Tag Archives: Africa

Light is Life; #ElectrifyAfrica

Light is Life; #ElectrifyAfrica
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In rural Ethiopia a pregnant girl waits to give birth with her mother and baby brother by her side.

As I entered the antechamber of the neonatal intensive care unit at the Black Lion Hospital in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, I was engulfed by the smell of heated milk and enfolded in a blanket of warmth. The tiniest babies I’d ever seen lay in light box incubators just beyond the glass door. Illuminated by the heating lamps that kept them alive, tiny newborns looked like glowworms swathed in cotton cocoons, brand new eyes blinked at the warm lights. A sign on the wall from 2010 read “This department has been furnished by the Republic of Turkey.” Fragile lives being kept alive in a fragile system.


A mother and her newborn at a hospital in Hawassa, Ethiopia


In 2013 this very hospital, the largest, and most advance public hospital in the capital city of Ethiopia, was left without power for seven hours. Blackouts in the city are frequent due to lack of reliable power. Time and again as I’ve learned and written about global health and development the common thread of energy poverty has woven its way through the narratives.  Lack of access to electricity limits the reach of advances in global health, potential economic development, and constrains the lives of people, trapping millions in extreme poverty.


As I learned on my trip to Ethiopia last year to report on newborn health, many women there still birth at home. Most homes in rural areas are without electricity. Giving birth at home, often without a skilled health worker is dangerous enough. Giving birth at home during the night without power to light the way, is plain treacherous. In too many cases, light is life.


Mother and daughter at a birthing clinic.

Mother and daughter at a birthing clinic.

Through my advocacy for global vaccines I became aware that one of the biggest challenges in getting vaccines to those who need them most is the cold chain storage along the way necessary for the vaccines to remain effective. In clinics where power outages are frequent and refrigerators where the vaccines are kept lose power on a regular basis, life saving vaccines go to waste.

Several years ago one of my fellow contributors at World Moms Blog , Alison Fraser, launched a non-profit called Mom2MomAfrica to help furnish school supplies to students in Tanzania. She came to realize that the students she worked with did not have electricity to be able to do school work at home, and needed to add a lighting solution to the plan to ensure real academic progress.

The factors that lead to extreme poverty are so layered and complex, but one thing is clear. Without energy true progress can not be made.

The facts about energy poverty on the African continent are startling .

  • 7 out of 10 people living in sub-Saharan Africa don’t have access to electricity.
  • 30% of health centers and over a third of primary schools in Africa have to function with no electricity at all.
  • 8 out of 10 people in sub-Saharan Africa heart their homes and cook food using open fires. Inhalation of the smoke and fumes produced from burning traditional fuels results in over four million deaths per year, mainly among women and children. That is more deaths than from malaria and HIV/AIDS combined.

Congress has the opportunity right now to pass a bill that would help bring electricity to 50 million people in Africa for the very first time, at no cost to US tax payers. You can help. You can sign the Electrify Africa Act Petition and let your members of congress know that you care.

Screen Shot 2015-07-05 at 8.04.09 AMThis post was written as part of the One.org #LightForLight campaign where all this month photobloggers will be sharing their favorite light filled images and encouraging readers to sign the Electrify Africa Act Petition.

Coming up tomorrow, our friends at Our Collective are posting a photo essay! Be sure to check it out! 


I traveled to Ethiopia last June on a Fellowship with the International Reporting Project to report on Newborn Health.

Sophia Webster On Her Flight For Every Mother

Sophia Webster On Her Flight For Every Mother


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Dr. Sophia Webster

“Writing this in the aeroplane above Côte d’Ivoire and will send when I reach the ground ( Ross has taken over the controls temporarily!!) “- Dr. Sophia Webster

Maternal mortality in many countries in Africa is  unacceptably high. Especially since almost all of these deaths occur in low-resource settings, and most of them could have  been prevented.  As an OB/GYN working in England  Dr. Sophia Webster was appalled by the statistics and lack of access to medical care that many of the communities suffering high maternal mortality rates had. So she decided to do something about it. She determined to fly to 26 countries in Africa to raise awareness about Maternal Health issues, and to deliver medical supplies, and healthcare worker training. When I learned about her plan I felt a thrill. She instantly became my hero, my Amelia Earhart,  her undertaking is something I would dream of doing, and since I’m neither a physician nor pilot, it only ever could be a dream for me.  Sophia Webster on the other hand, being both a Dr. and a pilot, is uniquely positioned to make a real direct impact in these communities. As romantic as my notions of flying across Africa are, my experiences during my overland travel for six months across the continent years ago enlightened me to some of the stark realities Dr. Sophia Webster would be sure to face along the way. ffem copy

My father on the other hand was a physician and a small plane pilot who served as a Flight Surgeon in the Army before I was born. We did not fly often, but I can remember the thrill when as a child my dad let me take  the controls in my hands. It turns out that when you tilt the controls up, it tips the nose of the plane down, so my stint as a pilot was very short-lived and a bit dramatic, but the romance of small planes stayed with me. Intrigue with Flight and travel, was further infused through the books my father had read as an armchair traveler. He never did visit the places he read about, but when I grew up I did, and I knew where the seed for my wanderlust had been planted.

