By: Judy McFarlane The Afro News Vancouver In 2006, Hilary King visited Rwanda for the first time. She was part of a group of Anglicans who’d been invited by the Archbishop of Rwanda to “come along side us and visit.” King’s church in North Vancouver was one of several that had broken away from the diocese in B.C. and had been invited to join the Rwandan Diocese. That connection was fundamental to King. “This is my church,” she thought as she visited the local chapels, “and these are my brothers and sisters.”
King worked for many years in B.C. in community development in health. She says her approach to her work was simple: identify a need, find out what could be done to meet the need, and find the right people to carry out the plan. “And then I’d walk away,” she adds, smiling. She worked on projects as diverse as creating a program to bring isolated seniors together for meals, “like a Diners’ Club for seniors”, she says, and helping to found the first homeless shelter on Vancouver’s North Shore.
When King saw the Special Care Nursery at Kigeme Hospital, she saw great need: premature babies slept in red plastic basins, in a room heated with a wood stove because the electricity to heat bassinets was unreliable. King thought, as she would have in her work in North Vancouver, ‘it doesn’t have to be like this’.
That first visit was a turning point for King. She returned home determined to go back. A year later, King met with the Administrator of the Kigeme Hospital, Cassien Gatoya. He told her that many mothers, poor and with other children to look after, laboured at home and then walked to the hospital. Many left the trip to the last possible moment and arrived exhausted, unable to have a normal birth. The result was a high rate of cesarean sections. The rate of postpartum infection was also high. King suggested a pilot project: provide support and education for the mothers from one of the health centres connected to the hospital. Gatoya told her poverty in the area was so overwhelming that change was very difficult. That’s when King recounted the ‘starfish’ story: a man saw hundreds of starfish washed up on a beach, beyond the reach of the next tide. They would die unless something was done. The man began to throw them back into the water, one by one. Someone walking by scoffed, “that won’t make a difference.” The man threw another starfish back and said, “it made a difference to that one.”
King learned it would cost about $4000 U.S. to hire a nurse for a year. But she knew one nurse couldn’t track hundreds of pregnant mothers. In a moment of insight, she realized that help was already there. Each church in the Kigeme diocese had a Mothers’ Union, a group of women already looking out for the poor and needy. King contacted some of the Mothers’ Unions and asked if they would provide volunteers to help needy mothers. Yes, they answered, we do this already.
By 2008, King, with the help of her local church, her women’s gym and personal donations, had raised enough money to hire a nurse. King arrived in Kigeme to find that the Mother’s Union volunteers had already started their training with the nurse, Dancilla.
The goal of the Healthy Mums project is to keep mothers healthy so they can give birth naturally to a full term, healthy baby. It now operates in two health centres. Pregnant women are seen by the nurse and then matched up with a volunteer from the Mothers’ Union, who makes regular home visits during the pregnancy. Evaluations show that the number of Cesarean sections has fallen and the postpartum rate of infection, previously a startling 20 percent, is starting to fall. The project also provides needy mothers with a goat and starter garden kit, consisting of a hoe, watering can and seeds. The goat provides rich manure and the plan is that as the goats reproduce, new ones can be given to other mothers.
The project is now run entirely by a local coordinating committee, consisting of the two health centre directors, the nurses from both centres, a volunteer coordinator from the Mothers’ Unions and the pastors for both areas. King’s involvement is limited to fund-raising and taking part in major spending decisions.
The funding (roughly $10,000 US per centre) currently comes from King’s church and contacts in Canada and is funneled through the Rwandan Diocese. The project has received positive attention from the Rwandan Ministry of Health and the Rwandan press. King wants the project to expand to all seven health centres in Kigeme. “My purpose,” she says, “is to show that this is a model that can make a difference and get funding so the project can expand and continue. We’ve applied to some foundations here and will be talking to the Government of Rwanda on our next visit, but so far we have no additional source of funds.”
King’s next visit will be this summer. She sees another need. “Some of the first babies are now two or three years old, getting to be old enough for preschool.” Although there are eighty preschools in and around Kigeme, the teachers are mostly unpaid and untrained older teenagers. King says it costs about $300 U.S. to hire a preschool teacher for a year. She plans to explore how to meet the need for paid, trained teachers. “These children need to be ready for school,” she says.
When asked why she decided to take on such a huge project, King is thoughtful. “I believe we are all one in the body of Christ. When one part of the body hurts, the whole body hurts.”
For more information on: http://embracerwanda.org