At the maternity wing of the Magadi Hospital in Kajiado County, two girls aged 14 and 16 in matching hospital gowns lie on beds next to each other chatting animatedly.
Down the hallway at the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU), two babies with numerous cords attached to their bodies sleep soundly in incubators under the watchful eye of the nurse on duty.
“We had three babies in the morning. We discharged one in order to give space for the newborns,” June Chelagat, the matron in-charge says.
“There is a criterion we use to decide which infant goes to the nursery. One is their age at birth, their condition and age of the mother,” she says.
Cultural factors and low literacy levels contribute to early marriages and the average age of giving birth in the region is 14. According to UNICEF, 73 children out of 1,000 births die before the age of five in Kenya.
Matron Chelagat, who has worked in the hospital for the last 17 years says children born by underage mothers usually require a few days in an incubator.
“Otherwise the babies may not survive. That is the tragedy of life in these wild plains and that is how it has been for as long as the community has existed here,” she says.
“People hold on to traditional beliefs which are harmful. The message we are trying to preach is that no mother or child should die during birth,” she says.
Operated by the Magadi Soda Foundation, the hospital is a referral facility for 34 health centres serving a radius of at least 60km. The nearest government facility is the Ngong Sub District Hospital 96 kilometres away, a two and a half hour journey by car. The next option is Mbagathi Hospital or Kenyatta National Hospital in Nairobi and whose distance severely minimises the chances of survival for the mother and child if they have to travel the distance.
Juliana Saiyanga, who lives in Naserian, 10 kilometres from the hospital, has used it since she was born, and now brings her son here for treatment and immunisation.
“If you had come here 10 years ago, there were numerous ailments for which you could not be treated,” she recalls, adding: “For mothers especially, the maternity had only one wooden delivery bed. Women were sharing beds while some slept on the floor.”
This sorry state of affairs changed in 2016 when the Magadi Soda Foundation partnered with the Safaricom Foundation and introduced an integrated Maternal Health Improvement Programme.
David Aoll, the manager of Magadi Soda Foundation, says the aim of the partnership was to increase access and quality of services offered at the hospital.
“We felt that if we bought extra maternity equipment and maternal beds we would take care of more people,” he said.
“Remember if you have better facilities and run an awareness campaign, women are encouraged to come. In the process you save them or their babies from dying during birth,” he added.
Some of the equipment installed at the hospital courtesy of the Safaricom Foundation include a patient monitor, an incubator and an Intensive Care Unit bed for maternal surgeries, electronic maternity bed and overhead lights to ensure surgical areas are well lit, medical cart, suction machine and an air conditioning unit.
Safaricom Foundation assisted the hospital to purchase a chemistry analyser, blood bank, and blood glucose monitor, centrifuge, weighing scale, microscope and a hematology analyser. The hospital now has a 55-bed capacity.
“That is in itself a huge improvement because I can tell you that none of the surrounding health centres have such equipment,” said Aoll.
Previously, out of every 1,000 mothers who attended prenatal clinic at Magadi Hospital, only 100 went back for assisted delivery. This means that a vast majority preferred home delivery and use of traditional birth attendants.
According to Aoll, the project sought to increase the number of women giving birth in hospitals by creating awareness through community health campaigns and by taking services closer to the people through satellite facilities.
The aim was to impact the lives of at least 20,000 women but statistics show this target has been surpassed due to an overwhelming response from the community. As of September 2017, the project had benefited 27,000 women, 6,300 of them directly. The average assisted monthly births have also increased. The transition from prenatal to postnatal and assisted births has also improved by 80 per cent while there has been a reduction in infant mortality by half.
“We now have close to 100 per cent success rate in deliveries,” said matron Chelagat. “It is very rare to lose a baby if the mother comes early but most of the mothers come when they have been in labour for two or three days and they have run out of home-made solutions.”
Judith Leina registered for prenatal care at the hospital after she found out that she was pregnant with her first child. Her home in Iparakwa is a one-hour walk from the facility but for the last 15 months she has religiously persevered the long walks in punishing conditions to reach here. Her daughter is now six months old and she had brought her for immunisation.
“I had seen a number of my neighbours’ children die and I really wanted mine to survive. I was very determined despite the distance so I could not give birth at home,” she says.
The hospital has enlisted dozens of traditional birth attendants who identify pregnant women and convince them to enroll in its prenatal and postnatal services.
“Now their roles are changing from being the ones who were conducting these deliveries to being our birth partners,” says Chelagat.