My heart warmed when the four women entered the meeting room where I had been waiting. I stood up to greet them and their babies, eager to hear their stories. The young mothers sat in the chairs across from us and soon the babies were all up on the table, the proud moms making sure that we could see their precious little ones. The youngest baby was 4 and a half months old, the oldest 14 months. They were all adorable.
We had lively conversations. One young mother, Letty, described the ups and downs of her pregnancy. Living in Johannesburg, she was far from her home country, Zimbabwe, and from her mother, aunts, grandmother or anyone she trusted to give her the advice and information she craved. The cost of phoning these trusted relatives was prohibitive, so Letty found support when she enrolled to receive text messages via her mobile phone from MAMA, the Mobile Alliance for Maternal Action. "I'm here. I'm alone. The SMS messages helped me a lot. They helped me feel that someone is there," Letty said.
MAMA South Africa was launched with the support of global partners USAID, Johnson & Johnson, the United Nations Foundation, the mHealth Alliance, and BabyCenter. In addition, Vodacom joined the South Africa partnership, offering MAMA's mobile website, askmama.mobi, free of charge to its 25 million customers. The goal of MAMA is to deliver health messages that moms need at specific milestones during pregnancy and during the first year of their baby's development.
An existing South African mHealth partnership helped bring MAMA South Africa to life: Cell-Life, Praekelt Foundation and WRHI at the University of the Witwatersrand. Through MAMA, new and expectant mothers receive messages that address important topics such as nutrition during pregnancy, how to prepare for childbirth and recognizing signs of trouble which, if unheeded, can lead to difficulties in labor and delivery.
I sat across from these four women who had benefited from the MAMA partnership and listened carefully as they described their experiences. For these mothers, the SMS messages calmed their fears. One of the women, Faith, said that she had enrolled in the program when she was five months pregnant and had found reassurance in the MAMA texts. "The messages sometimes tell you, 'This is normal' and then you don't worry," she said. Letty added that when her baby was up all night, she received a message that said "Your baby may be teething" which calmed her fears.
Another mom, Ntando, was seven months pregnant and already had one child when she enrolled in the MAMA program. On the day of our meeting, her baby boy was already five months old. "The way we raised the first one is different from the way we raise this one." She looked at her son and then added a comment about MAMA. "They'll help me raise this one," she said.
The third woman, Memory, signed up to receive MAMA messages when her baby was five months old. She said that she appreciated the help in "how to say 'no' to my son." Memory also told us that she found the messages so helpful that she shares them with a friend who does not have a phone.
Faith visits the MAMA website with her husband and they learn together. Her praise for the organization struck a particular chord for me: "I like them because they don't just take care of the baby, they also take care of the moms," she said.
As our time together drew to a close, I thanked Letty, Memory, Faith and Ntando for taking the time to meet with us. Many of their comments have stayed with me, but none more than this one: "You feel like you are alone, and these SMS messages make you feel loved."
Follow Sharon D'Agostino on Twitter at @sharondagostino