Film aims to assist Sierra Leone clinics
By: Lynn Martel
A filmmaker, says Tracy Jacobson, often walks the line demarking “how much is too much?”
For Jacobson, that moment happened during a three-week trip to Sierra Leone to make a documentary about the West African country’s high infant mortality rate.
With her was cameraman Michael Klekamp and three Canmore obstetrics nurses, Betty Tenga, Jasper van Maanen and Darla Bennett.
Tenga immigrated to Canmore from her native Sierra Leone with her husband and children in 2000, fleeing from a violent civil war. Sadly, Tenga’s own baby died as result of her delivering in a hospital that was under heavy attack during that war.
When Jacobson learned how Tenga and her colleagues are working to establish a sustainable birthing program for clinics in Sierra Leone, she was inspired to make her film. Landing in Freetown a few days ahead of the nurses, Jacobson and Klekamp rode a water taxi for 45minutes in stormy waters, at night, from the airport to the capital city. There they organized film permits, logistics, truck and driver, and hired a local sound technician.
“We pretty much drove the entire country, which you could drive straight across in a day,” Jacobson said. “It’s very lush, tropical with jungles and palm trees, beautiful. Most villages are situated on the side of the highways. The roads which are paved are the main ones – most are city-to-city – created by the Chinese and for the mines. Any roads that are not paved are super bumpy and take a lot longer to drive.”
Thanks to Calgarian Barbara McIntosh, currently living in Sierra Leone on contract with NGO CAUSE Canada, who served as the group’s production/team coordinator, the group enjoyed some “nice” places to stay in a country where most places have broken toilets and seats made for squatting, only some with running water, only sometimes warm. wi-fi is scarce, except at a couple of higher-end coffee shops.
“We went without expectations, as Betty (Tenga) told us to, and it was like Rocky Mountain hut living,” Jacobson said. “The Sierra Leoneans take a lot of pride in their homes and in welcoming visitors – who don’t often happen to be international visitors.”
Exchanging $1 CAN for 5,640.94 SLL (Sierra Leonean Leone) felt “like you turned $100 into $1 million with the stack of bills,” she added.
While Tenga had worked in a city hospital before leaving her country, she never worked in rural clinics. The first two clinics the team visited appeared to be well stocked with supplies left from the 2014 Ebola outbreak, but without assurance of restocking once supplies ran out.
“The delivery areas were very, very minimal,” Jacobson said. “If you put a western mother in one of those rooms to deliver, she just wouldn’t. Not even close to a delivery room here in Canmore.”
In Sierra Leone, one in six children do not live to their fifth birthday. One clinic witnessed 97 deaths in a single month. And, while filming a live birth – with the mother’s permission – the Canmore women witnessed the painful reality.
“It was the third clinic/birthing room we visited,” Jacobson said. “It was in a very remote area. A woman was in labour when we arrived and, after a long day the baby finally came along, but not crying or breathing properly. Jasper, Darla and Betty helped best they could. It was an exact situation where the ‘why’ they were there happened.”
Despite their skills, with no oxygen or suction, the nurses were unable to help the newborn boy. With poor cell service, they called for an ambulance, an hour away by rough road. The baby was eventually transferred to a city hospital, but died two days later.
“It was a really challenging day for everyone,” Jacobson said. With women only allowed to watch the delivery, Jacobson ran the camera, a skill she usually relies on Klekamp’s professional skills for.
“I had never seen a baby being born,” she admitted. “It wasn’t looking good for the baby, the mother was still on the delivery bed watching them work on the baby, not really knowing what was happening. Filming the story, it’s important to capture the truth of what’s unfolding, though wanting to respect those involved. I may have felt my own limits, to being affected by the situation as well, though I felt it was important to keep filming until such a point there was nothing else they could do.”
Then she left the mother alone with her baby. Looking back, Jacobson said she felt she made the right decisions.
“There is a story to tell, possibly this little guy’s life was not wasted and can be a gift in helping to save other babies’ lives – a reality that breaks my heart to this day,” Jacobson said.
“The delivering mother we filmed ended up going home without her baby. Empty handed. A life she grew inside of her for nine months, gone. Many women from her village came together at the clinic to support her during the delivery. That was heartwarming and amazing. Women can be powerful and loving human beings.”
Now, more than ever, Jacobson said she wants to share Tenga’s story about fleeing to Canada as a refugee, arriving in Canmore to open arms, and contributing to her community.
“Betty’s strength and courage is an inspiration to women,” Jacobson said. “She’s helped to deliver hundreds of babies here in Canmore and still feels guilty for leaving her people back home. Hers is a refugee success story that shows strength, perseverance, and a chance given.”
For Tenga, the visit increased her desire to help her native country.
“It’s made me have more of an urge to help,” Tenga said. “They do great work (in Sierra Leone’s remote clinics) with what little they have, but they have almost nothing. Most of the babies die of simple things – not having oxygen, or suction to be able to remove the mucus. Just to have these two items would have saved that baby’s life.”
Having practiced nursing in Canmore for more than 15 years, Tenga said she hopes through her Empty Handed – Help a mother take her baby home program, that women and their babies could be saved.
“My purpose was twofold – to assist with skills transfer and to introduce my Canadian colleagues from Canmore Hospital to some of the real-life challenges facing health care delivery,” Tenga said.
“If the birthing centers could be provided with basic supplies, so the mothers have clean and hygienic birthing experience, it would make a remarkable difference in the lives of these women. My hope is that pregnant mothers who deliver their babies in remote regions do not go home ‘empty handed.’ In Canmore, we’ve never had a single baby die because we couldn’t resuscitate. We’ve never had a single mother die because we couldn’t manage the bleeding.”
Having cameras filming their visit served an important purpose by bringing visibility to the realities on the ground.
“The filmmakers did a fabulous job of documenting the entire trip,” Tenga said. “My hope for this project is for my story, thus far, to serve as a giving back to my country of origin, of some of the goodness that Canada has been to me.”
It was the remarkable people of Sierra Leone made the trip unforgettable, Jacobson said.
“In Sierra Leone, we experienced a country that has a bigger threshold for death and suffering,” Jacobson said. “A country where the people have persevered through a lot of war, sickness and death. They don’t mourn for days, months, years; they get back on their feet and keep on living.
“Still, we met beautiful and kind people all around the country. In the towns and villages we visited where Betty had family, they invited us in for meals and we felt like celebrities. In the middle of the trip, when all our morale was low and down from the long travels, heat, and digesting what we had experienced and witnessed, we entered one of Betty’s villages near where she grew up in the city of Bo.
“We arrived in the pitch black of night, our vehicle headlights lit up what looked like a dance party. We got out of our trucks and her family/friends were beating drums, and dancing for us. Amazing. We joined in and danced with them.”