Sierra Leone First Lady Redefines Health System

Mrs. Sia Nyama Koroma is working hard to fight one of the most common causes of death in Sierra Leone — maternal mortality. She's also participating in a new program that helps the first ladies of Western Europe, America and Africa share ideas on working effectively. She speaks with Michel Martin.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host: I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News.

Coming up, Republican presidential hopefuls spar over Social Security, immigration and entitlements. Our Barbershop guys give us the buzz on who rumbled and who stumbled at last night's GOP debate. That's in just a few minutes.

But first, as world leaders continue to gather at the United Nations today, we decided to put the spotlight on an initiative aimed at Africa's first ladies. It's a program that helped strengthen their public role, so they can better use their positions to address the pressing problems facing their countries and the continent.

With me today is the first lady of Sierra Leone, Her Excellency Mrs. Sia Nyama Koroma. She's participating in the African First Ladies Fellowship Program that brings together Western European and American first ladies with their African counterparts for an exchange of ideas and best practices.

Later, we're also going to also hear from Mrs. Cherie Blair, the wife of former British Prime Minister Tony Blair. But first, Mrs. Sia Nyama Koroma, first lady of Sierra Leone. Her husband, Dr. Ernest Bai Koroma was elected in 2007. And since then, Mrs. Koroma has been working to bring down the countries very high rate of infant and maternal mortality as well as to improve the lives of women and girls in general. And Mrs. Koroma joins us now from New York. Excellency, thank you so much for joining us.

SIA NYAMA KOROMA: Thank you.

MARTIN: And, Excellency, I wanted to ask you, you know, first is that we've mentioned that one of the things that you've really focused on in your time as first lady is bringing down the very high rate of infant and maternal mortality in your country. And international aid observers are saying that you are really achieving some important results.

If I could just mention a couple of statistics, Sierra Leone has seen a 214-percent increase in the number of children under five getting care in health facilities and a 61-percent decrease in mortality rates in difficult pregnancy cases in health clinics. What do you think has contributed most to those results?

KOROMA: Well, I must say the participation of all of us, in particular we are in receipt of free health care. That is responsible for the decrease in our health indicators. We have so far the submission and my role is to make the health care system better.

MARTIN: I read a piece where you wrote that we say good-bye to our mothers and sisters as they go into labor. And we know too well that pregnant women in Kigali or Freetown have one foot in the grave. If you and I were to meet, say, a year from now, five years from now, do you think that that will still be true?

KOROMA: Well, we are trying to change the story. It used to be the case, but we are trying to change the story. Child bearing must be a joyous occasion. It should not be a mournful occasion.

MARTIN: What is the most challenging part of being a first lady for you?

KOROMA: The challenging part of being a first lady is that your time is no longer yours. Your life is no longer yours. You go by the dictates of society and how the day presents itself.

MARTIN: Are there aspects particularly of being an African first lady that are probably distinct from what perhaps people in America or Western Europe have come to expect? Are there distinct challenges that you could share with us?

KOROMA: Being an African first lady is not any different from being a first lady in America or England. The profession of people are different and the need is greater in Africa because of problem's greater. But we are all basically the same. A first lady (unintelligible) her president. We should be complimenting him and should be assisting him. And at the same time, you are supposed to be a wife and a mother.

MARTIN: You and your staff have been participating in the African First Ladies Initiative since 2009. Has it been of use to you?

KOROMA: Yes. African First Ladies Initiative has been wonderful to run corporation and African First Ladies Initiative have been recipients of a resource center which is worth about 300,000 U.S. dollars. It is a center which is meant to help women in maternal health issues, delivery, and it also meant to empower women. Besides that they have also been cleaning my office out. They've been building our capacity, so I'm very grateful.

MARTIN: Well, you know, it's supposed to be an exchange. So, presumably, you're teaching the other first ladies things as well. What do you think are some of the best practices that you have taught them?

KOROMA: My message to every first lady is to stay focused. You should be determined to push on and be convinced by your vision.

MARTIN: And there are those, forgive me, Excellency, who just feel that this is really - this program, while well intended, seems rather post-colonial. You are certainly as accomplished as anyone, as certainly any first lady that is currently serving. And there are those who would wonder why do you need this business anyway?

KOROMA: Well, learning is a continuous process. As first ladies, we should be developing ourselves. We are meant to build our capacity and leave our people a positive legacy. I believe in development. I'm very developmentally (unintelligible) so I need the program to make myself a better person and to make Sierra Leone a better country.

MARTIN: And finally, what does the first lady of Sierra Leone do to relax when you finally do have a moment to yourself?

KOROMA: Yes, I'm an active table tennis player. I exercise regularly. I drink a lot of water and juices to keep me going.

MARTIN: Oh, OK. Well, I do hope you'll get a chance to enjoy that while you're here. I'm not sure that you will. But if you do, I'm sure someone will give you a match.

KOROMA: Yeah, OK.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Her Excellency Mrs. Sia Nyama Koroma is the first lady of Sierra Leone and she was kind enough to join us in a very short break from New York. Excellency, thank you so much for speaking with us.

KOROMA: Thank you, too. Thank you.

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