As the Democratic Republic of Congo descended into civil war, Chrystelle Wedi – then aged 7 – was lucky enough to be able to move with her family to South Africa. That’s where she followed in the footsteps of her pediatrician father and became a doctor, eventually realizing she wanted to focus her energies on maternal and child health. Now Wedi, 30 and a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University, is involved with an NGO, Vandelo , and two hospitals that provide healthcare to pregnant women and children in impoverished areas of DRC.
She is also a fellow at the Aspen Institute, which last year awarded her and her friend and colleague Kopano Matlwa Mabaso $25,000 to launch their Ona Mtoto Wako (See Your Baby) initiative. Their project brings ultrasounds to pregnant women in remote areas of central DRC, and at the same time offers them tests for malaria, HIV and anemia, among other conditions. Aware that more than 800 women die every day from preventable causes related to pregnancy and childbirth, according to the World Health Organization, and that the vast majority of those deaths happen in the developing world, Wedi and Mabaso knew that early detection and treatment can make a massive difference to maternal mortality rates. They also knew that the novelty of seeing their babies in utero would draw in more women than just the offer of free blood tests.
In May, the two women traveled to remote villages around the country to show women – some who had never seen an ultrasound; many who had lost several children – their unborn babies. They alerted the women to potentially fatal complications that could be treated at a health facility, which could be a day’s walk away, or more. And they also gave all the women malaria treatment, folic acid and iron supplements (70 percent of the women tested deficient), as well as sending three women to clinics for HIV treatment.
Wedi spoke to Women & Girls Hub about her and Mabaso’s terrifying journey across rough areas where overwhelming poverty did not prevent huge generosity and about the need to find funding for the next stage of their initiative to stop births turning into deaths.
Women & Girls Hub: How many women have you managed to treat in this program so far?
Chrystelle Wedi: We saw 351 women in two weeks. We expected the pilot to go over a six-month period, because … the data [other people] were using was from health facilities which were seeing about 10 to 13 women per month. And then when we got there and we were actually going into villages, we saw that the majority of women never made it to the clinics and we were seeing about 50 to 60 women a day.
Women & Girls Hub: What were some of the reactions to the ultrasounds?
Wedi: It was really fantastic, the look on these women’s faces. They just smile and laugh and you see them really connecting with their babies. Even the dads, they laugh when they see the baby moving around in the womb, and it’s really so magical. It really helped a lot. We identified twin pregnancies and that’s really high risk.
Women & Girls Hub: What was it like, working in these remote areas?
Wedi: We were shocked. One of the biggest struggles we had was the state of the roads. Literally, we would have manmade bridges, just two sticks over rivers that the car would drive over. I was really terrified.
We never had electricity, so to charge something you’d need to go to the local “charger,” where everyone comes and bring their cellphones to charge. There was no sanitation; we had to buy water. It’s very, very rural with very, very low levels of development.
Women & Girls Hub: How does scanning and testing women who live so far from clinics help them?
Wedi: The only reason a woman will actually go to the clinic is if she knows there’s something wrong, and the majority of these women never receive antenatal care. If she doesn’t know that she has a breech pregnancy, she doesn’t know that she has twins, she doesn’t know that she’s HIV positive, she won’t go … to get access to free treatment [from NGOs].
The hospital is able to do Caesarean sections, but because a lot of women don’t know that they need one until they’re in labor, women die. If a woman knows within the first or second trimester, the family can plan and save money and she can go to the clinic.
One of the components that we are planning to add is a waiting mother’s ward, so that mothers found to have, for example, breech pregnancies can come to the clinic, because they live so far, maybe three or four weeks before they’re meant to deliver so that she doesn’t go into labor in the village and then try to find a way to get there.
Women & Girls Hub: Was it difficult to leave, not knowing if you’d find more funding to return?
Wedi: I think that’s been the biggest challenge, because we’re still getting phone calls now. You know, all the chiefs and all the women and everyone are so excited. These are people who have little to almost nothing, and every village we went to, they would prepare a huge meal. They would give us each two chickens, which we couldn’t refuse, so by the end of the pilot we ended up with a farm of chickens. We had to give them away to different people.
The political situation in Congo is very difficult and there just isn’t government will to improve healthcare, especially in rural communities. And the people really appreciated that we didn’t just come and screen: we came, we screened and we treated.
We’re getting emails from the local doctors, we’re getting phone calls from the chiefs saying there are other villages. There are 170 villages in the area and we did only six, and the other villages were upset. So funding is a problem and we’re looking. We have to, because it’s something that works. It’s effective and it’s really needed.
My dream is to get funding to be able to roll out the next phase of the project, which is the trial, and will involve 20 to 30 villages to run over a year, so we can see whether we can actually reduce the maternal mortality rate in the region.