A typical little girl, in a Kenyan village, who spent her days fetching firewood and water for her large family, was expected to grow up like her mother – one of four wives, illiterate and subservient to her husband. But the girl got a break at age seven. Her big brother recognized her innate intelligence and curiosity, and insisted she attend school. She got another break when the United States sponsored scholarships for bright African students to pursue higher education in the U.S. (This was part of the “Kennedy Airlift” which also brought Barack Obama Sr. to study in America.) When she returned to Africa, she continued to study, and also got married and had three children. Her pregnancies might have followed the path of so many from her village, where today:
· A woman in sub-Saharan Africa has a 1 in 16 chance of dying in pregnancy or childbirth, compared to a 1 in 4,000 risk in a developing country. (Maternal health differences between the rich and poor globally are greater than the gaps from any other indicator.)
· These maternal deaths are usually among the young and healthy. Most could be prevented if communities simply had access to basic medical care and sanitary practices, as well as low-cost items like mosquito nets.
· Many deaths are due to the fact that women don’t have access to hospitals; giving birth in a hospital setting is just too expensive. In neighboring Tanzania today, a traditional birth attendant at home will charge about $2 per birth. A normal birth at the hospital costs about $6, an emergency Caesarean $15, according to a New York Times report. These costs are out of reach for most women in this part of the world – even in a matter of life or death.
Thanks to the fact that this girl completed her schooling (girls’ education drastically improves maternal health), she wasn’t counted among those tragic statistics. But she also didn’t avoid severe hardship. While her children were young, her husband abandoned the family, purportedly stating she was “too educated, too strong, too successful, too stubborn and too hard to control.” When she criticized the judge ruling in favor of her husband during divorce proceedings, he sentenced her to a six-month jail term – the first of her many prison stays for speaking out.
The woman I’m describing here is Wangari Maathai. Her modest attempts encouraging tree planting among village women grew into a worldwide movement, and she became the first African woman to win a Nobel Peace Prize.
Her story demonstrates the amazing potential among those who might otherwise have been pitied as tragic statistics. With some basic opportunities, stories of perseverance, courage, dignity and triumph can replace those of desperation and calamity. We have it in us.
Professor Maathai embodied the ideal that small steps we each take will add up to make real impact. Her poignant story of the hummingbird helps us envision how mighty even the frailest among us can be: When fire breaks out in a huge forest, all the animals flee, except the hummingbird. The little bird flies back and forth, back and forth, filling its tiny beak with water. The other animals feel helpless and overwhelmed. When they criticize the hummingbird’s attempts, the little bird answers, “I am doing the best I can.”
Professor Maathai adds, “I certainly don’t want to be like the animals watching as the planet goes down the drain. I will be a hummingbird. I will do the best I can.” Watch her tell the story here.
Since Professor Maathai passed away on September 25, 2011, I can’t stop thinking about the hummingbird. The problems of the world often feel overwhelming. As a mother of three myself, just the challenges under my own roof can seem like too much. This felt especially so during my pregnancies. But I found stories of other women overcoming great obstacles, or tales of unlikely heroes like the little hummingbird to give me the strength and inspiration that I would want to pass along to each of my three daughters. Just like taking my daily pre-natal vitamin, I digested the hummingbird’s mantra “I will do the best I can.” The mindfulness and determination I gained during those deliberate, slowed-down moments have remained among the lasting, best parts of my pregnancies.
What have been the best or most difficult parts of your pregnancy?
Becoming pregnant changed my life, and I’d love to hear more about your best or most difficult pregnancy moments. By replying, you will be entered to win an exclusive Million Moms Challenge Gift Pack, which includes an all expenses paid trip to a conference on mothers hosted by the UN Foundation in DC (Jan/Feb 2012), an iPad2, a custom-made Million Moms Challenge pendant and $50 donation in your name to Global Giving.
Please join the Million Moms Challenge and sign up!
This is a sponsored conversation written by me on behalf of Million Moms Challenge. The opinions and text are all mine. Contest runs September 19 to October 16, 2011. A random winner will be announced by October 18, 2011.