The midwives of Kalongo

Sister Carmel Abwot is not just training midwives in Uganda – she’s empowering them too.

Sister Carmel tells us her surname, Abwot, means ‘I escaped’. Her mother, who had lost several babies before her, chose it in celebration of her father escaping from attackers on the day she was born. She believes it to signify escaping problems, everything shall pass and it is clear by her disposition that this is true. She is a survivor, a truly selfless woman whose mission is to alleviate suffering and bring joy. Kalongo is a village in North Uganda below the South Sudanese border. It is situated under Mount Oret in a remote area about two hours drive on bumpy dirt roads from the nearest town. Sister Carmel Abwot came here in 1992 to live with the Comboni Sisters when she was assigned to Dr. Ambrosoli Memorial Hospital as a midwife and subsequently a teacher at St. Mary’s Midwifery School. During the civil war when the rebel insurgencies were attacking the village, the then acting director of St. Mary’s fled leaving Sister Carmel in charge. She remained out of her dedication to the students and to let them know they were not alone. She has continued that dedication during her 25 years as director.

The burden on African women is
enormous and in Northern Uganda
it is no exception. They are often
married at a young age and expected
to produce as many children as their
husband requests. They are also the
breadwinners of the family, working
in the fields and providing food and
paying school fees for their children.
Women are chief in African culture,
yet they don’t have a voice. They
are often not well cared for and are
especially vulnerable when pregnant.
A refusal to come to the hospital to
give birth for cultural or logistical reasons makes maternal mortality in Uganda exceptionally high. Sister Carmel has an enormous respect for culture and tradition but also a desire to evolve and create lasting change that she says can only come through education. “When you educate a woman she will be able to stand on her own and make her own decisions,” she tells Global Citizen. Adding that, she tries to instill in her students not only midwifery skills but to teach them self-worth and dignity. Her work is not only to train, but to empower.

Her classroom often breaks into fits of laughter and applause. She expects much from her students and has earned their respect by what she gives back to them. Many of the girls come from desperate situations and may have even lost their parents. The majority rely on scholarships to cover their school fees which amount to around $2,000 for all three years. The students say that once they enter school, Sister Carmel becomes their mother too. She teaches first and foremost by example, assisting in the labour and delivery room or out in the community where she trains the village health teams on subjects such as responsible fatherhood, the importance of hygiene and giving birth in the hospital.

“Training more midwives is crucial to saving mothers and babies,” she says. The midwife handles all pre- natal care, labour and delivery and post-natal care. A doctor intervenes only in case of an emergency,” she explains. The students are also trained in general nursing because in the future they may nd themselves in situations where they are the only trained medical personnel so they need to be as prepared as possible to deal with any crisis. While at St. Mary’s they do rotations in all of the hospitals wards – surgery, paediatrics, HIV clinic, among others. Sister Carmel says, the result is “very competent strong women” who know they have a lot of work to do to make a difference. “These students come from the same backgrounds as the women they are trying to help so they are able to convince expectant mothers to follow their instructions for a safe pregnancy.”

Sister Carmel speaks with immense joy about the success of her students, of which there are 150 currently attending, and of the school, which is the most prominent Midwifery School in Sub Saharan Africa. There is a high demand for midwives in Uganda and many students are already booked for jobs around the country in health centres and clinics even before they graduate. Her message to the diploma students is that the letters in Midwife stand for what they must strive to be: Motherly, Intelligent, Dedicated, Worthy, Innovative, Foresighted, E cient. Her students are taught to be women of principle and character.