UMN student designs first and only birthing home in Sierra Leone

A master’s student’s project aims to combat the country’s high number of maternal deaths.

Gauri Kelkar, a sustainable design student, is working on a birth waiting home in Sierra Leone.

Courtesy of Rural Health Care Initiative

Gauri Kelkar, a sustainable design student, is working on a birth waiting home in Sierra Leone.

Olivia Johnson

In Sierra Leone — a country whose population is similar to Minnesota — one in 17 women die during childbirth each year.

To reduce that number, a master’s student at the University of Minnesota is designing a birth waiting home for the village of Tikonko in collaboration with the Rural Health Care Initiative.

The home, located near a hospital, will provide a place for mothers to wait to give birth and will offer prenatal care.

Sierra Leone has the third-highest infant mortality rate in the world, the result of a fragile health care system and lack of running water or electricity in many villages.

Gauri Kelkar, a sustainable design student, is working on the birth waiting home as her final project to complete her degree. She said the home will be open within a year.

“Pregnant women there have to travel great distances in order to find a safe place to give birth,” Kelkar said. “It just seemed like a good opportunity to do something that’s a real world project.”

Because the area does not have running water or electricity, Kelkar focused on making the building self-sustainable.

“I wanted to be sensitive to their needs,” she said, adding that she discussed plans with Sierra Leoneans from the beginning.

Carol Nelson, the Rural Health Care Initiative’s board chair, said she got involved with the organization in 2012 and has traveled to Sierra Leone to train staff for the birth waiting home and for other clinics around Tikonko.

Nelson said expectant mothers often travel miles across rough terrain to reach a health provider, but many don’t make it, resulting in complications, or death of the child or mother.

Jim Lutz, the director of the sustainable design program and Kelkar’s academic adviser, said he was asked to help with the project after providing relief after the 2010 Haiti earthquake.

“The whole concept of a birth waiting home is relatively new,” he said. “It’s the first and only one in Sierra Leone.”

Lutz said only a handful of birth waiting homes exist around the world. The building, once completed, will have communal spaces for cooking, classrooms, a courtyard and rooms with two beds in each.

“It’s just a chance for expectant women to spend time with other expectant women and support one another in that way,” he said. “It’s meant to be sustainable. It’s meant to be secure.”

Lutz said construction on the structure began last year and the building is nearing completion. The doors and windows are being installed this month and a fundraiser last month covered furnishings and finishing touches.

The structure is being built by Sierra Leonean general contractors and employs residents of the area to build the house by hand with locally-sourced materials.

The building costs around $100,000 and operating costs per month are $2,025 for staff, food, security, midwives and other necessities, Lutz said.

“We’ve been fundraising for about three years,” she said. “We get our funds from individual donors and churches, primarily.”

She said RHCI is interviewing people from the area in Sierra Leone to fill eight staffing positions that will serve an area of about 10,000 people.

“Our model of care is not that we go in and provide care,” Nelson said. “It’s more that we help strengthen the local medical community.”

The country has a history of slavery, civil war and the Ebola outbreak in 2014 that killed over 4,000 people, Nelson said.

“It’s considered a developing country, but it’s got a really long ways to go,” Nelson said. “Health care is just one of the many areas that’s really far behind.”