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I’m returning to my home country of Sierra Leone to see the state of maternal health services

When Vafie Sheriff didn’t get the grades to study medicine, he was gutted. But determined to not lose sight of his goal of improving healthcare and saving lives, he volunteered with ICS in Bangladesh on a project giving local people the knowledge to look after their health. Now back at university, he’s returning to his native Sierra Leone to research the factors affecting infant, child and maternal health since the devastating 2014 Ebola crisis.

At the age of 18, I was already clear about what I wanted to do: improving health and saving lives.

Watching the media coverage of the Ebola outbreak in early 2014 had a massive impact on me. I was born in Sierra Leone and lived there until I was three, when I moved to Austria, and later, the UK.

Sierra Leone was one of the West African countries worst affected by the spread of the disease, which ended up taking an estimated 11,000 lives across the region – with 4,000 from Sierra Leone. Healthcare expertise was decimated as 5.6% of health workers in the country died providing support to victims. The country was only declared Ebola-free almost 18 months later.

One of the reasons why Ebola may have spread so rapidly was the local lack of understanding when dealing with the epidemic – and the fact that traditional practices amplified the effect.

Some ethnic groups such as the Kissis believe it’s important to bury the body of the dead near them – and involve traditions such as rubbing the corpses in oil and kissing the body. It’s now known that even after death, those who die from Ebola have high concentrations of the virus in their body.

A grave of an Ebola victim lies next to weeds and plants growing in an impromptu cemetery
© VSO / Meryl Westlake
The graves of Ebola victims in Freetown, Sierra Leone. At points, as many as 15 bodies were buried together

ICS showed me how volunteering can be responsible

Seeing these stories of the needless lives lost made me passionate to start a career in health. At the time I was 18. I’d just applied to study medicine, but I hadn’t got the grades. I was gutted. I had time on my hands but didn’t want to waste it – and so I discovered ICS.

I was keen to volunteer and make an impact, but not for a voluntourism experience spending a few weeks building a school for it only to be demolished and rebuilt by those with real experience. My research into ICS made me feel confident that I could use my skills in a responsible way.

We were lucky to be working with data already collected by previous ICS volunteers – supported by research from local youth club members and university students. It was a great example of the power of different volunteers working together.
Vafie Sheriff
VSO ICS volunteer, Bangladesh, 2014

I found out I was going to Bangladesh with VSO. Working in the Chittagong Hill Tracts region in the south-east of the country, we were going to support a partner with delivering health interventions around water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH), nutrition, primary healthcare, and gender equality.

We were lucky to be working with data already collected by ICS teams who’d previously volunteered in these villages – supported the whole time by research from local youth club members and university students. It was a great example of the power of different volunteers working together.

This was my first time seeing how things work on the other side of the world. I saw first-hand the preventable illnesses that could be avoided through basic health education. In the UK these interventions aren’t necessary – education is a universal part of our healthcare system. Yet in Bangladesh, that’s not the case. Education has the power to tackle the outbreak of illness.

Bangladeshi children hold a banner for a WASH day
© Vafie Sheriff
"I saw first-hand the preventable illnesses that could be avoided through basic health education," said Vafie

The negative effects of bad health information are huge

When I came back from Bangladesh, I was keen to increase my knowledge, skills, and experiences. I started a degree in biomedical science, and within my first few weeks of university, I’d heard about a student-led global health charity called Students for Kids International Projects (SKIP). They ran health projects targeted at children in 10 countries across Asia and Africa through branches in different universities. I applied straight away.

The next summer I was in Kisii, a city in the south west of Kenya. We were running interventions on malaria and TB health education programmes around WASH, sexual and menstrual health. Again – just like my experience on ICS – I saw the negative power of misinformation on healthcare.

Young women in Kenya often miss out on school when their periods start because they don’t have access to sanitary pads. Our project was about showing these young women how to make reusable menstrual products from materials that are available near them. It was great being able to teach a small group the skills until they were able to pass them on.

A group of people sit around a table
© Vafie Sheriff
Vafie was running a branch of a charity while studying for his BSc

I was running health projects while doing my degree

I loved my experience in Kenya, and that year I ran for president of my local branch of SKIP. We were starting a new project in Morocco, and I quickly became involved with recruiting volunteers, developing these interventions, and communicating with NGOs working in the area. That Christmas we travelled to meet those NGOs and the following summer went to assess what local people wanted access to.

I was running a branch of the charity while still studying for my BSc. It was intense but it gave me the first experience of what a career in this field would be like. ICS made me sure I wanted a role that had a global impact. It proved to me that anyone’s skills can make a difference.

Vafie poses outside on the veranda of a house
© Vafie Sheriff
This summer Vafie will return to his home country of Sierra Leone for research into maternal health

I’m returning to Sierra Leone to look at the state of maternal and child health

I finished my undergraduate degree in 2017. Last September was lucky enough to receive a scholarship to study a Master’s degree in global health at St Georges University of London. It’s exciting because next month I’m going to be returning to my home country, Sierra Leone to carry out research.

My thesis is on the history of the country’s health system and how maternal and child health services are provided. I want to understand how events in Sierra Leone’s history such as the civil war, natural disasters and the Ebola outbreak have affected the survival rates of mothers and babies.

I’ll be working with government health services, as well as NGOs, local doctors and nurses and mothers and young women to understand the current situation around maternal health. I've used contacts developed through ICS to build local connections that will make my research possible.

In the next couple of years, I plan on working abroad in a clinical setting. I believe the only way to introduce sustainable health interventions is through understanding the local context. The end goal for me is a role in which I can make a genuine contribution to enhancing global health policy.

Before ICS I knew I wanted to seek out a career in which I could improve health and save lives. Actually going on ICS showed me how to do that.

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ICS is funded by the UK's Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO), which projects the UK as a force for good in the world, including reducing poverty and tackling global challenges.

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