By: Habiba Cooper Diallo
On February 6th, I was invited to speak at Dalhousie University by the Black Student Advising Centre (BSAC) for the event The Road to Success Narratives of Black Youth. The event theme was Rising Stars: My Journey.
Mrs. Oluronke Taiwo, BSAC's advisor, who extended the invitation to me asked me to tell my story about founding my own non-profit, WHOI, and the successes and challenges I have encountered along the way.
This post contains excerpts from my for the Road to Success Narratives of Black Youth event:
I am here today to tell you about some of the work I’ve been doing for the past 6 years. In 2012, I started a non-profit organization for women’s health called WHOI (the Women’s Health Organization International). I’m going to tell you how everything began.
Anafghat became my inspiration to start something. I remember the very day I read the article.
During the summer break of 2008, I was at home on my mom’s computer. I was doing some research on West African ethnic groups. My father came from Liberia and Guinea, so I wanted to learn more about his people. That’s when I found this article about a Tuareg girl named Anafghat.
I typed “Tuareg “ into the Google search bar and the article about Anafghat came up. As I read, I learned about Anafghat’s experience with an illness called obstetric fistula. Fistula is happens when a woman’s labour is blocked and the baby has no way of coming out. In an attempt to come out, the baby will push and push against the vaginal wall of the mother, eventually causing a hole to form in her bladder and or rectum. The baby is usually still-born, but the mother is left constantly leaking urine or feces from her private parts. It was through the article that I learned about the devastating experience Anafghat had with fistula.
Thankfully, she was cured and she returned to her community and back to school. She said she wanted to become a medical doctor, so she worked very hard in school and was eventually nicknamed “the college student” by her classmates because she was such a dedicated student.
Little did I know that Anafghat had passed away a few years after her treatment. A few minutes later, I found another article that read “[Anafghat] died suddenly from complications of an infection on May 25" I was so affected by the enormity of it all.
She was a young African girl like myself; she was in labour for four days; she develops a fistula; luckily her fistula is cured; then she dies all of a sudden.
I remember I crying because at that moment Anafghat’s experience resonated with me spiritually and I felt so pained to know that we had lost her. The power of words is so interesting, because although I had read only two articles about her. She became like a sister to me.
So it was that resonance and the connection that I felt to Anafghat as a young African woman that pushed me to start something to make her story known to make our voices heard.
When I first started, I was not sure what form my work would eventually take. I was 12 years-old when I began talking about Anafghat’s story. I would make announcements at my middle school about obstetric fistula and the Addis Ababa Fistula Hospital in Ethiopia. I wrote articles, short stories, and gave presentations on fistula. I turned classroom assignments into opportunities to talk about fistula. Fistula became my passion.
When I was 13, I got in touch with the Fistula Foundation, an organization based in California. There was no one in Canada talking about fistula, so I told them about my interest in fistula and the work I was doing. They connected me with one of their board members who gave me some advice. By the end of middle school, I knew I wanted to start an organization. I knew I needed to have a strategy.
I studied a lot during this time; I did a lot of research on fistula. I consulted books, articles, case studies, and medical reports about fistula.
In 2010, I began high school where I became the Health Editor for my school’s newspaper Tiger Talk and I wrote my first ever newspaper article about Anafghat.
One month after I started high school, my father passed away. My Dad was extremely supportive of everything I was doing around the time, and his death came as a shock to the whole family. His death made me look deep within myself and draw upon my inner confidence, which ultimately empowered me to persevere in my attempts to establish WHOI, while discovering more of his West African culture.
In the summer of 2011, I went to a Science Camp at Penn State University. It was a really great experience and I learned more about medical sciences, we did DNA synthesis, and did other very hands-on projects. In the fall of that same year, I read from a story I wrote on fistula at the Word on the Street in Toronto. It gave me the chance to spread the word. I later give a TED Talk at Sain’t Mary’s University where I also talked about Anafghat’s story and the negative effects of fistula.
In December 2011, I went to Ethiopia with my mom and sister. Ethiopia is home to the Addis Ababa Fistula Hospital—the first fistula hospital in Africa. There, they treat fistula patients and provide them with rehabilitation and reintegration services. When I visited the hospital, I interviewed two young women who shared their experiences as fistula patients with me.
In march of 2012, I decided it was time to start WHOI, and I began filing for legal status. It was a long, time-consuming, and tedious process. I then began to design a logo. My first sketch looked like this (see image below). As you can see it’s a woman with a baby tied to her back.
Next, I wrote out the acronym for the organization so it could be part of the logo.
Finally, I collaborated with Quentin Vercetty, who is a Toronto based designer and visual artist. I sent him the sketch and he drew the woman and the baby you see in the logo. Today, WHOI’s logo looks like this:
I wanted the logo to reflect my inspirations for the organization. The African woman with the baby tied to her back is reflective of the way in which so many African women carry their babies, and the bonding and intimacy that forms between them as a result of that. The writing is also very important. The letters “H” and “O” are taken from the Amharic script of Ethiopia and the “I” is from the Arabic script—a writing system that is used in many parts of Africa. I am very interested in writing systems, and many of the women such as Anafghat who inspired me to start WHOI come from regions where Amharic and Arabic are the main writing systems.
Eventually, in July of 2012, WHOI became official. We obtained our legal status from the registry. When I turned 16 in 2012, I held WHOI’s first fundraiser as part of my sweet 16 birthday party. It was a very fun party, and again I was able to spread the word on fistula with my dearest family, friends and community members.
That summer, I attended an academic program in New York City. It was called the Oxbridge Academic Programs. For one month I took a major class in Medical Sciences and minor class in International Affairs. Through my major class, I learned so much about medicine, pathology, and medical diagnosis. We also did dissections. This is a picture from the program (see image below). I was using a banana peel to practise suturing. This activity really inspired me because my long-term goal is to be a medical doctor, particularly an obstetric fistula surgeon, and in order to cure a fistula, surgeons must suture it, basically meaning they have to sew it back together
At the end of the program, I won the Medical Science Prize and left feeling very empowered as an aspiring medical doctor.
I recently received the Zonta Young Women in Public Affairs Award, and in June I was named one of Canada’s Top 20 Under 20 youth leaders. In November, I received the Planet Africa Award for Academic Achievement.
I’m also very excited to tell you that WHOI recently became a campaign partner to the United Nations Campaign to End Fistula. The campaign is global effort to eradicate fistula. In March, we’ll be starting a fistula and health empowerment program for young African-descended women living in Halifax. Going back to Anafghat, today she would have been 23 years old and on her way to becoming a medical doctor to address the health needs of women and children within her community.
I have been doing fistula awareness-building for the past 6 years. The more I continue this work, the more I’m convinced that it’s I want to do for the rest of my career. Yes, there have been several major challenges along the way. Still, I continue to persevere and push forward. I always say that when you find something that inspires you, it’s enough to motivate you in all aspects of your life... and that’s what I have found through obstetric fistula.
Tonight, what I want to tell you all is that you can do it! What I’ve just shared with you is my journey, my story. But each one of you has your own, and I want to hear yours too.
Habiba Cooper Diallo
I am a Canadian fistula advocate and blogger, and the founder of the Women’s Health Organization International, WHOI. I have been doing fistula awareness-building in Canada for the past 10 years. My work on fistula has led me to Ghana, Senegal, Guinea, Ethiopia, and Sierra Leone. I have been featured in Forbes, the HuffPost, and UNFPA