Graduates

West Kenya, Busia county, close to Uganda border. It’s mid-day, close to 40 degrees Celsius under the scorching African sun. More than 200 women have gathered under the deep shadow of a few trees. They are sitting on plastic chairs, children clutching their skirts, babies hugging into mothers’ breasts. They are chatting silently, looking expectantly at the tent, stretched on the sunny lawn opposite the trees. It looks just like a regular meeting, except that if you look a bit longer, you’ll notice things. First, it’s women only. You can see few men among the guests under the tent. Second, their outfits are smarter than usual, you see make up, a few official dresses, a few costumes, jewelry, bags, garlands. The women are sitting silently, but there’s a feeling of restlessness and expectation, they are dressed up, bright, colorful, excited. They have come to celebrate. It’s graduation time!

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And if you think it’s the children graduating, think again. It’s the mothers. They graduate from the first cycle of Women Only Groups, an intervention, run by Save the Children and health workers from the local facilities, aiming to support women in reproductive age in addressing health related issues, relevant for their communities. What this means? Save the Children, with the support of community health volunteers recruit 20 to 30 women to form a Women Only Group, and run a cycle of 5-6 meetings with each group, where important health-related issues are discussed and solutions are proposed. Mothers are advised and educated on topics such as the importance of giving birth in a facility, the importance of breast-feeding etc. And it’s women only, attended by women and ran by women, so that these issues can be discussed in a safe and relaxed environment. These cycles have very practical implications. A few expectant mums have switched from home deliveries to giving birth in hospitals. A few traditional birth attendants have decided to drop their practices and accompany mums to the facilities. Some women groups have managed to gather money for the members to provide for health insurance. Others have managed to escalate issues to the male community to strengthen men involvement after birth. Important social stigmas and beliefs are addressed, women are trained to recognize danger signs and act early. After attending all the meetings over a period of 4-5 months, the first cycle is over, and women are invited to attend an official graduation ceremony, before a second cycle begins.

One year ago I received my postgraduate diploma in marketing, so I can’t help but look for analogies with this graduation. I’ve studied business administration, strategic management, marketing, but the truth is, on important even basic health related topics, I rely on a healthcare system in my country, which if not great, is at least times better than the health system here. And listening to the topics these women discuss, I come to realize – what this makes me? A well educated person with zero practical knowledge and skills, when left outside the health system I know. At the same time these women live in a society where access to healthcare is difficult, and yet they are much better prepared for life challenges than me. These training cycles empower them with a lot of knowledge on how they can proactively manage their health issues. For them, the educational cycle in a way is a school for life lessons. And now they have finished a cycle and have come to celebrate it.

I’m there to cover the graduation and gather some case studies. The ceremony begins with a song, and this is something I’m definitely not missing! I run to capture the dance. I handover the gopro to my friend Vesna, ‘do something with it’, is my short instruction. I leave the professional camera to my colleague Isaac from Save the Children, ‘Isaac, it’s now time to practice photography’ I tell him. Now, free of all heavy equipment, I’m also free to enjoy the dance with my best tool at hand – my phone!

Then the women organize a mini theater, showcasing what they learned during the cycle.

And now graduation ceremony starts, representatives of the local health facility handing over the diplomas. To 200 women. Somewhere in the middle of the process of giving away diplomas, the health workers feel exhausted by the sun and the heat. So a brilliant idea strikes them – let the ‘mzungu’ (white person) give away the diplomas. And here I go, dressed to be a photographer only, all in black, not at all matching the shiny bright colorful graduates, melting under the sun, handing diplomas, remembering to congratulate each one of the excited ladies, remembering to say out loud their names, all handshakes and photos and smiles. Isaac does a good job capturing the moments, now I have 100 photos of me handing over diplomas. I have my own wall of fame now, don’t worry, I’ll only upload a few of those. Despite the humble outfit, I feel an important person.

Finally, the ceremony ends. All have diplomas, no one has fainted because of the heat. It’s party time. As the only two mzungus with Vesna we become the center of attention, mothers pulling us and pushing us for photos, selfies, and hugs. By now I should have become used to such attention, but every time I feel a little embarassed by such genuine excitement some women and kids show from the encounter with white people.

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Photo by Vesna Mardonovic

It’s exhausting and  yet thrilling, we get equally excited and run from group to group, take turns to take photos, play with the kids. Until Isaac says, we need to move on. So we say quick good byes and off we go – to the next meeting, which will prepare us for the next graduation ceremony in a week.