Doctors With Boats: How a Kenyan Woman Is Keeping Her People Healthy
In the coastal region of Kenya, Umra Omar is bringing healthcare to areas surrounded by boat.
In 2010, after completing two degrees in the United States, Umra Omar returned to her homeland. And really, you couldn’t blame her: the coastal region of Kenya, where she was born, is pristine and beautiful. At its hub is Lamu, a 14th-century town of Swahili-heritage that looks out onto the Indian Ocean, its coastline peppered with the rocking white boats of fisherman and tourists.
Omar said she was compelled to come back because it was her town of origin, but also because she felt the desire to give back. She had pursued a bachelor’s in neuroscience and psychology before completing her master’s degree in social justice in intercultural relations.
“I was so fortunate, to be given the scholarships and the opportunity I’ve had, being a woman, being from Kenya. You know, when you’ve been given the world, you have the give the world back,” she told Global Citizen in a phone interview.
In Lamu, that meant addressing the unique challenge of the region — the difficult geography of its coastal, archipelago landscape that is both the regions joy and its pain. Its islands are untouchable hideaways, but where it concerns the indigenous communities and villages that inhabit them, they can be an expensive nightmare in terms of access.
Nurse Kalu and Umra (right) at the Immunization Table
A boat trip from Lamu to one of its surrounding islands doesn’t run cheap. In fact, it can cost as much as $300, or a week of salary. The price tag effectively restricts inhabitants of the region from realistic access to healthcare and other essentials.
It’s here that Omar’s efforts started. Driven by a vision of bringing medical access on the road, she began coordinating mobile healthcare visitations throughout the region. First, by motorbike, then by boat, and even by plane, Omar organized bi-monthly trips to bring doctors and nurses to the villages in Lamu’s orbit.
The region is a broad geographical space that, Omar says, the government understandably doesn’t have the capacity to comprehensively treat.
“[Lamu] is up in the northern coast, it’s an archipelago and it’s hard to reach. You have to take the bus through Mombasa, which makes it two days of travel to come out here,” she said.
“We also have the indigenous community that live very sparsely from one another,” Omar said. These are traditionally hunter-gatherer communities that now live spread out in between large tracts of land. Then you add the component of the sea and it becomes much more costly.”
But geography isn’t the only complication to the mission. The area around Lamu, which is close to the Somalian border, has been pockmarked by conflict between the Kenyan military and Al-Shabaab, a militant group. Originating in 2006 as a guerilla response to then-U.S. backed warlords in Somalia, the group has since grown in the eastern African region.
Al-Shabaab’s expansion across Somalia’s southern border into Kenya has been extensive. The group, which is an Al Qaeda affiliate and has also been courted by the Islamic State, is active in Kenya. Since 2010, they’ve claimed responsibility for a number of notable attacks, including the 2010 Kampala bombing and the Garissa University massacre in 2014.
It was that same year Omar founded Safari Doctors, which has made it a focus to get health services to the Aweer and Bajuni groups that have suffered from the conflict.
“Communities are very much caught in between a rock and a hard place,” says Omar, adding that it is also an ethnic problem, because Al-Shabaab militants are harder to distinguish from civilians than their military counterparts in uniform. “The militants can be more targeted than the military, which makes it very complex.”
Twice each month her team and her, a nurse, administrative coordinator, visiting medic, and boat crew leave for the villages. These outreaches can take up to four days at a time, depending upon the amount of funding they can raise beforehand. Their biggest priority? Immunizations, which are the key component to preventative health care.
Maternal care, too, is a sorely needed reality, she adds, half-jokingly noting that she should know, being currently 7 months pregnant now and with a bouncing toddler in her arms. She is married and enjoys what she calls a “village of a family,” but recognizes as well the demand for family planning and education where it isn’t available.
Beyond that, Safari Doctors does what it can to facilitate the treatments of diseases like cholera, which is prevalent in areas without clean water. For the cases Safari Doctors can’t treat in the field, Omar’s team gently coaxes their patients to make the trip to Lamu District Hospital.
“We’re at the baby stage,” says Omar. “Down the road we want to build educational groups, a volunteer exchange, and clinics.”
Her longer-term strategy is to build the infrastructure and capacity to provide more in-depth care, testing for things such as diabetes and hypertension. Ideally, she’d like to cover at least 10 villages over a weeklong outreach. In that scenario, Safari Doctors could treat up to 1,000 patients.
Currently, her project is funded by a variety of NGOs, such as the Anthony Robbins Foundation and Doctors of the World. Omar is interested in redesigning a more sustainable economic model for Safari Doctors. Her plan is to use a premium, privatized model to back-fund the public project, giving the initiative stability and longevity. She calls this, “flipping the game.”
But what she is also flipping is the conventional definition of the safari. A Swahili word meaning “to journey,” Omar says she’s owning the word for what it means, rather than the now-conventional association with animal viewing. To that end, she opens up her trips — safaris — to donors who want to see Lamu’s beautiful islands and engage with real people.
“They go out into communities, they do projects and help fund the villages, they know that there money is going toward something worthwhile.”
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