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Bristol midwife in Sierra Leone
Zoe Vowles in Sierra Leone
Zoe Vowles (r) is working with birth attendants in Sierra Leone

A former Bristol student has just arrived in Sierra Leone for a year long sabbatical working with local midwives.

Zoe Vowles, a University of the West of England graduate, has headed off to the West African country to train and support maternity health workers.

Zoe will be working in the Bombali District - the north is a remote area and the last to be disarmed after the civil war which ended in 2002.

Sierra Leone has the highest maternal mortality rate in the world.

Northern Bombali district has a very small number of trained midwives and Zoe will work in a community based role providing training and support to carers to strengthen existing teams.

In Sierra Leone, the cultural preference is for the majority of expectant mothers to give birth at home.

My experience had many highs and lows...
Zoe Vowles

In villages without access to treatment from midwives and facing long distances on bad roads to get to hospital, conditions that can easily be treated in the UK often result in devastating consequences for women in Sierra Leone.

She is being sponsored through the Vodafone World of Difference programme to work for the charity, Health Unlimited.

Zoe graduated from UWE in July 2000 and spent a year working in St Michael's Maternity Hospital, Bristol, before working in the United Arab Emirates and then moving to London.

Zoe has worked in Sierra Leone before - in 2008 she spent six months as a VSO volunteer in Makeni where she helped to improve the care for mothers in a small community hospital.

She said: "My experience had many highs and lows - it was heartbreaking to see mothers and babies die unnecessarily because of lack of knowledge of pregnancy related complications and problems with infrastructure.

Rewarding work

"We only had electricity for a few hours each day and there is a massive problem with mosquitoes and malaria.

"However, it was so rewarding to see what a difference I could make.

"I was able to train staff in new areas such as newborn resuscitation and facilitate setting up a much needed new antenatal clinic which provided an invaluable service to local women.

"In return, the midwives shared their knowledge with me.

"I learnt about conditions I'd never encountered back home and developed a greater understanding of Sierra Leone's culture which I was able to put into practice when I returned to London, caring for many women from West Africa."

To learn more about Zoe's experience in Sierra Leone, visit www.zoevowles.blogspot.com

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