Soaring above Cote d’Ivoire Sophia graciously took time away from saving lives, teaching, flying her plane, and fixing it several times along the way to answer the interview questions that I had sent to her.

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When did you learn to fly?

SW: I started in sept 2009 in Carlisle, UK, when I was posted to a district general hospital in the Lake District. I completed about half of my basic training there, and then transferred to Newcastle when my hospital appointment changed.

At what point did you come up with your idea for this trip, and how long did it take you from concept to reality?

SW: In March 2012 whilst I was hiking with my best friend in California. I guess I’m an ideas person, and had been considering at the back of my mind how to do something unusual that linked all of my skills together for a cause about which I passionately believe.

Had you been to Africa before?

SW: Yes, many times. My first trip to Africa was to Egypt as a medical student in 2001. My first trip to sub-Sahara was to The Gambia in 2006 as a doctor to help a nursing colleague of mine open a village health clinic. In 2007, between my junior and senior Obstetric and Gynecology training, I worked in Cape Town, South Africa to gain practical experience and that was when I first began to appreciate how risky it can be to be pregnant. Since I have been back in the UK I have been part of a clinical teaching faculty and have travelled to many other African countries to teach emergency Obstetric and life saving skills to front line health workers including midwives and doctors.

What has surprised you most along the way?

SW: On the aviation front – the vast difference in airport charges between neighbouring countries and just how difficult some airports are to negotiate as a private pilot. On the medical front – just how enthusiastic the public have been in talking about women’s reproductive health, as demonstrated by the questions and responses to my breakfast radio interview via the Sierra Leone Broadcasting Corporation!

What are you missing having access to from home?

SW: Washing my hair regularly!

What is the greatest urgent need you have come across along the way?

SW: Most hospitals we have visited have not had enough beds for the number of patients needing to be admitted, with 2 patients sharing and sometimes even three.

Maternity Ward

Maternity Ward

Which of the following would you say the majority of problems stem from poor maternal health, poor neonatal health, poor sanitation, lack of equipment or lack of expertise in health workers?

SW: Maternal health – there are so many factors at play. There are usually insufficient front line health workers and equipment deficiencies. Skills training is often infrequent leading to inappropriate and/or slow actions in the case of an emergency.

Neonatal health can reflect baseline maternal health. Monitoring of the fetal heartbeat in labour can be suboptimal because of lack of equipment, too few midwives to perform the auscultation and lack of knowledge about how often it should be done and what is normal/abnormal. Resuscitation of a newborn baby that is not breathing well is another key skill which can be forgotten. Hospitals in sub-Sahara are often unable to look after very premature babies because of resource issues.

Have you met any negative response to what you are trying to do?

SW: Yes – not everyone believes in the ideas of Flight For Every Mother. For example, when we arrived in Dakar our proposed hospital visit was cancelled as our request had come across as not well organised without advanced visits to jointly discuss local need face to face. Some practitioners have voiced concern about the short time that the project is running for and wonder if it will have a sustainable impact. Such concern is usually short-lived when I explain the main goal is to raise awareness, and that we have linked with 7 key charities working within women’s reproductive health who are carrying out well established, continuous projects.

Can you measure positive and sustainable impact due to your visit to a particular area? Is that something that you can see right away or over time with results?

SW: It’s difficult to measure positive and sustainable impact in this, primarily awareness-raising, project. There is an ever-increasing following on Facebook and Twitter and I have done a number of in-country newspaper, TV and radio interviews.

I keep a record of the number of front line health workers that I train in Obstetric emergencies and I am in touch with at least one from each facility to hear subjectively about impact (patient and newborn outcomes) over time.

How may your ideas have changed since the beginning of your trip due to experience along the way?

SW: I have realised that as well as raising awareness both in-country and to the wider international public, clinical teaching and meeting with different government and non-government agencies, the information gathering that I have found myself able to do in terms of the set up of medical facilities, resource and local cultural factors is a major additional benefit of this project. Using this information, I will be able to work with both my postgraduate college, the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG), and other agencies in the future to highlight areas of specific need and target partnerships accordingly.

