra Leone, not far from the Guinea border, you will find rivers of biting red ants that fizz across the ground, nasty thorns as long as your finger, and rocks that like twisting your ankles. All of that is no match for Hawa: she made the trip 8 months pregnant.

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Hawa and Bokarie outside their house in Gundama village in Kailahun District in Sierra Leone. Hawa is 8 months pregnant and receives nutrition advice from CRS. Photo by Lane Hartill/CRS

She has that hand-on-her hip, stomach-forward sway that’s part of being 8 months pregnant. But Hawa doesn’t complain. She’s happy to be able to live near a health post and have people like Sylvester Amara, CRS’ health field agent to tell her about the finer points of feeding herself and the baby when it arrives. She loves the nutrition advice; nobody has given her that before. She now knows that she should be eating fruit and fish and peanuts. She knows what protein is. She knows that when the baby comes, she needs to exclusively breast feed for six months. All this is simple stuff. But for a woman like Hawa, who never went to school, hid for months in the forest as the civil war in Sierra Leone flattened her village, and then fled to a refugee camp in Guinea where she lived for 11 years, it’s vital information.

Sierra Leone has the highest child mortality rate in the world. The statistics—270 child deaths per 100,000 children born—are cold and obtuse to most people. But when Hawa tells you she’s given birth nine times, and seven children have died including her 5 year-old daughter, Iye, the one she put on her back and ran into the jungle with as the war arrived, the numbers turn into Hawa’s toddlers.

And Hawa, the woman sitting in front of you with the sweet smile and kind eyes, becomes someone who has run the gauntlet of giving birth in one of the most risky country’s in the world if you’re pregnant. All nine times she gave birth in the village. Not this time. She will be in the government clinic, she says. She’s going to go early, a week early if necessary. And her child is going to survive this time. She just knows it will.

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