I remember the day vividly. I awoke that morning at about 6:30 to the sound of children laughing and singing. I jumped out of bed and took a photo which I quickly posted on Instagram, "Good morning from Kenema #SierraLeone", the post read, it was accompanied by a colourful photo of a rain-soaked hillside with some children walking to school. Little did I know that in a few hours my happiness would turn to heartache and sorrow and I would be throwing up in my hotel bathroom. This was to be the hardest day of my career so far.
We arrived at Kenema government hospital at about 7:30 am, ready for the day ahead. I'd been asked by the NGO WaterAid to report on and capture the joyous occasion of new life, whilst highlighting the plight of midwives and mothers who have to deliver in hospitals that lack clean water and sanitation. I knew it wasn't going to be easy. The Ebola crisis had brought Sierra Leone's healthcare system to its knees, this hospital alone lost 37 staff members to the deadly outbreak. Across the country the effect Ebola had was not just related to the disease itself, but on public health services and in particular maternal and newborn care.
The first person I met was 18-year-old Kemi, who'd travelled to the hospital on a motorbike whilst in labour. With very few ambulances in Sierra Leone she had no other way of getting from her remote rural village. Looking anxious and scared, as any woman in labour would be, she was immediately taken to the delivery room. As she laid on the bed waiting to deliver, Kemi told me all about herself, her hopes and dreams for the future and how she was really excited about the prospect of being a new mum. Proudly smiling, she showed me the new Kitenge, an African style cloth, which she'd bought to take her baby home in.
After about 20 minutes, Kemi was close to delivering. "Push!" the midwife told her, as Kemi let out a loud scream. The midwives then began talking amongst themselves in Creole. I couldn't understand what they were saying and didn't want to interrupt but from the look on their faces I gathered that the baby was in distress. Seconds later Kemi's baby was delivered. I closed my eyes waiting for the sound of crying to fill the room, but it never came. Her baby boy was quickly taken to the emergency room next door where they started resuscitating him.
As I was waiting in the delivery room for news of Kemi's baby boy, I noticed another woman sat on the bed in pain. Her name was Kadiatu, she too was very young at just 18. The midwives explained that she was suffering from an infection and it was important they delivered her baby as quickly as possible. They moved beds, and began trying to bring the baby out. But I could see something was wrong. "Call the doctor," one of the midwives shouted. Minutes later Kadiatu had delivered her baby but tragically he was still born. Kadiatu had also fallen unconscious. She died moments later from losing too much blood.
I couldn't believe the horror which had just unfolded in the delivery room, within minutes. A place meant for new life, was suddenly filled with death.
Kemi's little boy clung on to life for another five days and sadly passed away.
I spent a week in Kenema government hospital and witnessed five births in total. None of the babies survived. My heart ached with pain for the mum's and midwives who had to endure this suffering. But this was and is the daily reality of life in Kenema government hospital, and it's a story repeated across Sierra Leone. You only have to travel to a cemetery to see the rows and rows of tiny graves which fill the graveyard.
In the western world we often only hear about the disasters which effect Sierra Leone, such as the Ebola outbreak, or the awful mudslides and floods which hit this week. But when the cameras stop rolling and the news reporters go home, there is still a story to be told. Sierra Leone has one of the highest maternal and neo-natal death rates in the world. One woman in every 21 who gives birth here will have a baby die in the first month. The stark reality is the lack of access to water and sanitation just compounds these problems as the risk of infection is greater.
That deployment changed my life. The mothers and midwives I met showed such strength and courage in times of adversity. They taught me to have the bravery to carry on even in the worst of times. I owe it to them to tell their stories and by doing so I hope, in some way, it will change their reality.