Is your primary goal awareness or impact, or both in equal measure?

 SW: Both. I am trying to do something unique that encourages people to ask ‘why?’ and then I have the opportunity to create awareness.

What message would you most like to convey to those who are following your trip through social media?

 SW: That all women should have the chance for a safe pregnancy no  matter where they live in the world.

We don’t all have our MD or pilots licence, but  you can still be part of this amazing campaign for maternal health by helping to supply the medical equipment that Dr. Webster will need along the way,  Join in and help out simply by visiting the Catapult crowdfunding page to make a donation. You can follow Flight For Every Mother on Sophie’s Blog, Facebook Page and on  Twitter!


Shop For Good With Indego Africa

Shop For Good With Indego Africa

fabric patterns on set of note cards

When I was in my early twenties I spent six months traveling through the African continent on a trip that  would shape me in countless ways. The previous year and a half had been consumed working on a television series in Boston called “Against The Law”, which was Fox’s first foray into a dramatic T.V. series starring Michael O’Keefe. I had managed to save most of my earnings working 12 hour days during six day work weeks on the show, so when it was cancelled, instead of deciding to do something practical, like put it towards a car, I decided that I wanted to use that money to go to Africa. When I began to research my trip I realized that I could not pick  just one region, such as the game parks of Kenya and Tanzania, or the Okavango delta, because it would be to miss out on so much else. I finally found a trip that satisfied my budget and my desire to get a good glimpse of the rich and varied landscapes, and cultures of the continent.  It was an overland trip that would take me through Morocco and the Sahara desert, the plains filled with big game, into the Jungles to track Gorillas.  We went to the Ngorongoro crater, the Okavango Delta, Zanzibar, the salt pans, and through countless villages along the way. The trip was run by a company out of London called Encounter Overland, and we drove through Africa in an old revamped Bedford army truck, shopped at local markets, cooked our meals over the fires we would build, and camped in tents along the way. All of my essentials fit into a 2×4 backpack as I set out on my adventure. I have been an Africaphile ever since, the people, the cultures, music,varying landscapes, art, patterns and fabrics, all touched my soul in a way that is difficult to articulate.

“When you see the skies of Africa, they are so huge and you almost look into the eye of God. I can’t explain it, there’s something that enters your soul.”- Nejma Beard in an interview by Alec Baldwin on wnyc radio

Since my trip, all things African have a special place in my heart and I also feel passionate about promoting social enterprise companies, so I was thrilled when I was invited by The Mission List to check out some of the products from Indego Africa.  Indego Africa provides training, education, and access to a global online market to Rwandan women artisans who create beautiful jewelry, housewares, and accessories. It provides opportunities for women so they are able to provide the basic necessities for their families and acquire a skill that will lend to sustainable income.


  • Indego Africa is an award-winning, design-driven 501(c)(3) nonprofit social enterprise that lifts women-owned businesses in Rwanda toward sustainable economic independence through access to markets and education.
  • Indego Africa partners with for-profit cooperatives of more than 400 women artisans in Rwanda and exports, markets, and sells their jewelry, accessories, and home decor (a) on its online store, (b) to more than 80 retail stores across the U.S. and Europe, and (c) at major brands like J.Crew and Nicole Miller through cutting-edge design collaborations.
  • Indego Africa then pools its profits from sales with donations to fund training programs – developed internally from the ground up – for the same women in management and entrepreneurshipliteracy,technology, and health.
  • Indego Africa hires top Rwandan university students from socially vulnerable backgrounds to administer its training programs.
  • Indego Africa has offices in New York City and Rwanda and is managed by a lean and diverse team with extensive experience in development, business, design, law, commerce, fashion, and Africa.
  • Indego Africa is a proud member of the Fair Trade Federation and the subject of a Harvard Business School case study.  – From the Indigo Africa website

My love of Africa is apparent in our home as well, in treasures that I brought back, and influences in our decorating style. The Indego Africa online catalog is full of the type of textured, colorful, and richly designed clothing, accessories and home goods that I love. Although I will most certainly go back for more (I’m looking at you batik top!) since we are in the process of decorating our home I selected an item from the housewares selection.  I chose a striking black and white woven bowl, and because I love the fabrics so much, I added a set of gorgeous handmade cards each with a different patterned fabric sewn on to my order.   I was surprised at how quickly my order arrived after it was placed. The bowl is amazing, and I will have a hard time actually parting with the note cards, so if you get one you know you are really special!  I am so excited to share this site with friends, and to have found a great new source for meaningful gifts that give back! To find out more about Indego Africa, the programs they offer, the impact they are having, and that you can contribute to, you can visit their website, like them on Facebook, follow them on Twitter and enjoy the eye candy on Pinterest.

the pretty packet of cards

*I received a $75.00 Redeemable Gift Code to shop on the Indego Africa site for the purpose of this review. As always all of the opinions expressed in this post are my own and not swayed by outside influences. Indego Africa truly rocks.

