During Fatoumata Jaiteh’s first family trip to Gambia in the summer of 2017, she noticed contrasts between her parents’ West African homeland and Minnesota. The food was fresher and spicier there, the air hotter and drier.
But the differences she spotted when she volunteered in a hospital’s maternity ward were more troubling.
The ward was short on beds. The hospital lacked equipment to check women’s vital signs. New mothers went home empty-handed, lacking basic necessities like diapers and baby clothes.
“It’s not the best experience for someone who just gave birth to a baby,” said Jaiteh, a University of St. Thomas senior. “The conditions were just not what I know.”
Upon returning to Minnesota, Jaiteh took action. She founded a nonprofit called “From Mother To You,” which helps Gambian mothers get supplies and resources they need after they have a child — and before. Mothers in Farafenni, the rural region where many of her family members live, need the basics. But more than that, they need education to have healthy pregnancies, understand the process of giving birth and stay healthy when they return home.
Jaiteh created a website and set up a box at St. Thomas to collect baby items from onesies to wipes.
Last summer, she returned to Gambia for two months to volunteer at the same hospital. She was more determined than ever to continue her efforts after seeing three babies and a mother die, all from preventable causes such as high blood pressure.
“I cried so much,” Jaiteh said. “It doesn’t have to be that way.”
She distributed her donated items and mothers were thrilled, having come to the hospital with just a piece of cloth. She has since created two new “From Mother To You” efforts: putting together bags of supplies for moms and creating a book to help women understand optimal pre- and postnatal care.
Because the women can’t read, the book will use pictures to show what happens during labor, for instance, or the symptoms of pre-eclampsia.
She has enlisted Dr. Patricia Welsh, an OB-GYN at Park Nicollet Women’s Center, to advise her on maternal health. Welsh said she’s impressed with how much energy Jaiteh puts into the project and is glad to help.
“This is something near and dear to my heart,” Welsh said. “Maternal mortality is such a huge issue.”
Jaiteh knows she’s in a special position as a first-generation immigrant sandwiched between American and Gambian culture. She wants to make the most of it.
Gambians emphasize communal living and taking care of each other, along with keeping a positive attitude. She combines that perspective with an American emphasis on hard work and resourcefulness.
“Combining those values together has definitely prepared me to continue this work,” Jaiteh said.
‘They’re waiting for me’
Jaiteh, a biology of public health major, used her experiences last summer to get course credit at St. Thomas as part of the Healthcare Changemakers program, which is dedicated to reducing healthcare disparities. While volunteering, she wrote essays on everything from cultural identity to what it takes to truly make change. Adam Kay, a St. Thomas biology professor, oversaw her project and read her reflections, which he called “captivating.”
“She was just struck emotionally by the fact that the mothers were coming in there, giving birth and then just being sent on their way,” Kay said.
Jaiteh’s project is unusual because of her commitment to Gambia, Kay said.
“This is something I plan on doing in the long term,” Jaiteh said, adding that she intends to pursue a master’s degree in public health and may one day split her time between the U.S. and West Africa.
Balancing the nonprofit and her schoolwork is a major challenge, along with finding funding, she said.
Her efforts were recognized when she attended the Clinton Global Initiative University in October. She is also nominated for a Tommie Award, which is given to a senior excelling at scholarship, leadership, and campus involvement.
Perhaps most meaningful is the feedback from nurses working with Gambian women who say they need her help.
“They’re waiting for me,” Jaiteh said, “to bring this to them.”