Published Nov. 8, 2023
BY ZANA BALABAN
A 1980 graduate of Carmel High School has taken groundbreaking action to provide access to health care by working with an Indigenous community in Senegal to educate, empower and care for Senegalese women and adolescent girls.
Created by Jill Diallo in 2012, the Senegal Health Institute is a nonprofit organization, which built and operates a family planning clinic, girls’ education program and new birth center, all on Diallo’s property in Kafountine where she resides most of the year. Kafountine is the hub for 19 remote villages and islands that lie on the southernmost tip of tropical Senegal. The villages lose electricity three to four times a week, air conditioners are virtually non-existent, and the closest banks, hospitals and grocery stores are located anywhere from four to fifteen hours away.
The catalyst for Diallo’s journey was her childhood travels with her mother, an avid adventurer who lived in Morocco for many years. Together, they stayed for months at a time in poverty-stricken places around the world, as opposed to destination locations that may have been more customary.
When Diallo first volunteered in Kafountine as a licensed midwife, the only medical establishment was an outdated maternity ward from the 1960s.
“It all starts with the mother,” Diallo says. “They deserve to be healthy, know their rights, be able to defend themselves and have an education.” She explains, “When I originally arrived, only about 12% of women had access to family planning. Now they all have access.”
Diallo also observes that the patriarchal culture influences everyday life in the developing nation. For example, girls’ schooling has not traditionally been a family priority. The institute’s adolescent girls program now organizes an academic scholarship and helps pay for textbooks.
“Women are raised to believe that their role in life is to give birth and take care of their husband,” Diallo explains. “They say when a woman gets married her life is over and a man’s is just beginning.”
Recent transformation of the region has been illuminating for women’s rights. Previously, Diallo notes that many Senegalese women didn’t even know when their baby was due, or would enter the clinic for the first time mid-labor.
“Where [traditional methods] fall short is not explaining to a woman what’s going on with her body,” the founder says. “We try to make it clear that pregnancy is not a time for women to be carrying 75 pounds on their backs and cooking every meal for every family member.”
An initial obstacle was the pending approval from the Senegal Ministry of Health. During the first evaluation of their women’s health and family planning clinic in 2018, Diallo was essentially warned not to stray from the status quo of pregnant women’s care. ‘Oh boy,’ Diallo thought to herself then.
“But now they visit us twice a year, and they love us and what we do differently,” Diallo says. “They’ve projected we’ll be delivering over 50 babies per month in the near future.”
Leslie Turner, a good friend of Diallo since her time at CHS and a volunteer member of the Senegal Health Institute, advocates for Diallo’s character and the enlivening role she fulfills.
“She gives all of herself to her family and the women of Senegal,” Turner says. “She has inspired our community here on the Central Coast to give to those who have a desperate need to be able to give birth safely in a clean, caring environment.”
On Oct. 7, the Institute held the “Passport to Senegal” gala in Carmel Valley. Several CHS student volunteers remarked that they witnessed firsthand the impact Diallo and her institution have on the community in Kafountine.
“I got to immerse myself in some of their culture for a day,” senior Alexis Pine says. “I met people from Senegal and we got to dance to their traditional drum music.”
The Senegal Health Institute in part has helped to decrease the infant mortality rate in Senegal by 8.8% since the clinic’s opening in 2021, directing away from the demoralizing international average of 29 deaths per 1000 live births. Their work is part of a much larger web of change in the evolving future of Africa.
“People often think this is an itty bitty operation,” Diallo says. “It isn’t. And it’s not glamorous, what I do, but I’m surrounded by so much strength and beauty. It’s all for the women.”