Why I left my family to go help mothers in South Sudan

Maternity ward in Doro refugee camp

South Sudan 2012 © Florian Lems/MSF

On Mother's Day, and every day, we honor the incredible strength of mothers around the world and their fierce determination to find health care for their children. We are inspired by women like Dr. Africa Stewart, an ob-gyn, board member for Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), and mother of three children. A passionate advocate for women's health, Dr. Stewart has provided maternal health care in Sudan, South Sudan, and Nigeria. Here, she talks about her first field assignment, and caring for her family while doing the work that she loves.     

I first joined MSF in 2011, when my baby girl was just one year old. As a mother of three, it was a difficult decision to leave my family for six weeks, but I knew my skills could go a long way in an area like southern Sudan.

While I was there, South Sudan gained independence from Sudan, becoming the world’s youngest nation. But it is also one of the poorest countries, and health care options are few. Ninety-nine percent of all maternal deaths occur in low- and middle-income countries—and South Sudan has one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the world.

I am struck by what it takes for our patients to get to me. I see that on their faces, and I see that in their feet … their cracked feet—[often] they’ve walked for days. And it always brings it right up close and personal, what moms are willing to do to keep their babies safe.

Dr. Africa Stewart on assignment with MSF.
© Africa Stewart

Since my first assignment, I have returned twice more to South Sudan and twice to Nigeria. My husband is completely on board. He says it is worth all of it, worth missing me, worth the angst that comes from me being away. 

I’ve learned that food is the way I express myself best. So what I did was keep food in the freezer that my family could take out once a week. That’s how I speak my love to them. 

My family understands my need to be not just "mommy" and not just "Mrs. Stewart"—that there is a piece of me that is just me. I need to be Dr. Stewart sometimes. I need to be an advocate for women who can't speak for themselves.