June 22, 2015

Healthy Birth Field Trip

Our Project Manager Hannah’s Field Trip to Peru, and how coconut water can save lives.

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Childbirth is the most common cause of death for women in our Asháninka project. The remoteness of the villages creates huge difficulties in accessing emergency healthcare. With an average of 300 babies born in the project each year, there is an urgent need for people in the community to have knowledge of maternal and infant healthcare.

Cool Earth has teamed up with NGO One Heart World-Wide, who are leading experts in healthcare support for mothers and infants in remote rural areas. Their mission is to empower the women and communities of the Amazon to ensure safe births, health and wellbeing of mothers and infants. Narcisa and Robin from One Heart World-Wide have previously built a hugely successful maternal health program with an indigenous community in Southern Ecuador. They’re now working with us to replicate that success in our Asháninka project.

As well as introducing Robin and Narcisa to the communities, the key aims of this trip were to identify the most pressing health issues and to learn more about the Asháninka culture. We needed to ensure that the health programme that One Heart World-Wide designs will be entirely tailored to our Asháninka Project. At the end of the summer, Narcisa and Robin will be back to help implement some simple but life saving measures.

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On arrival we were greeted by Adelaida,  a 25 year old first time mum from the village of Cutivirieni. Cool Earth has employed Adelaida as the community facilitator for the maternal health program. Since the start of the year she has been visiting each of the project’s 16 villages, collecting reports on the health of mothers and babies and spreading the word about the maternal health program. She arranged for a workshop to take place the next day and had invited the women from all the villages in the project.

Mothers carrying babies and toddlers started to arrive early the next morning and the Cutivireni village community hall soon filled with 75 women. Many women had travelled a day by foot to get there. The huge turnout demonstrated the trust Adelaida had gained from the community and the need for help to improve healthcare for mothers and babies.

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Robin and Narcisa introduced themselves and got everyone standing in a huge circle around the hall, passing a large ball of string from one person to the next. Each woman in turn told us her name and village, how many children she had or hoped to have and her concerns about the maternal healthcare in her village. Many of these women had never met before, having travelled to the workshop from remote villages, so it was great to see everyone sharing their thoughts.

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Narcisa and Robin demonstrated that if a few women let go of their piece of string, the network of threads they had made fell down.  This represented the importance of all the women staying healthy and working together for a strong community.

The activity got all the women discussing their experiences of maternal health problems in their villages. The issues were written on pieces of paper and spread on the ground. The women then placed a leaf on each of the health issues they had experienced. A clear picture soon built up of the most common birth difficulties and the most urgent issues.

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The enthusiasm from everyone in getting involved prompted Robin and Narcisa to take the opportunity to hold a short lesson in how to treat diarrhoea in babies. They explained the shocking reality that without treatment, a baby that gets diarrhoea in the morning can die of dehydration by the evening.

They used a plastic bottle filled with water to represent a baby, with sticks stuck in holes representing all the points in a baby that fluid can be lost. The lowest stick was removed and the water dribbled away, representing a baby suffering from diarrhoea. Robin did an uncanny impression of a baby crying, resulting in us all feeling sorry for the plastic bottle leaking water in to a puddle on the floor.

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They explained that the best way to treat diarrhoea is to breastfeed. But if that’s not possible the baby should be fed with spoonfuls of a solution of water with a pinch of salt and sugar (it should, they said, taste like a tear). Fresh coconut water can also be used as it’s guaranteed  to be clean, and has vital sugars in it already. Replenishing vital fluids in these ways will save lives.

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The next day we visited Maria, a traditional midwife in the village of Pajonal. She described how frustrating it is being unable to help when women get into difficulty in childbirth. She had a long list of cases she’s experienced where pregnant women have been in desperate need of emergency care, with no way of accessing it.

We then spent a day trekking to one of the Project’s most isolated villages, Alto Coveja. Adelaida joined us on the trek impeccably dressed in a floral frock and wellies carrying her three month baby girl. She traversed the muddy, steep paths and river rapid crossings with ease, while we slowly slipped, scrambled and sweated along the route.

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Alto Coveja is a village of around 60 people and the population does not read, write or speak Spanish. They have chosen to live in a remote valley and continue to have a very traditional way of life. Here the women traditionally give birth alone in the gardens away from the village.

The chief of the village animatedly repeated Adelaida’s introductory words to the community, encouraging everyone in the village to take part. Then Narcisa and Robin acted out a birth scene using a coconut as a baby and a baseball cap as a placenta, demonstrating a case where the placenta wouldn’t expel after the birth. The village fell into fits of giggles but it resulted in the men joining in the discussion and listening to the problems the women face. We left the next day with promises from the men of the village that they’d give more support to the women during pregnancy and stay with them during births.

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As we reached the end of our trip, we felt sobered by the numerous stories of birth difficulties and infant deaths that the women had experienced. But we also felt positive that our maternal health programme had received such enormous support from the communities.

Robin and Narcisa will be back in September to train women from every village in the project to become ‘Maternal Health Promotors’. We will keep you posted on how the training goes and the progress of Adelaida’s work in the community.

With the help of our supporters enabling programs like this, Cool Earth is able to help empower the Asháninka and support a strong people for a safe forest.


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