Two young women see Africa from Martha’s Vineyard

Hannah Kahl, holding the baby, at an ACRON (Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now) rally in Boston. — Photo courtesy of Hannah Kahl

This winter, Lila Fischer of West Tisbury and Hannah Kahl of Chilmark will travel to Uganda where they will work at Earth Birth, an international women’s health collective.

The center serves a community of people who have been displaced and traumatized by war, in an environment where there is an extreme shortage of material resources. Ms. Fischer and Ms. Kahl will be working at there for at least three months, but possibly longer, Ms. Fischer as a midwife and Ms. Kahl as a social activist.

Ms. Fischer and Ms. Kahl have been friends for most of their lives, from when they did gymnastics training together as kids on a cross-country road trip together after college. They graduated from the regional high school in 2002 and ’01, respectively. Both developed a serious interest in Africa during college. Ms. Fischer went to Vassar College and studied abroad in Ghana in 2005. “I fell in love with the arts and culture of Ghana,” says Ms. Fischer, “and was really inspired by the sustainable food systems, the thriving family structures and the joy of the people there. I always hoped that I could go back to Africa somehow, ideally to do work solidifying the sustainable resources that were already there.

“After college, I was looking for a skill that could effect positive social change in my own community as well as internationally. There are needs everywhere, and I saw midwifery as a way to effect change everywhere, all over the world.”

Last November, Ms. Fischer graduated from a 13-month program at Maternidad la Luz, a midwifery school based in El Paso, Texas, becoming a Certified Professional Midwife. She met Olivia Kimball, one of the founding organizers of Earth Birth, at a midwifery conference last fall. “I also had this idea to go to Uganda because my cousin, Nathaniel Scott, is there working with US AID,” says Ms. Fischer.

Ms. Kahl majored in anthropology at University of New Hampshire. “That was a really important time in terms of the direction I’m taking now,” she says, “because I met some guys from the Sudan who became my good friends, and I started being interested in that area.”

After college, she traveled and worked. “I took a job doing community organizing in the lowest income parts of Boston. That was another big moment for me, seeing what resources and education can do for people who are victims of the system or feel like they’re victims of the system.”

Later, she and another friend, Kate Hubbell, bicycled from New Hampshire to El Paso to visit Ms. Fischer. From there, Ms. Kahl went to work for the Center for Social Leadership at San Miguel de Allende in central Mexico, and now she is back on Island for a few months.

Earth Birth serves an Internally Displaced Persons camp of 20,000 people. “There are a lot of midwives working in Uganda that were once the trusted care providers in the community,” says Ms. Fischer. At one point the government mandated that these midwives refer all their patients to hospitals, but those hospitals are severely over-crowded and under-staffed. The hospital where Earth Birth founder Ms. Kimball first volunteered in Uganda was operating at one hundred times its capacity. Earth Birth aims to establish community-sustained women’s health care, working with traditional birth attendants to create culturally competent clinics that are based on best practices and locally sustainable resources.

Ms. Kahl and Ms. Fischer are raising money to help the center purchase a new emergency vehicle. “They have a van, but the road is long and bumpy and the vehicles get a lot of wear and tear,” says Ms. Kahl. “They’re trying to make the center so that in ten years they can leave it to the Ugandans, but that’s one resource that it’s just impossible to make completely sustainable.” Ms. Fischer added that they’re already halfway to their goal of raising the $10,000 needed for the emergency vehicle.

They had their first fundraiser at Ms. Fischer’s family’s farm, Flat Point, in West Tisbury. “We invited people to come out to the field. We had colorful cloths on hay bales and set out food, made all out of local produce,” says Ms. Kahl. “As soon as we set it all out, beautiful and ready to go, it started to downpour. The guests all helped out and we went up the road to Lila’s family’s house, and we made a presentation and asked for donations.”

Three more fundraisers are scheduled. The first is a dine-to-donate event at Flatbread Pizza this Tuesday, October 18, from 5 to 9:30 pm, with music by Willy Mason. There will also be a cocktail party fundraiser in Boston on October 26, and a yoga class taught by Sara Davis on Sunday morning, December 4, in Chilmark.

For more information on Earth Birth in Uganda, see: