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A birth story from Sierra Leone: “Take my baby, mama. I’m going to die”

Isatu's 21-year-old daughter Kadijatu died after giving birth to her first child, a healthy baby boy named Alpha. Photo: Josh Estey/CARE

Isatu's 21-year-old daughter Kadijatu died after giving birth to her first child, a healthy baby boy named Alpha. Photo: Josh Estey/CARE

Sierra Leone has one of the highest maternal-mortality rates in the world. In 2017, the chances of dying during childbirth were 1 in 14, about the same chance that a person in the United States has of developing Type 2 diabetes.

Today, thanks to work being done by CARE and its partners to strengthen health policy and infrastructure, that chance is 1 in 139.

And yet urgent medical care that is common in other parts of the world is often still extremely hard to find here, contributing to the daily deadly risks for mothers and newborns.

Women who experience childbirth complications like postpartum hemorrhaging or pregnancy-induced hypertension, for example, often can’t access blood transfusions or other lifesaving health services because of the country’s poor road networks — which make it difficult to reach hospitals quickly.

The village of Malal in the Port Loko district, Sierra Leone. Photo: Josh Estey/CARE

As always, beyond the numbers, there are people.

Isatu Jalloh, 43, lives in Malal, a village in the Port Loko district in the north part of the country.

Isatu and her eldest daughter Kadiatu, 21, who she still affectionately calls Kadie, were inseparable. The two ran a small business together and leaned on each other for support, particularly after the passing of Isatu’s husband, Kadiatu’s dad.

When Kadiatu became pregnant, they were excited to welcome a new baby into the family. It would be Isatu’s first grandchild. But when Kadiatu experienced complications after giving birth at a nearby health clinic, everything changed.

Here, Isatu recounts, in her own words, the story of what happened when Kadiatu gave birth to Alpha Omen.

“I brought Alpha, Kadiatu's son, home from the hospital. Now, I take care of him,” Isatu says. Photo: Josh Estey/CARE

Kadiatu loved me, and I loved her. Even if I was asleep, and I had a bad dream, she would run and come to me. Anywhere she was, if she heard me, she would come running.

Wherever I’d go, nobody knew that my husband had died, because Kadiatu took such good care of me. In our business, I hustled and she hustled beside me.

Kadiatu fell in love and got married. She lived with her husband in another town. When she was nine months pregnant, they agreed to have the baby here in my village, because it was their first baby, and I could help her with the newborn here. She came here for a week.

On Wednesday, she complained of stomach pain, so we went to the health clinic, and the nurse checked her and said the baby was fine; there was no problem.

She wasn’t weak or frail at all. She was strong, beautiful, full of life.

On Friday, Kadiatu’s belly started to hurt at 8 o’clock in the evening. We went straight to the clinic and stayed the whole night until Saturday. By 1 p.m., she delivered.

She stood up. She said “Mom, I gave birth,” and I said, “Yes!”

She said she was feeling a small pain in her belly.

I said, “Let me go get some food for you, because you haven’t eaten since this morning.”

I ran home. On my way, I saw Kadiatu’s husband and broke to him the good news that his wife delivered [the baby] and everything was fine. I made some porridge for her.

When I returned to the clinic, her condition had changed. Kadiatu was lying down, turning from side to side. When I left [earlier], she didn’t have any issues. She wasn’t bleeding, she wasn’t lying down.

As soon as she heard my voice she said, “Mom, take my baby.”

I said, “I’ll take the baby, but you should get up first.”

She said, “Take my baby, mama. I’m going to die.”

I said, “Don’t talk that way, Kadie.”

But then she stopped talking.

Isatu tells the story of her 21-year-old daughter Kadijatu, who died after giving birth to her first child, a healthy baby boy named Alpha. Photo: Josh Estey/CARE

The nurse checked on her and said she was anemic and needed a blood transfusion.

I was so disoriented. I didn’t know what was up or what was down. I didn’t know anything that was happening, but I didn’t make a sound, because she said I should take the baby.

So I took the baby, and we sat down in the ambulance. Kadie was laying on the stretcher, and she was looking at me until the moment she died.

I held it in my heart. I didn’t cry until the moment when I saw that life had left her.

We arrived at the hospital, I got out of the ambulance, and the doctor said, “She has died. There is no need to bring her inside the hospital.”

At that moment, I didn’t feel human, because the pain was too much. I didn’t even know where I was.

Alpha Omen with his grandmother. Photo: Josh Estey/CARE

I brought Alpha, Kadiatu’s son, home from the hospital. Now, I take care of him. I took traditional medicine and it helped me produce breast milk so I can feed him.

We pray to God to grant Alpha good health, a long life, and we pray that he will get an education. If you have a way, you will learn. If you have a way, you will get money. If you become a president, it’s because you have a way. I pray that God will make a way for him.

The stress right now… I know it is God who put it on me, but I have little children to care for. I am helpless here. My child died. I am widowed and I won’t be able to get married again. If I had a husband, at least he would help out. I don’t have a business anymore, because I can’t do it with this child tied to my back, and I have run out of money.

It is because of life without Kadie that I am crying now. The sadness is so hard. This broken heart is not easy.

I don’t know how this will end, what will happen to me. Maybe help will come. If it does, I will take it. But even if not, I have this child, and I will take care of him.

Sometimes I sit down and I think to myself, and I wonder if I will ever get someone who will care for me like Kadie cared for me, because she loved me so much.

I have to say thank you for what you have done for me today. You came here to ask me about Kadie and encouraged me. My heart will be at ease for a while.

Isatu stores milk for baby Amen. Photo: Josh Estey/CARE

CARE works with partners in Sierra Leone to supply needed medical supplies to maternal health clinics, as well as to bolster health care worker staffing in order to strengthen their abilities to respond to maternal health complications like Kadiatu’s, so that mothers and babies can have the best possible chance at survival. To learn more, please visit CARE’s “Where We Work” page.

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