VOICES FROM THE FIELDTHE IRC BLOG
From the diamond mines to an advocate for child health in Sierra Leone – Umaru’s story
May 28, 2012 by The IRC
|Umaru Senessie (right) was determined he would make a difference and help his village in war-torn Sierra Leone heal. Photo: IRC|
By Umaru Senessie
Umaru Senessie was born into poverty in war-torn Sierra Leone, forced to work hard labor in the country’s diamond mines, but he was determined he would make a difference and help his village heal. He tells his story here.
I was born into a poor family in the diamond-rich district of Kono, in eastern Sierra Leone. My father had five wives and more than 30 children. Of the 11 children born to my mother, only six of us are still alive.
For parents to lose so many sons and daughters is nothing unusual in Sierra Leone, where nearly one in five children die before age five. Almost half of these children succumb to three treatable diseases—diarrhea, malaria and pneumonia. There are few health clinics in rural communities like the one where I grew up: The country’s health system is still recovering after 11 years of civil war funded by the illegal trade in “blood diamonds.”
In 1997, when the fighting forced us to flee Sierra Leone, my family lived as refugees across the border in Guinea. We returned to Kono after the war in 2002 and I completed secondary school in 2009, graduating at the top of my class. I wanted to go to college and dreamed of becoming a lawyer.
Jobs were scarce and so, like many of my classmates, I ended up working in the nearby diamond mines.
The work in the mines was tedious and exhausting. Every day I would go to the mine site at 6am. We would demarcate a piece of land and excavate it to specified depth, piling up the dirt and gravel that we would then wash and shift for diamonds. We were paid about 25 cents a day.
I also had a chance to work on a fulfilling project with the Red Cross, distributing drugs to patients suffering from onchocerciasis—better known as river blindness. I was appointed to this volunteer job by my community, because they knew that I was willing to spend my leisure time helping others. Sickness and death were a part of our everyday lives in Kono, so I was glad to be able to do something to make a real difference in my community.
I remember the day in 2009 when the International Rescue Committee came to my village to tell us about a new health program called Community Case Management. The IRC had built the program around a network of local residents they had trained to diagnose and treat common childhood diseases in their own communities.
My neighbors chose me as the community health worker for our village because of my previous work with the Red Cross. This made me extremely happy and proud, to play a role in reducing the number of children who were dying from preventable diseases in my own community.
The IRC taught me to examine children under five for signs of diarrhea, malaria or pneumonia. I learned how to determine when a child could be cared for at home and how to dispense the appropriate medication. I also learned when to refer patients to the closest health facility for further treatment if they had danger signs. This work was extremely fulfilling, as mothers always sent me home with a blessing after I had treated their children.
After a year working with the program, I could see that fewer children under five were dying. Then I was promoted to the role of peer supervisor, visiting fellow community health workers in other villages once a month to ensure that they were providing the best care possible.
Six months later I had the unique opportunity to join a team from the IRC and the Centers for Disease Control that was surveying communities in Kono district to find out how well the IRC’s community case management approach was working. Our day started at 4am to give us time to interview local residents before they left to work on their farms. Eventually I was promoted to the role of survey manager on the project, exciting for me as I was interested to learn if the program was as effective overall as it was in my own village
In February 2011, I became manager of a pilot project that is part of the IRC’s case management program in Kenema, the district just south of Kono. The IRC provides community health workers with mobile phones to log births and deaths. Hopefully, this information will provide a more reliable and up-to-date picture of the overall health of Sierra Leone as the country rebuilds after the war. The results so far have been encouraging.
The IRC has given me an opportunity to use my skills for the betterment of families and communities in my country. I want to continue working with the IRC to help grow the community case management program. Looking forward, I also hope to continue my education, either in public health or law. And then, someday, I hope to get married and have children of my own—and know that they and other children in Sierra Leone will have a healthy and peaceful future.
Umaru Senessie manages an IRC community health pilot project in Sierra Leone.
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