Sierra Leone clinics prompt help 

click to enlarge PHOTO SUBMITTED - A STORY TO TELL Betty Tenga (left) cradles a weak newborn baby with fellow Canmore nurse Darla Bennett looking on. The baby did not survive.
  • PHOTO submitted
  • A STORY TO TELL Betty Tenga (left) cradles a weak newborn baby with fellow Canmore nurse Darla Bennett looking on. The baby did not survive.

A filmmaker, said Tracy Jacobson, often walks the line demarking "how much is too much?"

For Jacobson, that moment happened during a three-week trip to Sierra Leone to make a documentary about the West African country's high infant mortality rate.

With her was cameraman Michael Klekamp and three obstetrics nurses from Canmore, Alta. — Betty Tenga, Jasper van Maanen and Darla Bennett. Tenga immigrated to Canmore with her husband and children from their native Sierra Leone in 2000, fleeing a violent civil war. Sadly, while still in Sierra Leone, Tenga's own baby died as result of her delivering in a hospital that was under heavy attack.

Having delivered hundreds of healthy babies in Canmore's hospital, Tenga wanted to give back to her native country. She teamed up with van Maanen and Bennett to create a sustainable birthing program for Sierra Leone's remote clinics, which inspired Jacobson to make her film.

"Betty's strength and courage is an inspiration to women," Jacobson said. "Hers is a refugee success story that shows strength, perseverance, and a chance given."

After landing in Freetown, Jacobson and Klekamp organized film permits, logistics, truck and driver, and hired a local sound technician. Calgarian Barbara McIntosh, currently living in Sierra Leone on contract with NGO CAUSE Canada, served as the group's production/team coordinator, organizing some "nice" places to stay in a tropical country where toilets seats are often broken, warm water is unreliable and Wi-Fi is scarce.

"We went without expectations, as Betty (Tenga) told us to, and it was like Rocky-Mountain hut living," Jacobson said. "The Sierra Leoneans take a lot of pride in their homes and in welcoming visitors — who don't often happen to be international visitors."

The first two clinics the team visited appeared to be well-stocked with supplies left from the 2014 Ebola outbreak, but without assurance of restocking once supplies ran out.

"The delivery areas were very, very minimal," Jacobson said. "If you put a Western mother in one of those rooms to deliver — she just wouldn't."

In Sierra Leone, one in six children don't see their fifth birthday. One clinic witnessed 97 deaths in a single month. And, while filming a live birth — with the mother's permission — the Canmore women witnessed the painful reality.

"It was in a very remote area," Jacobson described. "A woman was in labour when we arrived, and after a long day the baby finally came, but not crying or breathing properly. Jasper, Darla and Betty helped best they could. It was an exact situation where the 'why' they were there happened."

Despite their skills, with no oxygen or suction the nurses were unable to help the newborn boy. With poor cell service, they called for an ambulance, an hour away by rough road. Eventually transferred to a city hospital, the baby died two days later.

"It was a really challenging day for everyone," Jacobson said. With men unwelcome in the room, she ran the camera.

"I had never seen a baby be born," she admitted. "It wasn't looking good for the baby, the mother was still on the delivery bed watching them work on the baby, not really knowing what was happening. Filming the story, it's important to capture the truth of what's unfolding, though wanting to respect those involved. I may have felt my own limits though, to being affected by the situation. I felt it was important to keep filming until such point there was nothing else they could do."

Leaving the mother alone with her baby, looking back Jacobson said she felt she made the right decisions.

"There is a story to tell, possibly this little guy's life was not wasted and can be a gift in helping to save other babies' lives — a reality that breaks my heart to this day," Jacobson said. "The delivering mother we filmed ended up going home without her baby. Many women from her village came together at the clinic to support her during the delivery. That was heartwarming and amazing. Women can be powerful and loving human beings."

The "beautiful and kind" people of Sierra Leone inspired Jacobson more than ever to share Tenga's story. In need of help to complete the project, she is fundraising at

For Tenga, the visit increased her desire to help through her "Empty Handed — Help a mother take her baby home" program.

"They do great work (in Sierra Leone's remote clinics) with what little they have, but they have almost nothing," Tenga said.

"Most of the babies die of simple things — not having oxygen, or suction to be able to remove the mucous. Just to have these two items would have saved that baby's life."

"If the birthing centres could be provided with the basic supplies, so the mothers have a clean and hygienic birthing experience, it would make a remarkable difference in the lives of these women. In Canmore, we've never had a single baby die because we couldn't resuscitate. We've never had a single mother die because we couldn't manage the bleeding. My hope is that pregnant mothers who deliver their babies in the remote regions do not go home empty handed."

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