Underserved but not deserted
“Ending maternal mortality,” she said, “that’s what I want to help do.” She finished the conversation with a bright smile and a deep sigh. I switched off the recorder, flipped my notebook shut, and packed the little book of notes in my backpack. I found my conversation with her quite mesmerizing and interesting. The way she articulated her vision for the future and how she wants to align that vision with her zeal to help curb maternal and infant mortality spoke volumes of the deep passion she has for the nation. She spoke with confidence and I could tell how much she wanted that change to happen.
Her name is Ireen, a refugee of Burundian nationality. She is also a beneficiary of our university scholarship programme. When you look at her now, it is hard to imagine that she had all along aspired to pursue legal studies and become a judge. Actually, the desire to study law manifested when she was 11 and grew stronger as she got older. But that is not what she studied when she finally found the opportunity to go to college three years ago.
“So, what happened?” I asked with keen curiosity. Ireen explained that the shift in her dream profession occurred five years ago when her aunt – someone she was very close to – died due to birth-related complications. The tragedy devastated Ireen and changed the trajectory of her ambitions. It was that time that Ireen decided to switch to something that would help her understand and possibly help reduce – if not, end – maternal mortality. She also learned, at that moment, the dangers that expectant mothers face in the absence of appropriate healthcare.
“That is how I transferred from the legal studies to the health studies,” Ireen told me, beaming with visible pride. She opted for Public Health, specifically because the course had a module element of Safe Motherhood which was what Ireen knew would bring her closer to her desire to venture into the maternal health field. But this did not happen overnight and Ireen’s pursue of that new dream had its own fair share of unknowns.
When Ireen sat and passed her secondary school examinations, she found a private sponsor who paid for her degree studies at a private university. However, several months down the line the sponsor withdrew from the bursary and Ireen found herself stranded – her future uncertain. The dream that had been on track, came to a grinding halt. She was just midway into her studies and the turn of events was bad news for her. More so because, as she told me, competition for scholarships for refugees in the camp is so tight that the odds of landing one are tough. Ireen had technically beaten those odds when the good Samaritan stepped forward to pay for her education but now, she was back to square one. That setback found her on a path to hunting for potential scholarships to keep her studies afloat but she kept hitting snags.
With nobody to pay for her studies and no possible alternatives to replace her sponsor, Ireen’s education hanged in the deep void. All that brilliant vision to play a part in promoting safe motherhood and ending maternal mortality dissipated. Or did it?
In 2019, just as she thought nothing would change, she applied for a scholarship in our university scholarship programme and we took her in. The big break stitched back her broken dream and revived her university studies. That was all she needed.
Ireen completed her course in 2020 and graduated this year. But even before she graduated, she had already started putting her vision to practice. During her studies, she was among the students who volunteered their services at a public hospital to work with expectant mothers. The experience gave her insight as to the challenges that expectant mothers face in their quests to seek maternal healthcare. Her plan now is to put that experience to good use within the refugee camp where she resides and even outside to the local people.
“I treat all people as one and I don’t want to focus on just my fellow refugees. I know that even Malawians in the local villages face the same problems that people in the camp face,” Ireen told me. Her qualification has already caused a positive stir among her friends and peers. Ireen confidently said that several people have started approaching her to seek advice on issues related to public health because they know she is a learned person.
There is more that Ireen is planning. She has first-hand experience of the poor sanitation and hygiene in the refugee camp that she has lived in since age five. The next big item on her list, she revealed to me, is to partner with organizations that work in water and sanitation and run projects to improve access to water and waste management.
“Give me some time and watch me do it,” Ireen smiled.