Liberian Midwife Who Worked Through Civil War And Ebola Crisis Has 1,000 Children Named After Her

Chris Baynes ||

Alice Sumo holds two-day-old Alex at White Plains clinic near Monrovia, Liberia (Ben White/Save the Children)

Then just 20 years old, she was still training to be midwife in civil war-torn Liberia when she came across a young woman in labour at the roadside.

Armed militia nearby were threatening to use their rifles to silence the woman’s moans of pain.

“She was screaming and screaming,” said Alice. “There was an armed man there shouting, ‘Is there nobody to help? We’ll kill the woman because we don’t want her screaming.’”

Defying her worried father’s protests, Alice stepped forward.

Despite being threatened with death herself if the procedure went wrong, she delivered the baby safely. With no medical kit to work with, she was forced to smash a glass bottle with her bare hands and use its jagged edge to cut the umbilical cord.

In the following 28 years, thousands more children have entered the world at Alice’s hands. Many are now her namesakes.

More than 1,000 children delivered at her clinic near Monrovia have been named after her.

A whole community of people called Alice – or Alex or Ellis, when they are boys – have been begun life at White Plains health centre, 15 miles north of the Liberian capital. Their ages now range from nearly 30 years to just a few days, with the latest Alex was born last week.

The children are a living testament to the impact Alice has had in one of the world’s poorest countries – a nation where a third of women give birth without a midwife.

In her three-decade career, Alice has seen two civil wars and the worst outbreak of Ebola in history. She did not stop working even during the epidemic which claimed nearly 5,000 lives in her country in 2004 and 2005.

“When the Ebola crisis came to Liberia it was terrible,” said Alice, now 48. “I was just working for hours. Others were afraid, some nurses started rejecting patients, but I was working. “

She donned a protective “space suit” given to health workers to stop the disease spreading, but it did not stop her being ostracised by her community.

“My neighbours, they were afraid of me, they never used to allow their children to come to me,” Alice said.

The Ebola crisis devastated Liberia’s health system, which already had one of the world’s worst doctor-to-patient ratio. People in remote communities can travel for miles for treatment at sub-standard health centres.

At the start of Alice’s career, heavily pregnant women would have to walk up to eight hours from their villages to a makeshift clinic to give birth.

“I used to go from village to village looking for women in labour, because to walk from where they are… it was not an easy thing,” she said.

Now, she runs a maternal health centre opened by Save the Children in her rural community.

It is one of five such facilities built by the charity in 2013 and includes a solar-powered vaccination refrigerator, a hand pump for clean water next to the clinic, which also serves the local population, and a motorbike enabling volunteers and staff to reach remote areas and to transport patients.

“Since the clinic was built there is no danger, and there is no infection, the place is sterilised, and everything is intact,” Ms Sumo said.

Simon Wright, Save the Children’s director of international development, said: “With all the babies named after her Alice must be one of the busiest midwives in the world and without her many lives might have been lost.

“Alice’s incredible story is a fitting tribute to those midwives who work tirelessly to deliver babies and save lives in some of the most challenging conditions around the world – many of whom Save the Children is honoured to support and train.

“It also speaks volumes about the generosity of the British public, because through money raised here in the UK back in 2013, we were able to build and equip the clinic where Alice now works, and where thousands of mothers have given birth in a safe and private environment.

“In a country where one in three women gives birth without a skilled medical professional by their side, this clinic and the midwives who work there are a reminder of the life-saving results that aid can have.”


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