A Baylor University student’s honors research project has spawned a new charitable organization that provides expectant mothers in Western Kenya with free transportation to a health center to safely give birth.

Jolene Damoiseaux launched Mothers on the Move in July 2013 to help solve transportation woes for pregnant women in the Nyakach Plateau region of Kenya, where she has spent a total of three months during the last two summers doing mission work.

The women face an average hike of three miles through rocky and rough terrain to reach the closest health center where they can deliver.

Many choose to have a home birth or use a midwife instead of making the treacherous journey while in the throes of labor.

In Kenya, 360 out of every 100,000 pregnancies end in the mother’s death because of complications

in labor, compared to 10 out of every 100,000 U.S. pregnancies, Damoiseaux said.

Now a senior, Damoiseaux said she aspires to become an OB/GYN and began researching mortality rates in pregnancies as a sophomore for her thesis research paper requirement in Baylor’s Honors College.

“(Childbirth is) an experience that every woman should have, that should be positive and fulfilling, but in Kenya that’s not the case,” Damoiseaux said.

She started Mothers on the Move after receiving a $1,500 grant from the Baylor Interdisciplinary Poverty Initiative.

When one of the women goes into labor, she can call a designated hotline for the Mothers on the Move program, and a local representative will arrange for a motorbike taxi to take her to the Sigoti Health Center.

The health center covers the cost of the ride, which is about $5, and is remimbursed by Mothers on the Move. The program also covers a $10 car ride from the health center to a regional hospital for mothers who must have a C-section or face other labor complications.

Seeking donations

Between mid-July and the end of December, 118 women took advantage of the program, including 18 who were later taken to the hospital. With about half of the grant used, Damoiseaux is looking for private donations to help continue the service.

“That turned the research from a thesis into so much more, because I got to know these women, I lived with them for six weeks,” Damoiseaux said. “That’s the purpose of research, is to bring (the information) back, not to graduate with an honors thesis.”

The project supports several missionary efforts in the region spearheaded by nonprofit group Straw to Bread, which focuses on improving residents’ quality of life and helping them develop a sustainable economy.

“One of our commitments is that we want to enable them to meet their goals,” said Dr. Lisa Baker, a clinical professor in Baylor’s Honors College and the founder and executive director of Straw to Bread. “We don’t come in with an American agenda and say, ‘You know what you ought to do?’

“We always ask questions first before saying we have an answer, because it may not be a question that they have or it may be a completely inappropriate answer.”

Baker takes dozens of pre-med and honors students to the region each spring for a two-week mission trip providing a free medical clinic for residents.

Several students have zeroed in on the needs of the community as part of their research theses and implemented programs based on interviews and data collected during those trips.

For example, one student developed a sexual and reproductive health curriculum and instructed leaders in the region on teaching the material to local women after discovering that few had information about family planning, contributing to larger families in the impoverished area.

“They’re already of the mindset that they want to give back, that they want to help,” Baker said. “The pre-med students, in particular, that I work with are not primarily motivated by, ‘I want to go to Dallas or Houston and make a lot of money.’ They are motivated by, ‘I want to make a difference in the world.’

“Also, this generation is much more aware that we’re dealing with global issues now, instead of just local or national ones, so to talk about global health is very natural to them.”

Global health

Damoiseaux said her interest in global health stems from witnessing extreme poverty in Brazil, where her family lived when she was a child because of her father’s work as a petroleum engineer.

“I remember following my mom into the slums of Brazil passing out blankets and medicine,” Damoiseaux said. “From the age of 6, I’ve seen that cycle of poverty where poverty is causing disease and disease is causing poverty. And I’ve learned that there’s so many ways to approach that problem, and that it requires collaboration among so many different people, and how I personally feel I can apply my skills best would be to intervene in that cycle as a physician.”

Using a translator, Damoiseaux interviewed 90 pregnant women in the rural and mostly isolated Nyakach Plateau. About 55 percent of those women reported that they used a traditional birth attendant — a local provider similar to a midwife — instead of delivering in a hospital or health center, even though the attendants’ services were double or triple the costs of giving birth in a medical center.

In addition, using traditional birth attendants posed greater health risks. One of the attendants Damoiseaux interviewed had an active case of tuberculosis, while another was 95 years old, had cataract in one eye, and refused to use gloves when delivering babies.

The women and the birth attendants said that delivering in a hospital or health clinic was the better option, and most had no troubles walking to the health center for their prenatal visits.

But the journey is considerably more arduous while contending with labor pains. Nyakach Plateau women have five children on average, and their young ones would have to take the trip to the clinic with them, Damoiseaux said.

“You can’t even have cars driving there because the terrain is so rough,” Damoiseaux said. “There’s potholes everywhere, it’s muddy, and it’s dangerous there at night because of cattle thieves.”

Damoiseaux hopes with more grant or donor support, Mothers on the Move can expand to also provide women with transportation to prenatal visits or for general emergency care. Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta recently ordered that all women in the country receive free prenatal care and delivery services.

“The goal is not to offer these people a temporary solution,” Damoiseaux said. “I want to bring them something sustainable that can really help for the years to come.”

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