Toyin Saraki, the founder-president of the Wellbeing Foundation Africa tells Emelia Hamilton-Russell how it all began, and how the charity has revolutionised natal healthcare in Nigeria
The word ‘philanthropist’, to me, simply means someone who loves other people. When I was growing up, I always wanted to make sure other people were all right. Nigeria is a very philanthropic nation, and the instinct to help people grew in me as a child.
My mother was a very caring person and taught us to care for people around us as well as caring for the family. My wedding was the biggest wedding of the year – if not the decade – in Nigeria. I was expecting twins at the time, and I went into labour early.
I actually went into labour on the eve of my wedding, which was rather disastrous. Four thousand people were waiting for the bride to appear, but I was in hospital undergoing an emergency caesarean. The babies were only 28 weeks, so they were very early, very premature, and my daughter had quite a fight for life. I had quite a fight for life myself.
The Nigerian hospital simply didn’t have the resources to deal with such a premature, complicated birth. I gave birth to my daughter naturally, but the other twin was stuck and we had to wait 45 minutes for the anaesthetist to come before they could perform the caesarean.
They just couldn’t get the other baby out in time. I was too ill to comprehend and was never formally told, but later I worked out for myself that the second twin must have died. Culturally, we don’t acknowledge a still-birth as the death of a child, so I was never able to see the child, to properly grieve or say goodbye.
I had originally been registered to give birth in the UK – at the Portland – but because I went into labour so early I had to give birth in Nigeria. As soon as I came round from the anaesthetic I was frantically phoning the Portland, asking what I should be doing to maximise the chances of my baby surviving.
They’d tell me what to do and then I’d ask the Nigerian doctors: ‘Please, have you given me steroid injections to help mature the baby’s lungs? Have you cleared her airways?’
I was under anaesthetic when the second twin – the one that died – was born, and I have a feeling my daughter survived because I was awake and I knew what to ask for.
I had lived such a carefree life up until that moment, but after that I thought: ‘With all my privileges, with all the resources that I have at my disposal… I still lost a child.’
I think that’s when my own sense of social justice was truly awakened. Even something as simple as breastfeeding. We all know that premature babies really need breast milk, and in London they would just bring you a breast pump. In Nigeria they brought me a bowl.
If God has helped you to survive something, I think it would be very selfish to keep that knowledge to yourself. During the time I was in hospital another premature baby, who had been born at home, was brought in by the father.
It was a very expensive hospital so I told the staff to add the bill for the baby’s treatment to my own bill. I had bought two of everything, and had paid for the care of two babies.
The Portland were sending me things like formula milk specially designed for premature babies, and I just thought: ‘There are five other children in intensive care. Don’t all these premature babies deserve a chance at survival too?’
So I started ordering triple what I needed, and the doctors all remarked on what a difference it was making. The Wellbeing Foundation started from there.
It was because of the Wellbeing Foundation Africa that Nigeria started keeping proper records of infant mortality. I raised the alarm in 2006, and met with the minister for health, and together our two organisations started to investigate why infant mortality was so high.
We discovered the main causes of death for women were post-partum haemorrhage, malaria in pregnancy, and sepsis. Newborns were dying because their airways weren’t being cleared properly.
What really came out of that study was that the things that are killing women in pregnancy in Nigeria are all preventable, and it doesn’t even cost that much money – it costs knowledge.
Our programmes train doctors and midwives in things like how to prevent sepsis through sanitation, how to clear a newborn’s airways, how to recognise the signs of haemorrhage early and prevent it.
Rates of progress
In 2006 when I started the foundation, the death rate for newborns was one in six; now it’s one in 12. What was really interesting, though, was that in the hospitals where we were running our MamaCare programmes for expectant mothers, the death rate is zero.
Our hospitals are confounding a national average that has improved but still has a long way to go: Finland’s infant mortality is one in 4,000, not one in 12!
At the beginning it was just about saving lives, but now it’s about getting those key innovations that save lives to the mothers themselves.
Midwives are at the heart of the work of the Wellbeing Foundation Africa. Our ‘MamaCare midwives’ deliver antenatal and postnatal classes and visits to women in Abuja, Lagos and Ilorin.
The classes take place in primary healthcare centres, hospitals and even prisons. I’m trying to teach expectant mothers to be an equal partner in the quality of the care they receive.
For example, we’ll show them the amount of blood that is normal to lose after birth, and give them a mat to lie on. We tell them that if the mat is overflowing or leaking they must ask to be taken back to the labour ward because they’re in post-partum haemorrhage.
A lot of people’s foundations are about how much they’re giving – mine is more about what we’re giving. A lot of my programmes are very simple. It’s all about knowledge.
Emelia Hamilton-Russell writes for Spear’s
Photographed for Spear’s by David Harrison
This was first published in issue 67 of Spear’s magazine, available on newstands now. Click here to subscribe