Born in Brooklyn, a daughter of African immigrants, who came to New York from Ghana, Nana Eyeson-Akiwowo, grew up greatly influenced by her parent’s journey to start a new life in a place much different than ‘home’. Her parents’ immigrant background encouraged a strong sense of community and the concept that helping those within your community is an integral part of life.
“I’ll never forget the day when my father went to get a few things at Shop-Rite and instead, returned with a strange boy,” she said as she reflected. “His mother had brought him to Virginia from Ghana, and they had planned to live with family members, but the situation didn’t work out and the boy had nowhere to go,” she continued, “my father didn’t think twice to invite them to stay with us, it was just how he was.”
Her father immediately extended an invitation for the woman and her son to stay with them, which they accepted. Unfortunately, the woman abandoned her son who was 15 at the time and never returned. The boy lived then with Nana and her family until he finished high school and eventually found other family members to live with. “My father had plenty on his own plate, 3 children, one with special needs, but it didn’t matter to him when he saw this boy in need of a safe and loving home,” she explained.
“He would say something like, ‘If you have rice, you have enough rice, it’s enough for everybody.’ and ‘We will manage.’ was his ideology. As immigrants, it was self-explanatory that you support each other. Often moving from abroad to a new place meant that most people were first staying with a relative or friend and then paying it forward to another (immigrant) once you are on their feet and then support them until they get on their feet,” she continued.
At one-point Nana’s father had a heart attack while in Ghana and the community supported him as he recovered since she and her family were in New York and not able to help him personally. “Everyone stepped up including a friend of mine who happened to be in Ghana when the incident happened, but also the butcher from down the road and the baker from across the street… to them, it was the normal thing to do when someone else needed help,” she explained. This experience with her father and the support of the local community inspired her to launch her idea to run a free, public ‘Health Fair’ for a community in Ghana.
“African Health Now (AHN) started with a small idea back in 2006. I had a trip to Ghana planned and invited a group of friends to help out with the first Health Fair. The goal was to transfer information about ‘simple’, yet often live saving, primary healthcare,” she explained. “Everyone who participated in hosting the fair was living in western states (US, UK, Continental Europe). If you live in a western country, you automatically learn about simple healthcare or warning signs for common health issues which you really take for granted until you see how many people don’t have access to even this type of information.”
The Health Fair offered screenings on; dental care (e.g., brushing & flossing), women’s health (e.g., self-breast exams), dermatologist (e.g., skin exams and advice on skin issues), and general health-checks (e.g., blood pressure, glucose tests). Nana’s father even personally held sessions talking to older men about the signs of a heart attack, prostate cancer and the importance of preventative prostate exams and things like regular colonoscopies.
By the end of the day over 350 people had visited the first Health Fair. Nana continued organizing the Health Fairs in different communities and for different ethnic groups and today, AHN has run 11 health fairs with more than 5000 participants, impacting more than 20,000 people in Sub-Saharan Africa.
“In the past 14 years, I have come to understand that, across Sub-Saharan Africa, substantial and sustainable healthcare is seen as a privilege, when in fact it is a human right for all,” Nana explained.
“Noncommunicable diseases (NCDs) are chronic diseases and are the result of a combination of factors: genetic, physiological, environmental and behavioral. NCD’s account for over 71% of all global deaths detection, screening, and treatment of NCDs, as well as palliative care, are key components to the response,” she continued.
“In this region, there are many barriers which limit the utilization of healthcare services and can lead to unnecessary illness which could have otherwise been treated with preventative healthcare,” Nana explains. “The Health Fairs focus on spreading important healthcare information throughout these communities and showing the value of preventative health care, including things you can often just do yourself at home to make sure you are healthy,” she continued.
In areas where communities are close-knit and word travels fast, the Health Fairs have continuously been well-visited, and the impact continues to be greater than just with those who physically attend the check-ups. “Often the women came (to the fair) and brought their children, so children were also getting checkups and she would go and get her husband, and then they were telling their relatives or friends and it became a ripple effect to raise awareness in communities which otherwise wouldn’t have access to this information or these resources,” Nana explained.
Marketplaces are generally the center of activity in African towns and villages and very often it’s the women who are either working at the market or shopping there. “We focused on setting up medical tents for the Health Fairs near the marketplaces to make it easy to reach large numbers of people, especially women, who generally would then literally bring along the entire community,” she explained, “we started to notice that many of the women visiting the Health Fairs were pregnant and most of them weren’t getting any prenatal care.
Nana, who is a proud Mom of one daughter, unexpectedly experienced infertility issues when she started to try for a baby of her own.
“I did everything right. Always going to my check-ups growing up and even with all of that preparation and care, it didn’t turn out how I expected,” she explained.
“I started to imagine these women I was meeting who didn’t get any type of healthcare let alone prenatal care. I knew there would be someone with a similar story to mine (in Africa) and couldn’t not help them,” she continued.
“Considering that maternal and neonatal mortality ratios in Sub-Saharan Africa remain high, despite progress in reducing maternal mortality in other parts of the world, I decided that it was equally as essential that these communities got access to pre- and post-natal healthcare, alongside the primary healthcare services,” she says.
Nana partnered with the local, Madina Polyclinic Kekele, a 12-bed clinic which sees more than 13,000 births per year. The clinic supports women (especially unprivileged or low-income) learn about health and nutrition and also educated fathers through Pregnancy School programs. “We strive to emphasize the message that pregnancy and birth (and parenting) is not only the responsibility of the woman. In some cultures, men are still not present at the birth, but we have a strong belief that men absolutely should be at the birth and experience it together with the woman. It strengthens the bond between the family and impacts their mindset about what their wife has gone through,” Nana explains.
African Health Now also provides free postpartum "Maternity Go Boxes" to women participating in the Pregnancy School programs. Each box includes necessary health and hygiene supplies needed to support mothers and their newborns during the first weeks.
The “Maternity Go Box” concept” has now even flourished to be its own separate initiative to be expanded and soon be offered in the United States. “Many countries already offer much more postnatal care, including similar ‘postpartum’ boxes, than in the US. Right now, it’s still very much the responsibility of the new mother to make sure she has everything she needs,” Nana explains. “Fourth Phase, will make it easy for expecting Moms (in the US) to order their own box with just 1-click to make sure they have everything they and their baby will need those first weeks.” She continues.
Fourth Phase which is set to launch this fall is a 1 to 1 cooperative effort – with every box purchased (in the US) resulting in one box being donated to a mother and baby in Africa.
“It’s a simple box, a box with simple essentials that every mother that has ever done this amazing thing called childbirth, needs and deserves. In 2019 we gave out 600 boxes to women in Ghana and Nigeria. Our goal for 2020 is to reach 20,000 mothers across Ghana and Nigeria, and that every woman who gives birth has the opportunity to know that for right now, for today: I have hope, I have tomorrow,” Nana says. When asked how she will manage these ambitious goals, she repeats a quote from Margaret Meade, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”
Support pregnant mothers in Ghana by donating a 'Maternity Go Box' or making a general donation to African Health Now.
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