Health fellows come into town

Jul 172014

Graca Machel at the third Partnership for Maternal, Newborn and Child Health (PMNCH) conference.

It was Graca Machel’s first public appearance since the death of her husband Nelson Mandela six months ago, so of course every journalist wanted an interview. But Machel’s office was quite firm, no interviews and even her appearances at the third Partnership for Maternal, Newborn and Child Health (PMNCH) conference, were brief.

Looking regal as usual Machel, who chairs the PMNC, told the over 1,000 delegates gathered in Johannesburg Sandton Sun conference centre late June, that while her official mourning period was over, she would continue to grieve for her husband in private, but would now return to her active role as a global advocate for women and children’s rights.

“Children were very dear to Madiba and his last wish was to build the Nelson Mandela’s Children’s Hospital. This is my dream too and I wish it to be realised in my lifetime,’’ Machel said when she opened the conference.

The nine health fellows selected by the International Centre for Journalists (ICFJ) and the United Nations Foundation to attend the conference, were disappointed that they could not speak to the icon directly, but still found lots to report after all there were over 800 different development and health agencies represented at the two day conference.

PMNCH has held two previous Partners’ Forums. The first, in Dar es Salaam in 2007, marked the emergence of PMNCH as the first dedicated partnership focused on maternal and child health in tracking MDGs 4 and 5. The second Forum, in New Delhi in November 2010, was to develop joint approaches and strategies to operationalize the UN Secretary General’s Global Strategy for Women’s and Children’s Health to accelerate progress towards the MDGs by 2015.

This meeting, which was co-hosted by the South African government, focused on the progress made in women, children and new borns’ health and the post 2015 development agenda. These Issues the journalists found fascinating and resonated with much of the work they were doing in their media houses. There were several milestone sessions such as the launch of the Every New-born Action plan and the Countdown to 2015 report of 2014, and the fellows had exclusive interviews as a group with eminent persons like former cabinet minister in the ANC government and labour (COSATU) leader Jay Naidoo, who is now chair of Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN).

The fellows were independent and clear about the information they were after and quickly found their feet, spreading out organising their stories.

During the question and answer sessions, the journalists engaged health professionals and UN advisors, asking questions about marginalised communities like refugee women, pastoral communities and access to life saving drugs such as anti-Retrovirals for pregnant women and children.

The session on personal stories greatly impacted on the journalists. Women spoke of how they had suffered injustices at the hands of their communities, while others had been let down by the health care systems in their countries.

One young woman from Sudan narrated how she was forced into marriage at the age of 11, while another was raped and forced to marry her abuser or face the wrath of her family who blamed her for the assault. There were others who talked about how a lack of access to adequate medical care led to the death of their babies. These kinds of stories sometimes get ‘lost’ in the African media which sometimes appears to have become inured to these aberrations, so it was refreshing to see the fellows interview passionately and see powerful stories in this sad history of women.

There were some encouraging stories, like the one from the Mobile Alliance for Maternal Action (MAMA) project which uses mobile phones to communicate health messages to pregnant mothers. The SMSs sent to the women remind them about vaccinations, clinic visits or to take their medication. The journalists had a chance to visit a clinic in Soweto where mothers talked about how having the SMS service helped them access health care. The MAMA project started in Bangladesh and is being rolled out in other African countries with great success.

The journalists had a session with MDG advocates and youth leaders at a roundtable discussion organised by the United Nations Foundation, The youths presented their communique after their pre-conference meeting, and the fellows were able to engage with them and have one on one interviews with a few of them. The youth were excited at being interviewed by foreign journalists and seemed to have made lifelong friends! The two day conference had quite a tight programme but the fellows got the opportunity to meet other health journalists one night over dinner. Beauregard Tromp, a Niemen fellow and award winning narrative reporter with the Sunday Times, Kanya Ndaki, editor of IRINs PlusNews, Laura Lopez Gonzales from Health – e, Paula Fray and Des Latham media trainers, regaled the fellows with their escapades as reporters. Another highlight for the fellows was getting to listen Emiritus Desmond Tutu the South African social rights activist and retired Anglican bishop who rose to worldwide fame during the 1980s as an opponent of apartheid. He had an uplifting message on the power of women and his famous giggle was infectious. Apart from two fellows, none had ever visited Africa before so it would have been a shame not to take in some of the historical sites near Johannesburg, so a quick tour was organised. First up was a short visit to the former home of Nelson Mandela on Vilikazi Street where his ex-wife Winnie still runs the family café across the road. The bullet ridden walls and the photographs were a sharp reminder of the icons struggle against the Afrikaner government. The team then went to the Hector Pieterson Museum also located in Soweto, in Orlando West. It is two blocks away from where Hector was shot and killed and the museum is named in his honour. It is one of the first museums in Soweto opened on 16 June 2002.

The last stop was the huge Museum Afrika which captures the bitter experience of the Rivonia Treason Trial, and the social effects of the migrant labour system on the gold mines. To round off the tour was a steaming hot cup of cappuccino in a nearby café in Sophia town, the place famed for producing jazz musicians Hugh Masekela, Abdullah Ibrahim, Jonas Gwangwa and Miriam Makeba. It also has the sad history of the forcible removal of 65,000 families under the apartheid government in 1955.

A quick look at the Chris Hani Baragwanath Academic Hospital (CHBAH) which is the third largest hospital in the world, rounded off the tour.

The journalists seemed invigorated with the tour, able to put ‘faces’ to the scenes of South Africa that they had only read about. They were also excited about the information they had received from the conference and the differences (and some similarities) in the situation of women and children’s health in Africa compared to their own societies. They were eager to write their stories. I look forward to reading them.