Selita Ebanks regularly finds herself in the spotlight, but now she is shining the light on maternal healthcare in Sierra Leone by partnering with a special organisation.
Next month she’ll travel to the West African country, which was ravaged by civil war from 1991 to 2002, to launch the Birthright Healthcare Programme with Tiffany Persons, founder and director of the nonprofit Shine On Sierra Leone.
Selita contributed the $20,000 she won on Donald Trump’s Celebrity Apprentice to open a hospital ward offering free maternal and postnatal care.
The dramatic back-story, as told by Selita, explains her involvement:
“In 2007 I went to Sierra Leone with Elle magazine to do an advertorial and to learn more about non-conflict diamonds. Tiffany Persons was there, and I auto-gravitated toward her. She invited us to visit her school…and there I held a baby with 12 fingers and 12 toes. That was the moment.”
From that point on, her decision to get involved was sealed.
“It’s one thing to be educated about something and another to do something about it,” she says.
Though Shine on Sierra Leone is a small charity, Tiffany offered a role in the organisation to Selita, who has been instrumental in raising funds and making visits to the country over the past three years.
It’s all coming to fruition on 20 November, when Selita, Tiffany and a host of supporters will be met by Sierra Leone’s first lady, Sia Nyama Koroma, who has been active in promoting women’s rights and health issue.
Mrs. Koroma will be present for the launch of the organisation’s maternal healthcare programme. The pilot project, says Tiffany, is training traditional birthing attendants to assist with such things as giving pregnancy and blood tests and properly weighing women.
“These women had been turned aside because 90 per cent are illiterate. There had been no attempt to give them an appropriate role, but the problem is, the women trust these women [birthing attendants],” she says, underscoring the concern of her programme – how to keep these venerated women a part of the project.
“We have trained these traditional birthing women…by creating a manual that is all pictures.” The women quickly learned what to do and to do it well, she says.
“Now they are so esteemed by the community,” Tiffany says. “They take the women to the hospital and make sure they have the right care.”
Women helping women
The project’s initiative is in the Kono District, known as the largest diamond-producing area in the country and as such, among the most devastated by the civil war. Nearly half of its residents were driven out and looting was rampant during the conflict. There are still reports of political violence as recently as last week.
When Tiffany, a commercial and music video casting director, travelled to the country in 2006 to film a documentary, she lived in Kono for three months and experienced first-hand the problems with dilapidated schools and lack of food and health care, among other things. She raised $6,000 to rehabilitate the school and went on to develop a microcredit lending programme and a sustainable development and building programme.
The women’s efforts to build hospitals, an outgrowth of their commitment to the area, “are unprecedented for that district,” says Selita.
There are few hospitals in the country and barely any physicians, a major contributing factor to Sierra Leone’s ranking lowest in the world in healthcare. Further, Sierra Leone has maternal and child mortality rates that are among the highest in the world.
The Koroma administration has instituted free healthcare for pregnant and lactating women and children under age five. It also abolishes medical fees, an initiative supported by UNICEF, and
provides free drugs and treatments in every public health facility in the country.
Selita says the project’s doctors are working with a physician who attended school in Sierra Leone and is the only one from his class to start a hospital there. In addition, he visits villages in the region where medical care is virtually nonexistent.
Shine On Sierra Leone is also focusing on literacy, computer literacy and many other key skills.
“It’s a very small charity but it works very hard,” says Selita.
Selita, who lives in New York when she’s not travelling, also works to support New Yorkers for Children on behalf of foster children in the city.
For more information on Shine On Sierra Leone, email [email protected]
SIERRA LEONE HEALTH FACTS
1 out of 6 infants die before the age of one year
1 out of 8 mothers die at childbirth
1 out of 5 children dies before the age of five
There is only one gynecologist and 12 doctors in the entire country.
The cost of a C-section is a mere US$125, which is grossly expensive for most women in Sierra Leone. Unsterile conditions and the lack of postnatal care or instructions are the major causes of high mother and child mortality rates.
An ambulance in the United States has more supplies and medicine than the largest hospital in Sierra Leone.
At the main hospital in the country, Princess Christian Maternity Hospital, patients have to bring their own gauze and rubbing alcohol to be treated and many women die because they can’t afford a $4 plasma expander for their blood.