Stanislaus State student extends father's legacy of care

TURLOCK -- On another continent and an ocean away, Aisha Conteh is trying to galvanize support for the rehabilitation of an African hospital.

The California State University, Stanislaus, teaching student wants to re-establish the clinic, started by her father in 1962, and treat those in Sierra Leone, most of whom die before the age of 40.

A Stockton hospital donated about $10,000 in equipment for Conteh's project. She needs to raise money to ship the appliances to Sierra Leone as well as carry out other improvements. Immediate needs for the hospital include getting electricity and water to the building, and installing a fence for protection from looting, Conteh said. She hopes to open the clinic within five years.

"It's not just money -- we need volunteers, medical professionals, people who will go to Africa with us," said Conteh, 31. "We need people who will be members of the club."

Conteh and classmates started the Dr. Hadj Conteh Sierra Leone Commun- ity Development Organization at Stanislaus State.

After studying medicine in Cairo, Egypt; Dublin, Ireland; Great Britain; and the United States, Hadj Conteh returned to his home country. A general physician, he ran the hospital as a nonprofit organization and refused for the most part to charge patients, his daughter said.

"He believed you have to put your people first; people's health and education are the two most important things in any nation," Conteh said, recalling her father's philosophy.

Steve Lewis said he joined the group to change people's lives.

"People here sometimes don't realize what's going on around the world, that they can make a difference," said Lewis, a Stanislaus State business graduate who's pursuing a teaching credential. "If all it takes is a little of my time to affect a lot of change, I almost feel like I'm obligated."

Country called 'least livable'

Conteh left Sierra Leone when she was 12. Though she wants to stay in the United States and teach high school social science, Conteh also wants to be part of the effort to lift Sierra Leone out of the ashes of war and poverty.

"After an 11-year civil war, the infrastructure is gone," she said.

Sierra Leone is on the western edge of Africa, bordering the Atlantic Ocean and surrounded by Liberia and Guinea. Its population is estimated at 6.1 million. The hospital is in Makeni, a city of about 120,000, according to the United Nations.

For the past several years, the United Nations has listed Sierra Leone as the world's "least livable" country, based on poverty and quality of life. Rebel gang fighting, ethnic rivalries, illegal diamond trading and corruption plague the country.

After years of civil war, Sierra Leone's citizens and health agencies are trying to increase people's chances of survival. As in many other Third World countries, too many Sierra Leoneans die from starvation and preventable diseases such as malaria.

Health services can now serve about 40 percent to 50 percent of the population, according to WorldPress.org, an interna- tional news magazine.

One government hospital in Makeni has about 40 beds, Conteh said. She hopes to house 90 in her dad's resurrected facility.

Hospitals are vital and powerful institutions for Africa, said Kweku Smith, associate professor of education at Stanislaus State and adviser to Conteh's club.

"A nation without health care is no nation at all," said Smith, a native of Ghana. "A healthy society can be a productive society."

Conteh, a Stockton resident and mother of two, takes classes at the university campus in Turlock and its Stockton center. She's earning her master's degree and credential in teaching.

Government and health agencies as well as hotel companies have offered to buy or rent from Conteh, but she decided against it. "It's not about money. It's about saving my father's legacy, carrying out my dad's vision. He dedicated his life to making the country better."

While Conteh is in America, tribal chiefs are looking after the hospital and land, she said.

Hadj Conteh died in 1987 at age 67 on the morning he was flying to London for a kidney transplant. Aisha Conteh's brother died in 2006 from a stomach ailment, and her stepmother died in the civil war.

After her father and brother died, Conteh inherited her dad's pride and joy -- the hospital.

Conteh visits Sierra Leone about once a year. She's making the trek in January to check on the building.

For more information, visit www.myspace.com/drhadjcontehorganization, e-mail yeeama@yahoo.com or call 938-8344. Donations also can be sent to P.O. Box 692894, Stockton, CA 95269.

Bee staff writer Michelle Hatfield can be reached at mhatfield@modbee.com or 578-2339.