A mother nurses her newborn at the maternity ward of the Kailahun Government hospital in Sierra Leone (MARCO LONGARI/AFP via Getty Images)

Thousands of women die every year in childbirth in Sierra Leone. It ranks highest in the world for maternal mortality, and near the lowest on the United Nation's human development index. The health of mothers is important for families and economies, and not just in Sierra Leone. When a mother dies in childbirth it strikes at the heart of any community. 

Last summer Jessica Mun ‘21, a 21-year-old anthropology and global studies dual major, boarded a plane for Sierra Leone to try and understand why so many pregnant women end up dead. Her quest took her to government hospitals and rural clinics where she talked to local midwives, foreign trained doctors, mothers and their families. 

As a result of the trip, Mun is creating a docuseries titled Safe Motherhood. The project is guided by her global outlook. “It’s not me vs. you and us vs. others. This isn’t just my world. I’m part of something larger.” 

Sierra Leone is a small west African nation of 6.3 million that confronted civil war in the 1990s and rebel attacks that followed. Today there are international and local efforts to rebuild the country’s healthcare, educational and economic systems, but more than half of Sierra Leone’s residents live on less than $1.25 a day.

The closest Mun came to Sierra Leone as a child was Hollywood, which depicted the country’s internecine conflict in “Blood Diamond.” Mun grew up in the shadows of Hollywood, in San Gabriel Valley. Her mother hailed from Mexico and her father from South Korea. “We lived in a very Asian area, spent time with the same people and never moved,” she says. She flew on a plane for the first time when she arrived at Lehigh for freshman orientation. 

She planned to study biology, but hated her first chemistry class, and started scouting for more captivating subjects. A guest lecture on social power structures in Nigeria intrigued her and led her to related classes in Global Studies. 

The major’s broad curriculum covers everything from transnational migration to emerging entrepreneurs and economies to postcolonial political structures, as well as cultural practices—like gift giving--and how they have different roles around the world. “It’s really interesting to learn how much things we do in the United States affect other parts of the world,” Mun says. 

She also studied communication styles, and how ideas are exchanged across cultures. Mun discovered South Bethlehem offered a testing ground for different ways of viewing media and documentary storytelling. She joined a group of students working on a video addressing the community impact of the Sands Resort and Casino. 

There were no electric lights, and no fluids for the mom. The healthcare provider used light from a cell phone to see the baby’s head.

“Betting on Bethlehem” centers on the rise of the casino following the closure of Bethlehem Steel. 

Mun served as the project’s community liaison, spoke to church groups, refugee families and people at libraries, in search of those willing to be interviewed. “I expected to hear about higher crime rates and homelessness, but people told me about the positive aspects of the casino,” she recalls. She also helped advertise screenings of Betting on Bethlehem when it opened last fall. 

Her contribution to the documentary helped Mun nab a Global Social Impact Fellowship. The cross-disciplinary, year-long program supports Lehigh students interested in sustainable development in low-income countries including Sierra Leone, Kazakhstan and the Philippines. It gives students a chance to work with faculty mentors designing and conducting field research and publishing results in journals, academic sites and at conferences.

Mun is among several dozen students collaborating on projects in Sierra Leone. One team is working on a venture that would spur mushroom farming. Another is addressing malnutrition. Mun and a few other students are working on the docuseries on causes of Sierra Leone’s high maternal mortality rate.  

Last August, she and other students landed in Sierra Leone’s international airport and quickly set out for the hinterland to see first-hand conditions facing pregnant moms. Their vehicle hurtled over potholes and debris along dirt roads. They stopped for wandering chickens and other animals and passed motorbikes carrying whole families.

When they reached their first clinic, Mun started conducting interviews. She learned that a lot of moms plan to deliver at home and only end up at clinics when serious problems arise. 

Surprisingly, when she asked why so many women died giving birth, people rejected the question. They said no mothers died at the clinic. “I couldn’t understand it and started coming up with all these theories—they’re suspicious of me, they’re traumatized and don’t want to talk about it,” she recalls. Then a nurse pointed out that the clinic refers the most difficult cases to hospitals so it’s possible that some moms died elsewhere.

The group then made its way to Masanga, a rural village that’s also home to a hospital supported by global NGOs. When founded, it treated Leprosy patients, and today has expanded to deliver surgical, obstetrical, pediatric and general healthcare for about 12,000 patients a year. A handful of Western-educated physicians runs a program for Sierra Leone doctors to learn surgical techniques. “Masanga is in the middle of nowhere, but it served so many people. They’d already be sick and then walk along these terrible roads to reach the hospital.”

As one young mother went into the final stages of labor, Mun filmed conditions. “There were no electric lights, and no fluids for the mom. The healthcare provider used light from a cell phone to see the baby’s head. It was crazy to watch,” she recalls. Fortunately, the baby was born healthy and the mother survived. 

Mun and the rest of the Safe Motherhood team concluded their first visit to Sierra Leone with a clear view of its challenges. Although healthcare is officially free for pregnant women and children under five, the system reaches less than half those who need it. The country lacks trained midwives and doctors, access to properly equipped hospitals and critical medicine.

 They returned to Lehigh to conduct additional research, review footage and figure out shots to collect during their second visit, later this year. When finished, they plan to distribute the docuseries using the WhatsApp social tool so that it reaches their target audience—Sierra Leone mothers and their families, who stand to lose the most. Already the project and its subject has reached Mun: “I know I want to pursue a career in documentaries,” she says.