Becoming a mother in Sierra Leone brings with it the highest rate of maternal death on the planet. Una Mullally travels to the west African nation to see the impact of Ebola, corruption and war on its women.


Sierra Leone has the highest rate of maternal death on the planet. Una Mullally reports from the Bonthe District in the rural south-west, where teen pregnancy rates are high and basic necessities are scarce.

The toll women dying in childbirth in Sierra Leone takes can be seen outside a small house in Mattru in the rural Bonthe District. A traditional “baffa” shelter has been built from cane and palm leaf thatch. It’s erected between the third and seventh days after a family member dies, and demolished on the 40th day, so that mourners can have shade when they gather.

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Mamie Moriba, 30, died in late January. Her sister-in-law, Matilda Conteh, tells her story. When she was nine months pregnant, Moriba was admitted to a local hospital with typhoid. She was discharged three days later but got sicker. When she went back in, the hospital didn’t have medication to treat her pain. Conteh ran to a pharmacy to buy Tramadol. As Moriba struggled, she knew she wouldn’t be able to deliver her baby.

“She asked for the doctor to come down and do a C-section,” Conteh says. “I asked the nurse to get the doctor on the phone, but the nurses had no credit on the phone so they couldn’t call the doctor.”

When a nurse eventually got through to the doctor, his phone went dead. Moriba lay on a mattress on the ground in pain as a nurse used a stethoscope to determine if her baby was still alive in utero. It was. Then they checked her pulse. It was weak. Moriba said her sight was fading.

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“The nurse said she was dying. That’s how she passed away, that’s how she died. We collected the body later.” Tears gather in Conteh’s eyes. “We tried to call the doctor. We wanted him. The medical facilities don’t have enough drugs, essential drugs, they don’t have enough equipment. If they had drugs, they wouldn’t have asked me to go and buy it.”

Moriba already had two small children, now living with their father. “Mamie was a very active lady. When she came to the house she took over the entire cooking. She was that kind of person.”

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