Today is International Women’s Day!

Today is International Women’s Day!

African Women Harvesting Manioc; Photo by Elizabeth Atalay

Borneo; Photo by Elizabeth Atalay

Today is recognized around the globe as International Women’s Day.  This means slightly different things to different organizations around the world, but the point is sitting up and taking notice that there is work to be done globally in regards to women’s rights.   The U.N. theme is “Empower Rural Women — End Hunger and Poverty”; the European Parliament goes with  ”Equal Pay for Work of Equal Value”; and the International Women’s Day website focuses on “Connecting Girls, Inspiring Futures.” (According to the U.N., rural women and girls are one-fourth of the world’s population, yet “routinely figure at the bottom of every economic, social and political indicator.”) In any case as women we all share more than we differ.  Below I have posted photos of women from some of my travels around the world in honor of today.

Japanese Bride; Photo by Elizabeth Atalay

Peru; Photo by Elizabeth Atalay

Maasai Woman in Kenya; Photo by Elizabeth Atalay

Long Ampung,Borneo; Photo by Elizabeth Atalay

Morocco; Photo by Elizabeth Atalay

The Moment of My Mortality

The Moment of My Mortality

Once upon a time I may have been an adventuress, but that was a very long time ago.

The Okavango Delta

It was a time when I was young, carefree,and as far as I ever thought of it, immortal.   As a mother now, the stakes are extremely high.  My teenage desire for risk taking has been satiated, and now comes the payback.  I have to guide my own children through that sense of indestructibility.  Although they are still a ways off….we are creeping closer.  My husband and I call the teenage and young adult years The Gauntlet.  We realize all parents need to get through the gauntlet, to reach the holy grail of happy, healthy adult children.  I remember the moment that switch flipped for me as a young adult, and hope that realization comes to my own children in a much less dramatic way.

Homemade brew at a local market.

The moment of my mortality struck as I sat alone atop a boulder in Central African Republic.  I was lost in the jungle, and sunset was fast approaching.  We were two months into our overland trip across the continent.  There were fourteen of us, from five different countries, in an old English Bedford army truck.  We slept in tents or out under the stars, shopped for our food at local markets, and cooked over the open flame fire we would build each night.  That afternoon as we set up our camp, my friend and fellow traveler, Ross, had fallen over a waterfall, into the raging river below, and disappeared.

Our truck stuck in the muddy main road through the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The group immediately dispersed down the riverbank, and fanned out to search, hoping he would be caught in a fishing net, at best.   I started off with two others, but wading through the river’s edge was slow going, so we agreed to split up.  They would go up into the jungle, to cut back down to the river further ahead.  The current was fierce, and as the bank grew steep I had to grasp from vine to vine to wade forward, up to my thighs, then waist.  The current had seemed to pick up in one spot, and nearly dragged me under; I caught onto a branch and had to fight to pull myself out.  Soaked, I realized that I would be swept up and drowned if I preceded along the river’s edge any further.  I thought of the local legend we had heard, about the spirits in the river who would catch you by the feet, and drag you under if they could.

A different, calmer, river edge on the trip

Now I too had to cut up into the jungle to try to make some ground.  Time was of essence.   I broke my path in the underbrush by barreling through, head down, arms out front, climbing the steep bank.  Finally I reached a plateau, where the forest met a field of grass that rose above my head.  Now I could neither see the river, nor get my bearings, I knew I had to find some height to see where I was.  In the distance was a large boulder protruding from the high grass of the plain.  Aware that I was in central Africa, with snakes, and wild animals, and lord knows what else hiding in the tall grass, I bee-lined to that rock. I climbed atop, and when I looked about I saw that the river had now snaked far from where I had somehow ended up.

I saw nothing but a vast African plain yawning to the far off river that slithered away from me.   It was then that I realized the sun was lowering in the sky, and Ross was most likely gone, and I would be too if left here in the night.  I wanted to just curl up to cry, and tears began streaming down my face.

