Wednesday, March 16, 2011

A New Film on Mobile Phones and Obstetric Fistula in Tanzania

In the last seven years of my work as a filmmaker, I've filmmed three short stories on a devastating women's health issue called obstetric fistula - a childbearing injury that leaves women leaking urine or waste or both, continuously, for the rest of their lives. I filmmed in Niger for "Love, Labor, Loss", in the DR Congo for "Mama Madou" and in Liberia for "Freedom from Fistula." (Links to these films are online.) In all locations, it was incredibly heartbreaking to talk to women who are so ashamed and psychologically distraught about their condition that they live their lives in total isolation, away from their communities and sometimes even their families.

The flip side of this tragic story is that a growing interest in the issue has resulted in many medical programs that offer free fistula repair services. And when a woman gets a successful repair, her life takes turns around and she can begin to live her life with dignity and purpose. It transforms her in every way possible. I've seen it over and over again and it's mindblowing.

Unfortunately though, in really remote places - like the places I've filmmed - women are so far from the facilities that provide the surgeries (and many cannot afford the transportation to the facilities) - they never seek help and live with their condition for the rest of their lives.

That's why it was so exciting for me to shoot this new film on how mobile phones are changing the lives of women living with fistula. In Tanzania, where I just spent over a month working on some exciting new projects for maternal health, there is a new program by the CCBRT hospital which uses a country-wide network of "ambassadors" (healthcare professionals, or other community leaders) and a mobile financing scheme by Vodacom (called M-PESA which sends transport funds by phone) to pay for a woman's transportation to the CCBRT hospital in Dar es Salaam. It takes only a few minutes - the funds are transferred from the hospital, the "ambassadors" visit a M-PESA agent to collect the funds, and the woman gets on the bus and makes the long journey to the hospital.

Once she is there, she receives free lodging, food and treatment.

This simple process of transferring money by phone has helped double the number of women receiving treatment at the CCBRT center and the hope is that it will help not only treat the estimated 2,000-3,000 new cases of fistula that occur each year in the country, but it will also allow the hospital to address the backlog of women who have been living with fistula (I filmmed two who spent over 40 years leaking!), in essence making fistula obsolete in Tanzania.

I can't really articulate how incredible it feels to be able to tell a more positive story about these women and this issue. For the most part, it's been a primarily heartbreaking story but this is allowing me to witness and document how technology is making progress for women and maternal health in an entire country. I'm really honored to be so closely involved in this issue and to see first hand the good work that so many people are committed to doing and the effect it is having.

If you want to learn more about obstetric fistula, visit UNFPA's Campaign to End Fistula at

If you want to learn more about CCBRT and the great work they are doing, visit here.

Thank you to UNFPA Tanzania, CCBRT, the M-PESA ambassadors and all who helped make this project possible. I'm excited to start editing!

* We just received word that the film has been accepted to the inaugural GSMA Mobile Health Summit occurring in Cape Town, South Africa from June 6-9, 2011.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Brooklyn to Tanzania: "Mama Creator"


As a documentary filmmaker who creates films with UN/NGO agencies, I get the luxury of walking in two distinct worlds. The socially conscious creative world and the humanitarian/development world. Both are infused with passionated, committed people, both strive for social progress and both experience the webs and flows that come with the success as well as the challenges in trying to make change in the world.

As co-founder of I have been working to bridge these two worlds around the issue of maternal health. And this week, I have seen the power of that bridge during a workshop taking place in Dar es Salaam Tanzania and at the he Sauti za Busara festival (East Africa’s biggest music festival that occurs in Zanzibar each year and showcases more than four hundred African musicians over five days.)

With the support of the UNFPA office in Tanzania, I brought Brooklyn based artists, Maya Azucena (an award winning singer and co-founder of and Okai (one of NYC’s most talented percussionists and emcees) to write and record a new song on maternal health in collaboration with some of Tanzania’s top musicians. This included “Mzungu Kichaa” (a Danish citizen who has lived in Tanzania for a large part of his life and speaks fluent Swahili), Lady JayDee (known as one of the most famous R&B singers in East Africa), Fid Q (a famous emcee and hip hop artist who works with NGOs such as EngenderHealth, FHI, USAID, and others) and Mrisho Mptoto (a well known TV personality and spoken word artist). The song was produced by Ambrose “Dungu” – known as Tanzania’s most prominent music producer.

As part of our workshop, I screened my film “Not Yet Rain.” Afterward, the UNFPA Representative in Tanzania, Julitta Onabanjo, sat with all the artists and presented to us the challenges facing women in pregnancy and childbirth in Tanzania. She answered questions from the artists who then took pen to paper to start writing the lyrics. It was an inspiring process to witness, especially between artists who have such different cultural and lingual references but share similar professional and musical inclinations.

After the workshop, the artists spoke about how interesting it was to be able to interact with an institution on such a unique level. We all agreed that having the sort of access and support that we received from the UNFPA Country Office enabled us to be more on point with lyrics that can touch on the important messages and ideas about maternal health.

The song that resulted is called “Mama Creator” which is sung in Swahili and English. At nearly 4 minutes long, it is an uplifting song with a memorable chorus and strong lyrics. Many who have heard it in Tanzania believe it has the ability to become popular with local radio stations because it has so many famous musicians and is such a strong song. We also see its importance in the mission of in bringing it to an international level and engaging other artists around maternal health.

The test will come when we release the song and music video on our website and through local Tanzania channels on International Women’s Day (March 8th). I’ll be editing a mini-documentary about the creative process and producing Advocacy Packets that provide guidelines to organizations on how to attract and retain the involvement of creative communities in the maternal health movement. We then hope to return to Zanzibar for the Zanzibar International Film Festival to do a live performance of “Mama Creator” with all participating artists, show the mini-doc and host film and music workshops with other artists attending the festival.

My hope is that by bringing these two worlds together around the issue of maternal health, that we draw new audiences into the fight to make the world a better place for women.