Influences that can catalyse action flow in from all directions. For Angela Gorman, had she decided to switch off the television one evening, using the remote that lay beside her, she would not have had anything to do with African Mothers.
A qualified nurse for over 30 years, Angela worked on the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at the University Hospital in Cardiff. After a long day at work on one day in June 2005, Angela came home tired. She spent some time watching the news on BBC, and as soon as the credits began rolling, she got up to turn off the television. Just then, the newscaster began to announce the next program, a BBC Panorama documentary titled ‘Dead Mums Don’t Cry’ featuring one woman’s fight to stop women dying in childbirth in Chad. Angela doubled back to watch the program. She watched as the documentary showed her the difficulties that women in Chad faced, while going through pregnancy and childbirth. She watched as Dr. Grace Kodindo crusaded for the cause of these women.
At the end of the program, Angela looked at an Atlas, and learned where Chad was located. She felt helpless knowing of the situation that women faced in Chad, and immediately visited BBC’s website, and contacted the show’s producer expressing her desire to be a part of any endeavor that could help alleviate the plight of the women in Chad. The producer soon wrote back, connecting Angela with other people who wrote to him from different parts of the UK. By and by, a lot of people dropped out, leaving behind a small group of passionate people, which began do their bit by sending medication to the women in Chad.
In November 2005, Angela Gorman travelled with the group to Chad. They visited the hospital they had seen on television, and met a woman who was grappling to survive as the jaws of death tried to claim her. But with the medication they had sent, she had made a speedy recovery. The BBC had a production team travel with them, and as they filmed the resurrection and the miraculous upswing in the lives of several women in Chad, Dr. Grace Kodindo was filled with hope – especially as up until then, she had only seen women dying around her all the time. At that point, Angela’s organization was co-founded as Hope for Grace Kodindo.
With time, they realized that they could help not just more women not just in Chad, but in other countries, too. They began sending medication to other countries where women were facing challenges to their lives with childbirth and pregnancy. At that point, at the request of Dr. Kodindo, they changed the name of the organization. With saving mothers across Africa as their aim, the organization came to be known as Life for African Mothers.
When the group returned to Chad in February 2007, they saw how much life had changed for women. They realized that the incidents of mortality had reduced considerably owing to the medication they had sent in, especially for women who suffered from Post-partum haemorrhage and eclampsia.
When she came back to Cardiff, Angela had an email from two members of the UNFPA, who asked the organization to help out with hospitals in Liberia and Sierra Leone. Taking the plunge, the organization also narrowed down on its objectives while expanding its geographical reach. After advice from the UNFPA and their own obstetricians, the organization decided that they would focus exclusively on providing medication to address eclampsia and post-partum haemorrhage.
The next year, Angela visited Liberia to assess the situation. The situation was dire. When in the UK, the lifetime risk of mothers in childbirth is 1 in 8700, in Chad, it was 1 in 11. In Liberia, it was 1 in 8, and in Sierra Leone, it was 1 in 7. Angela went back to the UK and sent out medication to a trusted pharmacist in Monrovia, Liberia. She came to understand that Sierra Leone was the most dangerous place to be a mother, when she visited the country on an invitation from Oxfam. That invitation opened up a new avenue altogether, where Angela’s organization began supplying medication in collaboration with the Princess Christian Hospital.
Angela collaborated with Dr. Charles Ameh, from Liverpool. A person who conducted midwife trainings in Nigeria, he had experience in the region and understood the needs of the women in the country. He advised Angela that it would suffice if Life for African Mothers could send magnesium sulphate to Nigeria. Subsequently, when Angela saw a significant Diaspora community in Cardiff that was reaching out and helping women from Somaliland, she also agreed to send out medication to the region. She took advice from Dr. Ameh, in that the doctors in Somaliland had experience enough to handle medication and administer it well.
Within one week of sending out medicines to Somaliland, Angela had heard back on the impact. A person in Cardiff came to her and said that his sister in Hargeisa, Somaliland, was in a coma, and her baby had died. He told her that the doctor had asked his family to get medicine from the bundle that had arrived from the UK – little did he know that it was his friend Angela’s organization that had sent them there in the first place. With the dose of magnesium sulphate, she had recovered.