Photo by Elizabeth Atalay

When I was thirteen, my father died, and ever since, I have childishly believed that he watches over me.  So in this moment of desperation I prayed to my father, and begged him to save Ross, and help me find my way back to camp.  It struck me that there was no 911 here at our beck and call, we were in the middle of Africa.  The signs we had all laughed about on our way to where we would set up camp, that read, “Danger du Mort” were real warnings, and no one was going to come and rescue me now.  Certainly not my dead father.  I scolded myself, I did not have time to sit and cry, the sun was setting, and I had now gotten myself into a situation that I had to figure my way out of.  Back in sixth grade I had gone on a field trip with school to a New England mountain range. I remember being taught if we were lost and separated from the group to listen for the river. If you could find the river, you could find your way back to camp.  You never think you will ever have to use those little survival tips they teach you on team building school field trips, but then again, I guess you never know when they could come in handy.  So I stood atop that rock, mortal for the first time in my 24 years, and looked for a way to the river.  I could see its serpentine path far off in the distance, and then I noticed two African figures along the bank.  I was sure they were fisherman, who may have found Ross, and could help me find my way back to camp.  I scrambled off that rock and went in what I thought may be a straight path through the tall grass until I met the jungle that sloped down to the banks.   Keeping the figures in sight as best I could, I now crashed through the underbrush again, heading down with all my body force, calling out to them the whole time.  I waded through a waterway, and back over a small island to reach the fishermen.  Pushing through another wall of tangled vines and scrub, I came crashing out of the bushes.  Branches stuck now in my mane of curly blonde hair, dripping water from the waist down, my bare arms and legs were scraped and bleeding.

Washing clothes with the locals, by the a different river, at another time during the trip

I burst upon the flat riverbank where the African’s I had seen stood.  Two young boys, maybe eight and ten, stood agog at the apparition that had just burst out hollering before them.  They jumped back.  Hoping they knew French, I tried to ask for help in some of the only French I knew (based on how to ask for where the bathroom was located). The older looking boy was practically naked and had been bathing in the river…. I pleaded to him ”ou et le homme comme un poissan”?!, “ Vu et le homme comme un poissan”?!  Which I think roughly translates to “Where is the man like a fish?! Have you seen a man like a fish?!”  When the boy shook his head no, eyes wide, I realized what I must have looked like, and then truly seemed mad as I laughed at the absurdity of what these poor children must have been seeing.  In these small boys I instantly rested all my hopes of being rescued, and finding Ross.   When I could tell they had not seen Ross in the River, I formulated my next question, using an old rock song.   I tried to break down the lyrics (“voulez-vous coucher avec moi ce soir”), and asked “voulez-vous avec moi a le grand truck rouge ce soir”? Cryptically asking something like “do you want with me to the big red truck?”  The older boy motioned for me to wait.  They bathed in the river as they had come to do, my urgency clearly not theirs.  Then the older brother sent his young protesting brother home, and hiked with me back to where we had camped with our big orange truck, at the top of the waterfall.  I was bitten by tsetse flies the whole way back,  and the boy pointed to his long pants, and nodded, in the hot setting sun.

It was dark when we got back to camp, not everyone had returned from the search for Ross, but no one had found him yet.  I thanked the young boy who had escorted me, and gave him some money for the two-hour walk, that he would now have to take back in the dark to his home.   When I looked up into that African night sky, as Ross and I had done many nights with our star charts, it blazed with stars blurred by my tears.  You cannot imagine how many stars can be seen without all our light pollution.   I thought I could feel that Ross was gone then.  He died on the Fourth of July.

A Village Market. Photo by Elizabeth Atalay

As one of the few Americans in our group he had helped to negotiate the purchase of a pig to be delivered by a village farmer, and roasted that night in celebration.  Days later some fishermen did find Ross’s body; waterlogged and bloated it had popped to the surface. The men on our trip fished him out of the river, and we all dug a grave in the village graveyard where we buried him with a hand made wooden cross.

We were in the middle of Central African Republic; five days drive from the nearest town.   At the first missionary station we came to, we radioed the American Embassy to let them know.  And then we went on.  I think that was the hardest thing to do, to drive away from that village without him and just keep going. We just lost one along the way, simple as that.  I spent another four months, as a mortal, as I have been ever since, traveling through Africa.  After C.A.R. we went through Congo, and what was then Zaire, Rwanda, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Malawi, Zambia, Zimbabwe, and Botswana.  To this day I drink a silent toast to Ross every Fourth of July.  That day was the day that I became aware that not all places in this world have the bumpers and safety nets around its citizens as we do here.  I became highly aware of the fragility of life, and that I am fragile too.  As a mother now, I can only imagine the torturous worries I put my own mother through with all of my adventure travel.  She never once asked me not to go.   She never tried to reason that my money would be better spent like most other responsible young adults, paying rent or buying a car, or saving for my future.  I am so grateful to her for letting me be a dreamer, as a mother I don’t know how I will ever let my children go.

Do you remember that moment that you realized your mortality?