My career in global health parallels my journey into motherhood. I was heavily pregnant when I started working at AmeriCares and my first son was born six days after my first day on the job. I took my first trip to the field, visiting our partner in rural Malawi, my son was only seven months old.
Because of this parallel, I often see my work in the field through the eyes of a mother. On that first trip to Malawi, I saw a little boy about 18 months old who was severely malnourished. As a result, he was about the same size as my seven-month-old son. I understood the anguish of the mother who had walked several miles to the hospital with her son in her arms seeking care – for as a mother, I’d do the same.
Last year, on a trip to Liberia, the land of my birth, my heart was pierced when I heard wailing coming from the maternity ward – a wailing that only meant one thing: a mother had lost her baby. Having gone through the prospect of losing my son a day after he was born, I walked away haunted by that piercing cry and the thought that this mother could have been me.
For you see, the difference between me having two healthy sons and that woman crying in the maternity ward most likely lies in the fact that my son had access to emergency neonatal care. In the United States, four neonates die per 1,000 live births, while in Liberia, about 11,000 babies are dying within the first month of life. Think for a moment about how many mothers cannot celebrate Mother’s Day in Liberia without a hole in their heart because of this staggering number.
The need to address neonatal mortality in Liberia and across sub-Saharan Africa has become a matter of urgency. World Bank President Jim Kim recently said, “For most poor people, a good job is the key to escaping poverty. To get those jobs, they’ll need good skills, a quality education, and years of good health as they’re growing up and when they’re adults.” Kim is right, because children all over the world are born with the same potential.
I’ll never forget little Kofi* — a boy I met two years ago at a children’s home in Tamale, Ghana. He was about four years old then. Kofi was introduced to the iPhone by a visitor to One Child One World™ — a program which aims to reduce the incidence of malnutrition in 30 homes around the country. Within minutes, Kofi was flipping through the phone, looking at pictures and was as engaged as any child of his age here in the United States with a smartphone. In that moment, the potential that lay in Kofi was clear to me and everyone present. The question that remained unanswered as we left that home was whether he will in his lifetime have the opportunity to realize it.
Kofi’s chance to get out of poverty depends on, among other things, years of good health. A journey that begins at birth and with a mother having the access to the health services needed to take him home healthy after delivery. That this isn’t the reality for most mothers in developing countries should give us pause on this Mother’s Day.