This blog post was contributed by Ifeyinwa Egwaoje, one of the fifteen Young Champions of Maternal Health chosen by Ashoka and the Maternal Health Task Force at EngenderHealth. This is her final post about her experience as a Young Champion, and you can learn more about her, the other Young Champions, and the program here.
Its 10:45 p.m. and I am sitting in the Atlanta International Airport with only one more hour until my Delta flight takes off to Lagos, Nigeria. How time flies! I am still grappling with the fact that this is officially the end of the Young Champions Program. I thought this day would never come — the entire nine months went by so fast that it is almost impossible for me to believe that today is May 31, 2011. I am excited and afraid at the same time — excited because I can finally see my children after nine full months and uncertain about what the future holds for me and my project. While I waited for the Delta personnel to announce the time to board, I drifted off in thought about how it all began and the past nine months, the most interesting months of my life.
As a batch B corps member in the National Youth Corps serving in Abuja, the end of the service year was drawing near, and so, like every other corps member, I started looking for vacancies in different organizations on the Internet. My intention was to check out organizations that I already knew were working in the reproductive health and gender field to see if they had vacancies I could apply for. I searched some organizations and then went to the Ashoka website and discovered this competition for the next generation of maternal health leaders. As soon as I saw the competition, I wanted to be a part of the program. I applied, went through a rigorous interview process, and eventually became one of the prestigious Young Champions selected to undergo a nine month mentorship in a different country. I was paired with Kathryn Hall-Trujillo in New Orleans at the Birthing Project USA.
From when I submitted my application until the end of the program, the Young Champions Program has helped me to push myself a little bit further and challenged me to think and see things differently. It helped me see that there are many alternatives to solving a social problem and we do not always have to do it the conventional way. I was continually forced to think outside the box and search for a simpler, better, and more cost-effective means for solving this social problem. The program taught me that being innovative means removing the box and seeing endless possibilities. The nine months for me was a school, another type of school, one that teaches limitless possibilities. A school that tells you that everyone is a changemaker, a school that taught me the power in building partnerships and forming relationships, and a school that told me powerful stories. I have always been confident in myself and my abilities, but not as confident about my idea. The Young Champions Program has built my confidence in my ideas. It helped me connect with people who agreed with my “crazy” idea! It gave me confidence that this idea is not so crazy after all and I can realize this idea. I now know that I am the only one who can stand in my way because anything is possible — I just need to stop looking at the obstacles.
For the nine-month period, I lived in New Orleans — an entirely differently place from Nigeria, where I had lived all my life. My stay in New Orleans was an opportunity for me to understand how the history and environment of a location and the health system all affect women. I now understand how other factors are linked with individual decision-making abilities towards their lives and health. This transcends to how women see and treat themselves and how they expect to be treated by other people. This taught me to look at all the factors that make people who they are. Some women never reveal their true selves, they carry an invisible mask, in order to meet societal expectations. I know better now because looking at the other issues are just as important when tackling maternal health problems.
In New Orleans I was paired with the best mentor. I wish I had spent even more time with Kathryn Hall-Trujillo. The fact that she is an Ashoka Fellow is not a coincidence — she is indeed a changemaker. I learned from Ms. Kathryn how to get to the heart of the matter, which means getting to the hearts of women. She taught me how to work as an executive director taking care of all the paperwork and at the same time working with community women — opening your heart and hands and helping them see that they matter, are valued, and deserve respect.
The Young Champions Program had me conduct research for the first time on the maternal health situation in Nigeria — since I began I have not rested. I want to do as much as I possibly can to reduce the maternal mortality rate in Nigeria, which is the second highest in the world next to India. I have this desire to ensure that the maternal mortality rate is reduced because talking about maternal mortality means talking about dead women, women who were mothers, wives, sisters. And most of these women died of preventable causes. My desire is that all women will live and realize their full potentials.
The Delta flight 54 from Atlanta to Lagos has started boarding. The announcement jolts me out of my thoughts. I am getting on that aircraft and going back to Nigeria armed with so much knowledge. I’m still uncertain about my future, but I know that I have a burning desire to bring an end to maternal mortality. I am going back home to help women see that they can become solvers of their own problems. I am going back home to help deal with the maternal health situation. I am happy because I am going back home as a maternal health champion.