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From Carmel to West Africa: A local midwife’s journey

A Carmel midwife with a deep calling to work abroad is in the midst of an extraordinary journey. It began in 2009 when Jill Diallo got the opportunity to work at a maternity clinic in West Africa. She was supposed to volunteer for five weeks, but knew her work wasn't done. Today, she’s the founder of the Senegal Health Institute. Last September, she opened a birth center in Kafountine.

KAZU’s Erika Mahoney met Diallo during her trip home to Carmel. Diallo described Kafountine, the rural village where she works.

Jill Diallo (JD): Well, it's on the coast. Kafountine is on the southernmost tip of Senegal, so it's very tropical. There's just hundreds of beautiful birds. We've got monkeys, fruit trees everywhere. There's no bank, no ATM. I have to drive two hours to do the monthly banking, and it's a really, very indigenous community. The women there are just beautiful, delightful women who go through a lot because women's rights aren't honored at all. So I decided many years ago to strengthen the community and start serving the women there.

Erika Mahoney (EM): So you've worked in Senegal for over a decade now, but you just opened a birth center about four months ago. I'm sure it wasn't easy to open the center, especially during the pandemic. 

 Diallo opened this birth center in September 2021. She had to get the project approved by the Ministry of Health.
Jill Diallo
Diallo opened this birth center in September 2021. She had to get the project approved by the Ministry of Health.

JD: It wasn't easy at all. I started out volunteering in the old local maternity. That's been there since 1955. And that's where I really learned about how women are treated during birth. I decided that I needed to open up a women's health and family planning clinic, which I opened in 2017. And then I got to the point where I realized we absolutely had to have a birth center. I had to get permission from the Ministry of Health. It took them a couple of years to sign the paperwork, and I'm also a woman. My midwives, who are local Senegalese midwives that are the staff at my birth center, we…drew up the plans ourselves. There were actually, you know, some men in the village who said, “you three are women, you know, you can't…you can't do this.” But we did.

EM: How do you hope your work will transform the village? 

JD: It already is transforming the village. Women are understanding that they can, rather than come seek prenatal care at seven or eight months of pregnancy, women are now coming to us when they are maybe, you know, eight weeks…feeling confident that they're going to be well taken care of. They know that they're safe.

EM: How many women do you serve at the birthing center?

JD: Currently, we have about 170 women that come monthly for family planning, contraception. And then we just took on 55 women in the month of December. So we've got an expectation that we'll be delivering around 50 babies a month.

EM: Can you share a story about how you, maybe, changed a woman's life? 

JD: Yes. At the old maternity, there was a woman who was having a really difficult time during her labor. And I just stopped everything and I helped her to just breathe through the whole birth and held her hand. To this day, whenever I run into her, she stops me in the street and thanks me for empowering her. She said she felt so empowered, like, she actually knew that everything was going to be OK because at that moment had a trust in her body. And that's really stuck with me.

EM: Your life's work is powerful and I'm sure so difficult at times. What keeps you balanced? 

JD: The drumming and the dancing. It's beautiful. It's magical. I have the gift of being married to a drummer from Guinea, and he's a master percussionist and just loves to whisk me away when he has a performance. And it just absolutely saves me. The drum and dance is just so strong

Jill Diallo is midwife and founder of the Senegal Health Institute. She heads back to West Africa in February. She's also writing a book about her experiences.