We had been caring for orphans for some time, working all the while to try and understand the roots of the orphan crisis in our region in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. One day as I walked through the maternity ward at the local hospital, it dawned on me. Young women were dying in labor every day, orphaning not just their newborns but their other children as well. One in five women were dying. One in five. Day after day. I stopped right there in my tracks.. beyond overwhelmed. We had to try and do something to change this or the orphan crisis would never end. But what?? It seemed bigger and harder and more complicated than I could even begin to try and get my head around.
I planned a series of meetings with some of the doctors, met with women’s groups, and traveled out to surrounding villages to explore what the problems were and what solutions the physicians and local community members felt were most likely to make an impact. With a lot of listening, the problems pretty clearly came into focus. Over and over again I heard the same general themes repeated. The hospital doesn’t have the necessary equipment to provide prenatal care and identify at risk deliveries. In this place where most births are home births, there just aren’t the right supplies available in the villages to do that safely. The families delivering at home don’t understand the warning signs of when they need to come in to the hospital for evaluation and higher level of care, so they get there too late to be helped.
Armed with knowledge, our little team at Restore Elikia got to work. We found an in depth online training class on how to provide comprehensive prenatal care, how to perform obstetrical ultrasound, and how to deal with emergency situations during labor and delivery that all the staff at the local hospital completed and have ongoing access to. Women in one of our training programs put together and distributed clean birth kits to as many as we could reach in our area. They also taught the villagers how to make their own clean birth kits and educated them on why they are important. In these tiny villages throughout rural DRC, almost every village has a solar powered radio that everyone gathers around to listen to nightly. So, we also got time donated on the local radio station for a series promoting prenatal care, encouraging the use of safe birthing techniques, and explaining warning signs of a complicated delivery that mandate care at a hospital. With all of these interventions, we can see the needle of change slowly starting to move. Two years into these programs we have seen maternal mortality rates fall in half.
Despite this, we were still seeing desperate family members showing up at our gates wanting to hand over infants whose mothers had died in childbirth to our orphanage. We work in an area so far from much of anything that there just aren’t bottles or infant formula available. If a mother dies in childbirth, sometimes there is an aunt or a cousin that can provide nutrition to the little one. However, too often that’s not the case and the family feels as if they are left without a choice… keep the baby and watch him starve, or give the baby to the orphanage. The thing is, these babies have families that love them, they just can’t feed them throughout infancy. So we came up with the idea to try to develop a breastfeeding foster care program through Restore Elikia! Local moms in the village that had finished feeding their own babies but who were still able to produce milk were identified and came together for a meeting. I was honestly beyond nervous for this meeting, knowing that what we were about to propose was completely counter cultural in every way… to feed and take care of a stranger’s child. One of our strong local partners lead the meeting and I watched him masterfully weave a tale until eventually the women themselves came to the conclusion that God would have THEM feed these babies. We had 12 women volunteer to take part in our program! The women receive a small stipend to ensure maximal nutrition and health for them and their other children, and then in turn feed and care for an infant whose mother was lost in childbirth for one year. All the while, the biological family visits and plays with the baby several times a week. When the kiddo is old enough to eat regular food, he goes back to his biological family for good! So far, we’ve been able to prevent 11 babies from being left in an orphanage with this program!
We have a long way to go but couldn’t believe more that there is HOPE in this approach to prevent kids from ever becoming orphans.