Mrs. Folasade Ofurune is the Executive Director of the non-governmental organization, Health Education and Empowerment Initiative, HEDEN. Her ogranisation has been active in the campaign for good health, especially in the hard-to-reach areas. In this interview with OKIKIOLA LAMIDI, she speaks on the effect of her organization on the lives of people. She says she likes helping those who cannot pay back. Also, she spoke about her motivation, achievements and how best people in the rural areas can be helped to improve their health. Excerpts:
Can you give a brief history of HEDEN. When did it start, how and what inspired it?
Health Education and Empowerment Initiative (HEDEN) started in 2003. It was formerly called Eclipse Development Initiative (EDI). HEDEN began when I was going for antenatal classes during the pregnancy of my first born. I observed that the women used to discuss among themselves. They often said things that were detrimental to their health such as ‘don’t eat a banana because it causes soft fontanel.’ I was worried, so I spoke to the medical director of the hospital to allow me talk to the women, give a lesson of a sort. That was the beginning of Sweet Mother Programme, a maternal and child health programme. I am inspired by my love for people, helping and watching things. Simply put, that was how it all started. I was given the opportunity and I did my best.
What did you set out to do with HEDEN and would you say you are on course?
With HEDEN, I set out in 2003 to improve the health of mothers and their children through education. I aimed at reducing maternal and child mortality in communities. 15 years down the lane I would say I am still on course because I still hold the Sweet Mother Programme in health centres till today. My goal has led me to improve myself through courses, degrees and trainings so that I can deliver quality programmes geared towards improving health.
What has the journey been like?
I would say, beautiful. It is not that it has been smooth as there were times when I had given up because of no fund. But something in me will not let me rest. It will keep telling me to go and talk to these people. My concern has always been: They should not be sick or die out of ignorance. At times like that, I do have a good cry because I feel frustrated, but each time I talk to people and they express their gratitude, I feel fulfilled and energized. It makes me to carry on. The journey has been beautiful because I have impacted so many lives, I have given to people who cannot pay back, and it is a wonderful experience.
Your target has been taking care of health issues. What is the interest in health? Has it got to do with your background or profession?
Well, I would say my interest comes naturally to me because I am a very caring person. I like to make people happy, and a sick person cannot be happy. So, I am concerned about people’s health so that they can be happy and lead quality lives. My interest initially has nothing to do with my profession because my first degree was Agriculture. Except, perhaps that Agriculture deals with life and health also does. Over the years, I have acquired a Post Graduate Diploma in Education and a Master of Public Health degree.
You have been carrying out healthcare campaigns in the not easy to reach areas. What has the experience been like?
The experience has been fruitful and engaging. Initially, the people often showed apathy towards the projects, but when some of them attended and informed others, they came trooping in. They usually do not want us to go, and they always request for other health programmes to be brought to their communities.
What has been your strange findings in the not easy to reach areas with regards to healthcare?
I did say that people in hard to reach communities often use trial and error approach to treatments. It is often because there are usually no quality health facilities nearby; they are often poor, and illiterates. Friends and neighbours compare symptoms in a bid to diagnose the disease. Then they recollect and recommend what they used for similar cases. If that fails, another neighbour recommends another treatment. This cycle continues until they cannot manage the situation again, then they head for the health centre. Most times things have become complicated.
How have you been able to tackle some of the problems you find in those places?
I use different approaches. I use logical reasoning, practical example, case studies, group discussion amongst others. These approaches do not tell them that they are wrong, but it helps them to conclude that they acted in error. Hence, they are very likely to understand that self-medication, for instance, is illegal and they will be able to convince others to stop it.
How do you think the government can help the health situations in rural places?
I will like to acknowledge that the needs in rural communities are numerous and the government may not be able to address all the health issues at once. From my field experience, I suggest that effort should be put to strengthen the current community health centres and their workforce. A stock-taking should be carried out to identify the needs of the facilities. Health workers should be trained on the client-provider relationship so that they can improve their attitude to patients. It is because the negative attitude of health workers is a culprit in the patronage of quacks and self-medication. Community mobilisation should be carried out to identify the other reasons why people do not visit public health facilities in each community. The government should address these social determinants. These measures as simple as they look are crucial in improving the attitude and practices of people towards health.
How do you think others can help people in the rural areas too?
I will agree that accessing rural communities is difficult, so many people would rather help people in urban communities. However, if you cannot go to the rural areas you can support individuals and organisations who can go to rural communities. Support is not often as expensive as people think. It can be as little as paying for transport to the communities. Build health centres in rural communities and hand them to the government to provide workforce if you cannot afford it; provide free potable water in the villages; construct or repair roads and carry out public enlightenment in the rural population. Little drops of water make a mighty ocean.
What specifically are the areas of concern healthwise among the people in the remote areas.
While the need of each community differs, there are common themes that cut across. There are no good health centres and pharmacy nearby; no free potable public water and no public toilet. A funny case happened in a community where we worked. The parents of public primary school dug toilets in the school for the pupils. It was observed that the doors to the toilet were always vandalized by community members who came to use the toilets over the weekend. So, the school management decided to leave two doors open for the public to use and got a security man. But the security man turned it into business because he collects money from people who come to use the toilet. Public toilet in the rural community is linked to improved health because people will not practise open defecation. But where there is no public toilet, open defecation is often practised. This causes the outbreak of diarrhoeal diseases including cholera.
How do you get your finances and what are the constraints you commonly experience in sourcing funds?
HEDEN gets it funding from corporate organizations, individual donations, local partnerships and international donors. The primary constraints in sourcing funds from corporate organizations are that most of them think that the organization will request for a huge amount, so they do not even listen. Some will hear and ask for the proposal, but they will implement the project by themselves. Others will not listen unless you know someone working there who will push for you. The challenge with local partnerships is that most organisations prefer to implement project alone. For the international donor, sometimes the eligibility attached to the grant is not easy for small NGOs to meet.
How well has your project saved or changed the lives of the people of the rural areas for the better? Do you get feedback? If yes, give us one or two of such experiences.
HEDEN has saved and changed many lives positively. Many mothers have called and visited my office to express their gratitude. Some of the pupils in schools we work have grown to have their own NGOs, and they say it is because of the impact of our work on them. I can remember one day at a bank, I was on the queue, and I observed the cashier kept looking at me and was smiling. When it was my turn, he called my name and asked if I recognised him to which I said no. He said that he was a member of our Seeds of Hope Club which we establish in schools. When he mentioned his name, I remembered him, but he is all grown up. He kept thanking me so much so that a man standing nearby asked ‘What exactly has this woman done that you are thanking her this much?’ The cashier said “She shaped my life. Without her project at my school, I wouldn’t be here today. She taught me the values and life skills that have guided me through life especially during my youth.”
Are you encouraged to go on and what is your ultimate ambition in this area?
I am motivated to continue if I can survive till now nothing can take me from public health. My ultimate goal is to make HEDEN a one-stop public health facility. HEDEN will also have a rehabilitation centre for drug and substance abuse. I aim to be a renowned authority in public health and influence public health policy.