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You are in: Somerset > People > People > There and back again, by Alison Hoare

Alison and her mother Julia in Tanzania, 2008

Going back was an emotional experience

There and back again, by Alison Hoare

Re-visiting your past can be a difficult thing to do. For one Somerset woman, marking her 50th birthday meant travelling across two continents and tackling a killer. But this time Alison Hoare from Over Stowey had the power to make a difference.

For Alison, tracing her African roots meant going back to Tanzania and tackling one of the country's biggest dangers: childbirth.

She was fortunate that her mother Julia was able to get to a European hospital to give birth, but many in her home town of Mufindi never go to hospital and die as a result.

Tanzania now has one of the highest childbirth mortality rates in the world.

Alison's trip combined a journey of self-discovery with the ability to raise awareness of a safe motherhood scheme, which her daughter Harriet supports through the White Ribbon Alliance charity.

Alison persuaded both her mother and her daughter to accompany her on the trip. This is her account:

It began as a simple journey, a return to my birthplace in celebration of my 50th year, but it became much more.

We were asked by members of the White Ribbon Alliance in Tanzania to visit one of their members in the Iringa region on our way to Mufindi.

Our task was to deliver greetings from the alliance in the UK as well as a cash donation from a Somerset based charity The BirthDay Trust. The money will help to fund the celebration of White Ribbon Day in Iringa.

The President of Tanzania, Jakaya Kikwete

White Ribbon Day has some high profile supporters

The celebration is designed to raise awareness of the problems of childbirth mortality and put pressure on government leaders to demand basic healthcare services to stop women needlessly dying in labour.

In Iringa the celebration was organised by Mellania Mwinuka, a midwife at the Tosaganga Mission Hospital, approximately 15km outside the town of Iringa, some way off the beaten track.

We arrived in Iringa town on Saturday after a gruelling nine hour drive from Dar es Salaam, during which the landscape altered dramatically as we travelled inland. Soon we were surrounded by mountains.

It’s a very beautiful landscape, similar in many ways to our highland regions in the UK but on an immense scale. The most striking thing was how lush and green everything looked. At regular intervals we encountered overturned lorries which had gone off the road (tarmac roads mean everyone can drive faster, so naturally they do!)

Often, where there were isolated settlements of small, red clay houses thatched with palm, there were people sitting under rickety looking shelters at the roadside where tomatoes or onions were neatly piled in faded plastic buckets to tempt potential buyers and the occasional herd of cattle or goats tended by Maasai in traditional dress. A highlight of the journey was the drive through Mikumi National Park where we spotted giraffes, elephants, buffalo, baboons and antelope along the way.

The following day, Easter Sunday, we drove out to Tosamaganga Hospital to meet Mellania. Having had several awkward and inconclusive telephone conversations it was a relief to meet and speak face to face.

The White Ribbon Day march in Iringa

Childbirth kills 18% of Tanzanian women aged 15-49

Most Tanzanians speak pretty good English, but the accent is difficult to understand, especially on the phone. Mellania introduced us to Sister Sabine, the doctor in charge of the hospital. Both were charming and welcomed us with enthusiasm. Tanzanians are incredibly warm, welcoming people, always ready to smile. Formalities duly observed and duty done, we were offered a tour of the hospital.

There is so much I could write about it. Suffice to say, it was an enormous culture shock, despite being well equipped and well staffed for a rural hospital in Tanzania. I couldn’t help thinking that a simple lick of paint and new bed linen would improve the place enormously – simple but superficial. The hospital is an amazing resource and from the point of view of maternal health is clearly doing a great job of encouraging women to come to hospital for the safe delivery of their babies.

Many of the women come from villages many hours, even a few days journey away. To ensure they arrive in good time they come early with an entourage from their villages bearing firewood, food, cooking pots and everything else they’ll need to support themselves until their babies are born. Some live in the maternity waiting home for two months or more before their due dates, with possibly an assistant and the youngest of their children.

The following day we hit the road to Mufindi. This was the final leg of our journey. The last time I was here the roads were unsurfaced and travelling was precarious and time consuming, especially in the rainy season.

Now there is a tarmac road to the Mufindi Highlands from Iringa and it's in a pretty decent state. We arrived more quickly than I’d anticipated. Mum said that the air smelled as she remembered it, of Eucalyptus and pine which are widely grown here, along with the tea of course. The tea plantations are vast and spectacularly vivid. Dotted among the green were brightly dressed men and women working.

Alison's daughter Harriet

Harriet shoots films for the White Ribbon Alliance

When we got to the Lagoda Factory where my father had worked as company secretary, I began to feel quite emotional. We watched the lorries coming and going, bringing bags of freshly picked tea from the plantations. I blinked back the tears as my thoughts travelled back in time to the reality of my parents – young, newly married and far from home, living and working in this amazing and beautiful place, where I had breathed my first taste of Africa all those years ago. I never imagined that returning to this place would provoke such intensity of feeling.

The house where I was born was only a few hundred metres down the hill from the factory. Sadly we were unable to identify it. Mum was not even sure that it was still standing. By chance, when we returned to Iringa we met up with some Europeans who had lived in the very same house and they assured us that it was still there and we had been looking right at it. Next time I’ll have to take a photo.

Yes, there will be a next time – someday. We’ve been on an amazing journey, Mum, Harriet and I. I’ll never forget it and maybe next time I’ll return with my grandchildren so we can continue to preserve the family memory of a truly remarkable place.

last updated: 06/05/2008 at 09:15
created: 05/04/2008

You are in: Somerset > People > People > There and back again, by Alison Hoare

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