Visitors to Kenya’s stunning coastline will probably be familiar with traditional Swahili dhow boats. They have carried the ancient Kenyan community across the seas for centuries. What some may not realise though, is the teamwork and camaraderie that is crucial to smooth sailing. All eyes, ears, and hands need to be on deck, at all times.
Safari Doctors, a community-based organization in Lamu, operates under a similar mantratogether we go far. Founded by Umra Omar in 2015, it is a testament to the power of communities coming together. Safari Doctors works to improve access to healthcare among Lamu County’s most remote and marginalized communities. It does this through regular outreach work and monthly boat clinics, in partnership with Lamu County Ministry of Health.
Before the speedboats, dhow, stream of volunteers, and international recognition (Umra Omar was selected as a 2016 CNN Hero and together with her team has been awarded the UN in Kenya’s United Nations Person of the Year 2017 award), Safari Doctors was just three determined people and a borrowed motorbike. “In the beginning, it was Kalu, Mariam, and I,” says Umra Omar. “Some days, we would just sit in our donated office space and look at each other, because there was no money to carry out the work that we had set out to do. It’s humbling to see how much we’ve grown since then.”
This year the team of nine has reached over 7,000 patients across 25 remote villages. The difficult mainland routes are navigated by our head nurse, Harrison Kalu, on a motorbike. The islands in the archipelago are reached by sailboat, which becomes the team’s home for several days each month. The dhow is loaded with medicines for each village. Upon arrival, the team sets up a clinic either in a building or under a tree and carries out children’s vaccinations, check-ups, basic procedures, makes and facilitates referrals.
The remoteness of this part of Lamu County, coupled with a lack of infrastructure and poverty, means the indigenous Aweer and Bajuni communities struggle to access health services. Safari Doctors is at times their only opportunity. Bwanahamadi Yasin, an elderly man who is a regular clinic patient, said, “Here, we struggle – there are no hospitals, and there is one doctor and when he’s on leave there is nowhere to get service except in Faza or Lamu.”
The organization would not be where it is today without a community of dedicated people behind it. On Kiwayuu island, in the narrow channel that hugs the back of the village, it is not uncommon for young men to stop what they are doing, help offload the medicines from the boat and carry them up the steep hill. In Tchundwa village, a local resident lends his property every month for Safari Doctors’ clinics and helps maintain orderly queues. Last month, in Faza village, a resident gave a tiny patient powdered milk when his mother was unable to breastfeed. Volunteer surgeons had just conducted an emergency operation on the baby—the first on site- and without that contribution, the child would have had to wait hours to be fed.
In Swahili culture, “karibu”— welcome—rolls off the tongue. Karibu when you enter, karibu at meal times, karibu when you leave. The welcoming nature of the places Safari Doctors operates in, eases the difficulties of reaching them. In Shanga Rubu village, a wave of colourfully dressed women swooped into the clinic and pulled Safari Doctors’ Program Manager aside. Far from being an urgent matter, she later explained smiling, “they were just friends saying hello.”
There are successes to celebrate each month; the first time an eye specialist, surgeon, and dentist joined clinics and treated ailments that some patients had been suffering from for years; the successful emergency appeal which raised over $2000 for a teenager who was a victim of an attack by militants; buying life-changing anti-epileptic drugs for a young boy; successfully carrying out minor surgeries on site for patients who would otherwise have struggled to make the long and expensive journey to the nearest hospital.
The support that Safari Doctors receives from local organizations like Air Kenya, which transports the team and its medicines from Nairobi to Lamu every month, has helped the organization reach new heights. International volunteers who give their time, sponsors who make sailing clinics a reality, and generous donations from around the world keep the team’s sails blowing in the wind, on their journey for change.
To #JoinTheJourney and make a difference visit: www.safaridoctors.org