How a simple phone call is now helping to save lives in Africa

Mary Kolu Massaquoi
Mary Kolu Massaquoi
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Former nurse Mary Kolu Massaquoi is spreading health advice in Africa inspired by phone calls to her sister. Catherine Scott reports.

THOUSANDS of people in parts of Africa can’t wait to tune in to the next episode of Calls to My Sister.

As well as being entertaining phone chats between two sisters – one in Liberia and one in Yorkshire – they always include valuable information and advice about health, hygiene and nutrition. But what fans of Calls to My Sister probably don’t know is that the programmes are recorded in Bradford, by former nurse-midwife Mary Kolu Massaquoi.

Mary got the idea for her fictional programmes from actual conversations she used to have with her sister when she was forced to move to England by the civil war.

“Letters weren’t getting through but I was able to contact my family by telephone,” says 63-year-old Mary. “I would ring and talk to my sister about health and nutrition and she would pass it on. When I was due to retire I decided to study public health and nutrition at Huddersfield University.

“I had learnt broadcasting and programming years before and when the minister of my church suggested I go back to it. It seemed to be my destiny. I had to choose a target audience and so I chose women of child bearing age who couldn’t access health information very easily.

“That is why I thought the phone calls with my sister would be a good way of getting the message across. They aren’t lectures but they still deal with very important messages such as hand washing, breast feeding and food and nutrition.”

And feedback to the broadcasts has shown that her message is getting through and since then she has broadened her range of themes to include ebola and how to contain it. Her five programmes on the subject were very widely heard and quite possibly helped to stem the transmission of the disease, especially in her home country of Liberia.

“It was a very frightening time,” says Mary who lives in Bradford. “My family were out there and I was researching all about what was happening on the front line for my programmes. Luckily they were all okay.”

Mary was born in Liberia, but came to the UK in the early 1970s. During her career in nursing and midwifery she worked widely around Britain, before taking her skills back to her home country.

She was working as a paediatric nurse in Liberia when civil war broke out in the 1990s.

“I was given 24 hours to decide whether to stay in Liberia or evacuate,” she recalls. “Looking back I think if I’d had longer to think about it I would have left then, but I decided to stay.”

For a year Mary helped the casualties of the civil war, but eventually she was convinced she should leave and return to her second home on Yorkshire. When she retired from nursing and had settled in Bradford, she decided to develop her long-standing interest in nutrition and hygiene education and studied at the University of Huddersfield for a degree in the subject.

During the work placement year that was part of her course, she renewed her connection with the Christian organisation Radio Worldwide, which had relocated to Leeds and which itself works with a missionary body named Reach Beyond that has connections with several radio stations in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Mary saw an opportunity to convey her health education message to African audiences and devised the concept of doing so via simulated phone calls between herself and her sister. After the initial chit-chat – with sounds of family life in the background – important nuggets of information on aspects of hygiene, nutrition and childcare are slipped into the conversation.

Mary does have a real sister – Gomah – who lives in Liberia. But she records the scripted Calls to My Sister programmes at a studio in Bradford, using friends, and budding child actors who lend authenticity to the background.

After the first series of the two-to-three minute programmes had been broadcast, one large Liberian hospital noted a significant drop in the numbers of visitors purely seeking health advice. It turned out that a programme named Calls to My Sister was dispensing much of the information they needed.

After her graduation, Mary began work on a new batch of broadcasts, this time dealing the emergent menace of ebola. She contacted front-line organisations, in order to compile essential advice and her five ebola programmes were heard in many African countries.

They also came to the attention of BBC Media Action – the corporation’s international development arm – which was developing a series of dramatised programmes under the title Kick Ebola from Liberia, featuring a character named Mr Plan-Plan.

Mary’s knowledge of the subject and her Liberian background meant she was an ideal candidate to work on the programmes and she paid visits to studios in London’s Shepherd’s Bush to work on scripts.

Now Mary is determined to develop her broadcasting enterprise, broadening her range of topics and aiming to make use of facilities and potential collaborations at the University of Huddersfield. After a long career in health care she is relishing her new direction

“I have always loved the idea of health and nutrition education and now I am doing it on the radio,” she said.