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Remembering My Grandmother on International Women’s Day

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Growing up in Sierra Leone, I lived in a mud house with a thatched roof and slept on the floor. We had no running water and used an outside latrine. We had no electricity either, and I studied by candle light and hurricane lamps. But my grandmother, who raised me until I was 13, loved me so much that I never realized I was poor!

My grandmother took me under her wing allowing my parents to go to school overseas and make a better life for our family. On International Women’s Day I remember my grandmother, and salute the countless women – mothers and grandmothers, sisters and aunts, neighbors and friends, nurses and midwives – who are stepping in to support children and strengthen communities in the face of poverty, epidemics, violence and other disasters.

I have spent the past 25 years as a clinical researcher. In 2014 I was invited to join the Johnson & Johnson Africa Contributions Committee and was privileged to travel to Ethiopia, Kenya and South Africa as part of this team to witness the impact of some of the programs supported by Johnson & Johnson. It was my first visit back to the continent after 38 years. Ebola was dominating Africa news, and my home country was one of the hardest hit. I did not know what to expect.

But at each site we visited I was filled with hope as I met one woman after another with the same strength of purpose that my grandmother had.

At the SOS Children’s Village in Mekelle, Ethiopia, I met foster mothers who were providing loving and stable homes for orphaned and abandoned children, enabling them to rise above their circumstances and grow up to be productive citizens. I cannot forget the pride in one mother’s eyes as she showed me the picture of one her girls enrolled in the SOS nursing program. When she graduates she wants to become a midwife and go on to help other women in her village, the beaming mother told me.

What an honor it was to spend some time with the indomitable Dr. Hamlin at the Hamlin Fistula Hospital in Addis Ababa. For over 50 years Dr. Hamlin has been helping women debilitated from fistula, a terrible childbirth injury, get better and rebuild their lives. At 91 years old, she is unstoppable in her mission to end fistula, a preventable condition virtually unheard of in the developed world. Nurses and midwives trained at this hospital are going back to their villages, saving the lives of many more mothers and babies.

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Ola, with Andile and Luniko, whom he met at Generation Ubuntu in Cape Town, South Africa

In Cape Town, South Africa, I was inspired by the work of Whitney Johnson, a young woman from Brooklyn, who at 21 foundedGeneration Ubuntu to help children with HIV live healthy and meaningful lives. My heart broke as I listened to two young boys tell what it is like to live with HIV. I also met mothers living with HIV who are working with programs such as mothers2mothers to provide pregnant HIV+ women the tools and medical referrals needed to prevent the transmission of HIV to their unborn children.

There are many such stories in villages across Africa and around the world. I am grateful for the opportunity to be involved with these programs that are empowering women to be catalysts for change in their communities. My grandmother taught me that no matter how little you have, there is someone who has even less than you do. No matter how little they have, these remarkable women are giving more to make it better for others around them.

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