A Festival of Maternal Health

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By: Hellen Kotlolo, Young Champion of Maternal Health

This blog post was contributed by Hellen Kotlolo, one of the fifteen Young Champions of Maternal Health chosen by Ashoka and the Maternal Health Task Force at EngenderHealth. She will be blogging about her experience every month, and you can learn more about her, the other Young Champions, and the program here.


Since I have been in India, there has been news from my home in South Africa: news of a relative’s passing, leaving behind her four children; news of my cousin being sick; news of my husband’s family friend being diagnosed with cancer; news of the usual politics. While these are unhappy pieces of news, it is not all bad because it is my home.

While I am in India, I am looking at my country and my continent with scrutiny and sadness. Sometimes I am momentarily overcome by sadness over the pandemics and endemics that overtake our people’s pride, and I wake up from the sad realities that are in my home. I sing songs of praise and worship. I remember the good memories that I hold dear, but mostly I remember the pride that brought me to India.

In India, I found my solace in the nine nights of Navratri, where flames of joy and celebration glow and everyone gets together to dance and praise the gods. Women and children dressed in beautiful outfits. My days were filled with glory and excitement, and the days went by at work with Navratri music in my head. It was a joyous celebration where I made many friends, many of whom are below the age of 14. They also spoke English well and did most of the translating. Navratri was a blessing and soon it was over and I am left only with memories. I just recently learned that the Navratri festival worships motherhood, so the festival celebrates women and young girls. I think it should also celebrate maternal health.

A quote from Sai Baba says, “…if we love and adore the mother we shall be showing our love and devotion to all these goddesses, the Navratri festival teaches this profound truth.”

So I say let us celebrate Navrati in honor of women, children, and maternal health.

Work and CHETNA
Work is about ten minutes away on an auto-rickshaw, which is our everyday transportation and is quite cheap. Work is getting more challenging and interesting.

Following the dissemination workshop, I created a “photo gallery,” for CHETNA to use as resource and visual report for all the NGO’s who had been working for more than three years on maternal and infant health issues in rural talukas (blocks) of Gujarat. The workshop taught me about elements of leadership that are essential, especially for one to know their work well, lead with pride, and recognize flaws and mistakes, especially when working with data and record keeping. I also shared about maternal health, HIV/AIDS, poverty, and other challenging issues in South Africa with my husband, Dr. K Technau, who is in India with me. The presentation was translated for us from English to Gujarati.

At CHETNA, I am learning a lot from from Indu Capoor, my mentor and my Ashoka Fellow, and Smita Bajpai, who is the Maternal Health Project Coordinator that I am working with. She is dedicated and very knowledgeable. We are busy writing a newsletter, so I sit at home for hours trying to complete my work and often wondering if I am doing the right thing, since she always challenges us to do our best. We meet for about an hour each morning to talk about our plans for the day and week, hold discussions, and sometimes give each other feedback.

We (the three CHETNA colleagues and me) attended an orientation workshop in Pune for the Rajiv Gandhi Sabla Scheme, a government plan for the empowerment of adolescent girls. The workshop brought up discussions and experiences about how to better empower and improve the lives of teenage girls. This concept has given me a lot to think about when it comes to supporting adolescent girls and planning my future project.

On the night of Friday, October 29, we returned from Surat. We had travelled there to appraise the NGOs in the field of maternal and infant health. We followed up on concerns that we had discussed prior to departure. Meetings had been arranged with the NGOs and their link workers to discuss the problems they encounter. We also went to the field to interview pregnant women and women who had recently given birth to see if they had adequate information on health plans, health education, entitlements, family planning, and to check whether they had attended clinic visits, postnatal check-ups and immunizations. Link workers are tasked with doing this education on a regular basis.

The important thing for me about the trip to Surat was that I got the opportunity to engage directly with the women in the villages. It taught me about their background, but more than that, it reminded me of my passion of working with women and children directly. The home visits and follow-up that I was part of there taught me a lot and provided me with food for thought regarding my own project. Below are some more pictures of this trip.

One of the problems they encounter is families who migrate a lot, which makes it difficult to offer consistent health care services, especially to women and children.

Days go by and the young midwife from South Africa is learning, listening, watching, absorbing, and slowly teaching herself how to respond promptly. Each day I eat, I pray, and I love but mostly I am learning from incredible India: from the field trips, the workshops, the discussions with my mentor and Smita about maternal health in India, and the discussions that we have in the office. Each day I think about Ashoka’s ideas, my experiences back home, and my experiences here in India. Each day I learn something new that prepares me for the future.