LOS ANGELES — There were fewer cameras and less Hollywood star power at day two of the African First Ladies Health Summit, but the heavy hitters of the policy arena stepped to the stage and the summit dug deep into the major health issues facing Africa.
Sarah Brown, wife of United Kingdom Prime Minister Gordon Brown, delivered an amazing keynote in the morning – bringing the African first ladies and partners in the audience to their feet. Mrs. Brown talked passionately about the issue of maternal health. She laid out an impressive argument about how averting maternal deaths and complications are keys to achieving all of the U.N. Millennium Development Goals.
There was a palpable sense after Brown’s speech that the energy level was raised in the room. Shortly after, Her Excellency Dr. Hajiya Turai Umaru Yar’Adua, the first lady of Nigeria, took the stage and began delivering her prepared remarks for a maternal health panel. Until this speech, many of the first ladies understandably delivered their remarks exactly as written, not looking up much at the audience. While many of these speeches were very informative, they did not do much to really involve the audience.
The Nigerian first lady’s speech started in much the same manner for a couple minutes. Then, she looked up, scanned the audience, adjusted her clothes and began to speak off the cuff. Mrs. Yar’Adua began talking passionately about a project she has supported that involves distribution of small, three-wheel ambulances that can maneuver through narrow roads and non-existent roads to the rural areas of Nigeria. She said that many pregnant women do not go to health clinics because their husbands disallow it. But the beauty of these ambulances is that quality maternal care can come to them. The ambulance is parked in villages and pregnant women are given “mama kits” that includes supplements and information on safe maternal care. A midwife and a nurse travel with the doctor in these ambulances – which the first lady says are about one-fifth the cost of a full ambulance we see on our streets.
At the moment the first lady’s staff finally got the pictures of the ambulances up on the video screen, the first lady was reinvigorated even further, and I dropped any cynicism I had about the value of this summit. The first ladies and leaders from all sectors of the global health field came to share stories and ideas such as the three-wheel ambulance in Nigeria. Effectiveness in global health programs are correctly measured by quality data indicators, and Global Health Council staff and our partners are constantly pouring over them. However, I think and hope that the first ladies connected to each other with personal stories of their work and now are more motivated than before to return to their countries with an even stronger will to use their political and social power to improve health in their countries in a time of economic recession.