Melinda Gates has me thinking about the time I became a mother. When the Gates Foundation co-chair recently said that improving family planning for the global poor is her new personal mission -- and that she is making it a top priority for the world's biggest public health philanthropy -- it immediately brought me back to my own experience giving birth to my son 20 years ago. Back then, the thing I needed most was not family planning, but a well-trained midwife.
I was 18, an unwed and pregnant young woman about to have her first baby in the midst of Liberia's civil war. Just weeks before I went into labor, a rebel group took control of my town, a suburb of the capital, Monrovia. Anyone who could run away did, including all doctors and nurses. I had no choice but to find a traditional midwife and ask her to help me have my baby.
I walked for an hour or more to a remote village. The path was narrow, and thorns grabbed my legs from the bushes. I was already in labor -- and in pain -- by the time we reached the home of an elderly woman whom my baby's father knew. I lay on the floor of her hut waiting for the baby to come. That night, it was raining cats and dogs, and the rebels were shooting. Just after the gunshots began, my son came. He was small, but healthy.
But then, the afterbirth was stuck. I was confused. I thought that with the baby already out the ordeal would be over, yet I writhed in pain. The old woman helping me knew little more than I did -- only what she had learned from her own mother. That included a belief that the afterbirth was stuck because I had sinned. She accused me of adultery and demanded that I confess the name of my lover. As I bled, she beat my legs.
Finally, I pulled a name out of the air and offered it to her. In an adjacent room, a man knocked some old cups together. He said he was consulting the gods of our ancestors and that they would allow me to live because I had confessed the name. The midwife gave me a teaspoon of kerosene because she believed it would help finish the birth, and I passed out before I had the chance to hold my first child. But I survived.
Other young girls were not so lucky. Even today, nearly a decade after the end of the civil war, and in Africa's first country with a female president, Liberia has the world's 10th-highest maternal mortality rate. Health clinics and hospitals are few and far between. On average, the World Health Organization reported in 2010, Liberia has only three nurses or midwives and less than one doctor for every 10,000 people. Bad roads make it difficult for most of us to access what medical resources there are.
Like all numbers, these only tell part of the story. These numbers in particular were collected over a nine-year period -- a period that in my country represents the end of the civil war and the beginning of recovery. It's difficult to overstate how many things war destroyed here and how much we've had to recover from.