Many years ago, I spent some time working on a volunteer program in Kenya. I was with a group of law students and lawyers-to-be and the program was divided into two parts; half spent working on a development project with the Maasai people in the rural landscape of Narok in the Rift Valley and the other with a blind human rights lawyer in the throbbing urban sprawl of Nairobi. For me, the absolute highlight was meeting and spending time with this lady, Kingasunye, a Maasai midwife.
Without any medical training, my role was limited to working with the nurses who educated the Maasai women about contraception, pregnancy and childbirth. Kingasunye let me attend her pre-natal clinics and to meet with the village women as they were examined and their pregnancies assessed. I got the chance to assist her in the mother and baby clinic and administered polio drops to some charming, if wriggly, infants.
My months in Kenya left a huge impression on me and for a time after, when I returned to the UK, I struggled with the abundance and excesses of life in London where the cost of a can of Coke would pay for a year's worth of vaccinations for a baby in Kenya - something so many Maasai families could not afford.
Because my own experience in Africa floats in and out of my conscience, on a rare evening off from my Danish classes, I recently went to hear Henriette Svarre Nielsen, an obstetrician from Rigshopitalet in Copenhagen, talk about how a visit to Ethiopia in 2004 led her to found Maternity Worldwide Denmark; an organisation dedicated to reducing maternal mortality. At present the work is focussed in Western Ethiopia but the plan is to develop a model that can be replicated in other parts of the world.
When she got to Ethiopia, Henriette was horrified - the extreme poverty and the very poor health care system meant that for many women childbirth was a life threatening experience. The statistics for maternal mortality across the world are shocking: every year at least 350,000 women die during pregnancy and childbirth. Think about those numbers: that's close to 1,000 a day or 40 per hour.
Maternity Worldwide is marking Mothers' Day in Denmark (13 May 2012) with a campaign to raise awareness and funds for a new and exciting mobile phone project called Wired Mothers. As Henriette explained the project, it was one of those moments in life when one hears something so brilliant and yet so absolutely straightforward that the only way to describe it is 'awe-inspiring'.
It came as no surprise to learn that the transportation infrastructure of rural Ethiopia is very poor leaving women to trek miles along dirt tracks to what we might recognise as 'civilisation' to find a nurse, a doctor or a midwife. It came as no surprise either to hear that in those circumstances the health risks of pregnancy and childbirth are compounded. What was surprising was to discover that many of these women have access to mobile phones and Maternity Worldwide is now working to use the mobile phone boom in Africa as a tool to save lives.
Imagine a clinic where, in just one visit, a woman can register her pregnancy (and her mobile phone number) and be given a number to contact in case of unusual symptoms or early labour. Imagine a text message to remind an expectant mother of symptoms to look out for or to advise of warning signs. Imagine a woman in labour with no medically trained health personnel around but verbal instructions relayed by telephone to deal with an emergency until help arrives. Imagine a midwife in a rural clinic faced with an unusual labour situation and not knowing what to do but with an obstetrician talking her through the necessary procedures. Imagine the lives that will be saved.
Here in Denmark, you can support Maternity Worldwide's Wired Mothers campaign by buying a limited edition cover for your iPhone. Designer Christian Stadil, the man behind hummel and Company Karma, has created an exclusive phone cover bearing the words 'saving lives in childbirth'. You can buy an iPhone cover at your local TDC store or online and some of the proceeds will go to the Wired Mothers campaign.
Finally, it wasn't just Henriette whose passion and commitment inspired at her talk, her slideshow was made up of photographs taken by Anne Prytz Schaldemose who has accompanied Henriette to Ethiopia and captured her work so beautifully. Her striking portraits of the mothers of Ethiopia (including the one above) told their own story. For me, they confirmed something I have always believed of being a mother - it is levelling. By that I mean that the reality of childbirth, its pain and its risks, is the same for every woman, whatever their education, their class or their skin colour. Whether we survive it or not depends upon whether we have the help that we need, when we need it.
Please support Maternity Worldwide this mothers' day, 'det må ikke koste liv at give liv!' (It shouldn't cost life to give life).