Naffisatu Conteh doesn’t miss a beat. Two weeks ago, at the age of 23, Conteh graduated from Virginia Commonwealth University with her master’s degree in environmental studies, and this fall she’ll be heading to Togo in West Africa for service in the Peace Corps.
But in the meantime, her summer plans include teaching science to fifth and sixth graders at Henderson Middle School in Richmond and raising awareness about a global campaign she helped launch to improve the health and care of mothers and children in her native country of Sierra Leone.
For the past year, in addition to wrapping up her master’s program, Conteh, together with her cousin, Marie Mansaray, a senior studying exercise science at VCU and the 2010-2011 Miss Sierra Leone USA, and several friends from VCU and Bucknell, Hampton and Howard Universities, have been laying the groundwork for Yehri Wi Cry, an organization designed to bring change to Sierra Leone, a country with high infant and maternal mortality rates. Each young woman involved with the campaign has strong family ties to Sierra Leone.
Their efforts are paying off already – Yehri Wi Cry, which means “hear our cry” in the Sierra Leonean language Krio, is in the process of becoming a nonprofit organization.
“The name says a lot – we’re crying for people to help us and hear that this is a major issue in our country,” she said.
In the crossfire
There’s no doubt that Conteh is on a course to bring about great change. Her drive comes from resilience.
She has endured and overcome extreme hardship and heartache in her young life. She was born in Sierra Leone, where as a young child she witnessed the devastation of her country’s violent 11-year civil war. The war was fueled by political unrest and conflict over diamonds. She recalls the loss of life and the struggle to survive. She also remembers a poverty-stricken country divided by class – people were either poor or wealthy – with few in between.
The oldest of three children, Conteh kept watch over her younger siblings as her mother worked tirelessly to provide the basics for her family. In 1998, as the war waged on, Conteh and her family fled Sierra Leone to the neighboring country of Guinea, before being granted refugee status and coming to the United States. Conteh and her family reunited with relatives in Maryland.
For Conteh, coming to live in the United States was a gift – and one that would not be taken lightly.
“Watching my mom made me realize I needed to do something for my family and for my country. I know how my mom struggled to help us, feed us – she did everything she had to do to care for us. God Bless, Angela … she made me have focus and see the big picture,” she said.
Once settled in the United States, it didn’t take long before Conteh created a game plan for herself – get an education so that she could go back and help the country and people she had to leave behind.
“I want to give back to America, because it’s given me this life and made it possible for me to dream. I’ve had this dream. And once I’ve given to America, I want to give back to Africa too – and eventually to my country,” said Conteh.
In September, she will start a three-month intensive training program with the Peace Corps. That will be followed by 24 months working as a natural resources extension agent in Togo. There she will have a hand in agriculture and food security and will help spread the word of environmental awareness including recycling, conservation and preservation.
She said that the knowledge she gains in Togo will be used to help the people of Sierra Leone.
Helping her community
Through Yehri Wi Cry, Conteh and her team have begun outreach efforts in the town of Bo in Sierra Leone at the Bo Government Hospital. Mansaray and colleagues visited the town recently to assess the needs of the women they are trying to help.
“We learned that there is a lack of resources for these women, the hospital is not well-maintained, it lacks the proper equipment, it has poor lighting and lacks nurses and mid-wives to care for these women … many mothers give birth to their children in their homes because they don’t have the funds to deliver in the hospital,” said Conteh.
According to Conteh, in Bo, as well as in many areas throughout Sierra Leone, pregnant women seldom receive adequate prenatal and postnatal care due to costs associated with coming to the hospital. However, the government recently implemented changes to the system to offer free health services for pregnant and breastfeeding women and children under the age of five.
By working with the hospital, the doctors and several groups in the Bo community, the team is hoping to help initiate a training program for nurses and midwives and also to create and distribute maternal kits containing items such as sterile gauze pads, alcohol prep pads, examination gloves and sanitary napkins.
Environmental issues, such as a lack of a solid waste system, also contribute to spread of disease, which impacts outcomes for mothers and children alike. Again, Conteh’s education will come in handy as she hopes to help develop a solid waste system, which is currently lacking in that country.
“I’m hoping that our generation can make a difference – I’m praying that we make it happen,” said Conteh.
The group has gained the support of VCU faculty including Jacqueline T. McDonnough, assistant professor in the VCU School of Education and director of the VCU Life Sciences’ Center for Life Sciences Education, and Maghboeba Mosavel, Ph.D., associate professor in the Department of Social and Behavioral Health.
The campaign is supported by a Projects for Peace grant from the Davis Project for Peace.
Sathya Achia Abraham
VCU Communications and Public Relations