Life for African Mothers soon began sending medication to eleven countries that included within its fold Chad, DR Congo, Ghana, Liberia, Northern Nigeria, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Somaliland, Tanzania, Uganda and Zimbabwe.
Angela has seen the extraordinary side of Africa. Besides the commonalities that unite the different countries, there is also the element of unique and individual character that each country has. In addition to supplying medication by air freight, Angela’s organization also helps provide opportunities for midwives and doctors in the United Kingdom to go to Africa, and to offer trainings and skill-sharing workshops under grants. Though this has been largely fruitful, the main focus of the organization remains supplying medication.
The process of supplying medication is usually undertaken under two conditions, namely: first that the women are given the medication free of cost, secondly that women must not be told where the medicine comes from, so that they enjoy the benefits under the notion that the medicines are provided by their government. This is especially significant because there is a constantly prevailing belief that women are very accepting of the fact that it is okay for pregnant women in Africa to die – and Life for African Mothers hopes to change that. The only exception that was ever made to the no-disclosure of the organization’s identity was in a case of a woman who recovered while she was on her deathbed. Desperate to thank the lady who ensured that her children would not become orphans, she sent word to reach out to Angela, to personally thank her for her unconditional help. One other time, Angela remembers a text message she got from a doctor, thanking her for the medication she had sent in, as a woman who was haemorrhaging was saved with a dose.
Angela notes that there are several challenges , but they do not have the funds to meet them. Considering that governments and international organizations have all the funds they need to make the free supply of medicines for those in need a reality, it is a wonder that they don’t seem to be taking it up. Angela explains that with about 345,000 doses of medicines that were sent over three years, as many as 75,000 women were able to recover. She explains that it isn’t a difficult thing to do at all – just a couple of phone calls, emails, and wherever necessary, a visit or two is all it takes.
She wonders why something that is so rewarding and cheap is difficult for bigger organizations to handle – women contribute to 75% of the productivity of developing countries, and no country can afford to lose that. A second challenge lies in the lack of impact assessment – though the element of trust prevails, it is often difficult for the organization to evaluate the extent of impact it has had on the lives of women. This is a problem related to infrastructural and logistical concerns on the one hand, and the sheer difficulty in including correspondence as a priority among survival concerns. In the few places that they have been able to assess impacts, there is plenty of data to show that the supply of medication has been rewarding. For instance, in Liberia, in December 2012, where there would have been 38 deaths, there wasn’t even one death from eclampsia or post-partum haemorrhage all the way from September through to December inclusive, after the supply of medicines reached them.
Angela has travelled through most parts of Africa, and it has always occurred to her that the death of a woman is so easily acceptable to the masses there. Once, while addressing a gathering of 40 people, comprising 15 men and 25 women, Angela asked the group two questions that made them see the lack of logic in their perceptions. She asked the women, “If 300,000 men were dying every year, would someone have sat up and done something?” They answered in the negative. She then asked the men, “If 300,000 men were dying every year, would someone have sat up and done something?” It took some time for the men to respond, but most nodded their heads, embarrassedly. She didn’t mean to offend them, nor make them feel inferior – she only wanted them to think, and begin to change their perceptions.
Being a woman, Angela has seen that she has been central to the things that happened in her family. Undaunted, never intimidated and unfazed when it comes to speaking her mind, Angela feels empowered within and without. She dreams of a time when her work would come to an end and no longer be necessary – but that is too distant a possibility that she knows cannot happen soon.
Angela crusades for the cause of the many women in need of medical attention, and hopes that more governments would be involved and begin to care for the women in their countries by providing for their needs.
Written byKirthi Jayakumar
Kirthi Jayakumar is a lawyer, activist and writer based in Chennai. She has worked extensively with grassroots organizations and runs the Red Elephant Foundation, an initiative for women’s rights. She also runs a journal and consultancy that focuses on International Law,called A38.