Under the outstretched branches of the ceiba tree, 10 women sit in plastic and wicker chairs arranged to take full advantage of the shade. The sun has already broken through the mid-morning haze. Mixed with Liberia’s tropical humidity, the heat is causing droplets to sprout on foreheads.
The women belong to a Mothers’ Support Group. They walk the dusty roads of rural Liberia delivering practical advice and messages of encouragement to pregnant women. They tell women to visit a doctor four times before giving birth, to deliver in a clinic and to exclusively breastfeed for the first six months. They seek out sick children and refer mothers to hospitals. They provide nutritional supplements and advice on food.
The village is called Kru Town, and it lies in a remote area that’s practically an isthmus. A six-hour drive from Liberia’s capital Monrovia, the area is bordered by the ocean on one side and a river on the other. Movement isn’t easy. People rely on their legs and feet to carry them far distances. News travels slowly in these parts of Liberia.
But here, despite the sweltering heat, the dusty roads and callused heels, these 10 women volunteer their time to save lives. Each day, they march miles to reach women in need of support.
“What we are doing is important,” says Evalyn, the leader of the group in a booming, confident voice. She peppers her language with the local vernacular. Each word is heavy with emphasis.
“It encourages us to do more!” she says, even more forcefully. “It encourages us to continue talking to big bellies (pregnant women), to tell them how to take care of their babies. When people used to give birth, they didn’t know what to do. Then the baby becomes malnourished.”
The nine other mother counselors nod in agreement. I ask if they know someone who has lost a child during birth? How about a woman who’s died during labor?
Everyone raises a hand. That isn’t surprising. In Liberia, one out of every 10 women dies during childbirth. This is one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the world. Making matters worse, more than 11,000 children under 5 die from preventable illnesses each year.
“What we are doing is important. It encourages us to do more! It encourages us to continue talking to big bellies (pregnant women), to tell them how to take care of their babies. When people used to give birth, they didn’t know what to do. Then the baby becomes malnourished.”
Most women living in remote parts of Liberia give birth at home, Evalyn says. They do it with the help of traditional midwives. Even though midwives are trained to look for the warning signs of a troubled delivery, few can save a woman who’s hemorrhaging, or one suffering from dangerously high blood pressure. Women are left to bleed or black out.
Abigail Crosses the River
Listening to the women under the ceiba tree, I’m struck by their dedication. They volunteered to receive Medical Teams’ training and oversight and now spend their time hiking far distances to build relationships with their neighbors. Through these relationships, they’re bringing life-saving support. Group members provide a nutrient-rich powder for women of young children to mix in with their baby food. For pregnant women, group members coordinate care at local clinics.
That’s how Evalyn met Abigail.
Abigail lives on the other side of the river. She was pregnant when she met Evalyn. Like other women, she was waiting to give birth at home as she’d done twice before. During their first meeting, Evalyn explained the importance of seeing a doctor at least four times before the baby’s due date. This was not easy for Abigail because the nearest clinic was on the other side of the river. But Abigail heeded Evalyn’s advice, visiting the clinic when she was running errands on the opposite side of the river.
When it came close to her due date, Abigail told Evalyn that she’d decided to give birth at home. She feared that once in labor, she wouldn’t have enough time to make it across the river and then to the clinic.
But Evalyn insisted — using her forceful voice, she pleaded — knowing that both Abigail and her baby’s lives were at risk if she delivered at home.
“How soon until you deliver?” Evalyn asked.
“I am due in a few days,” Abigail said.
“You will stay here with me. You cannot go back across the river. We will take you to the clinic when the time comes.”
And with that, Evalyn, the mother counselor, welcomed Abigail into her house, tended to her needs and, five days later, escorted her to the Medical Teams-supported clinic where she gave birth.
Out of the corner of my eye, I see a figure in the distance near a small house. That’s Abigail, Evalyn tells me, pointing toward the woman. She’s holding something in her arms, swaddled in a blanket.
We walk over to Abigail, her beaming smile greeting us. She hugs and holds Evalyn. Behind tired eyes, joy radiates as she holds the mother counselor. I learn that Abigail gave birth just five days before. Her baby is swaddled in the blanket, tiny but healthy.
Abigail has two other children. She says that after both deliveries she became sick and was unable to properly care for her babies. They, too, grew sick and malnourished. This time, however, she feels strong, blessed to have the support of the mother counselors.
As she unwraps the blanket, she tells us the name of her newborn. It’s loaded with so much meaning that it feels entirely fitting, an ode to what Abigail is feeling inside … Miracle.
The baby is true to her name. A small miracle, born healthy despite high obstacles. With the support of the mother counselors, Abigail traveled miles to make sure she gave birth to a healthy child. The support will continue, Evalyn says.
Evalyn has invited Abigail to stay with her for the next few weeks. She’s afraid of Abigail heading back to the other side of the river with her tiny Miracle before the time is right. Abigail needs to rest and regain her strength.
“I just want to say thank you to them,” Abigail says, looking at Evalyn. “They give me good encouragement. I know it’s important to stay here with my baby.”
Amazing things are happening in Liberia, where Medical Teams International’s support of Mothers’ Groups and clinics is saving the lives of mothers and children. For dedicated mothers like Abigail, and counselors like Evalyn, your support means everything.
You can support the work of Mothers’ Groups as they bring health and healing to women like Abigail. Please consider donating today.