For an adventurous person, Lamu is a beautiful island, with rolling dunes and endless beaches where one can find tranquility from the hustle and bustle of city life. However, this traveller’s paradise has little or no access to basic amenities. In addition, the region has been scared in the past by conflict between the Al Shabaab militia and the Kenyan military, leaving the indigenous Aweer and Bajuni communities with lack of basic healthcare services.
Around 20,000 people live within the archipelago and on the mainland near the border with Somalia and the locals here travel long distances to reach the nearest health facility.
Schools have also been closed as a result of the frequent attacks. Umra Omar, a native of Pate Island in the Lamu archipelago, came back home in Kenya for a family vacation with her newborn and this crisis drove her to permanently relocate to her motherland.
She was living in the US and earned a Bachelor’s degree in Neuro Science and Psychology from two prestigious American schools. She had also earned a Master’s degree in Social Justice and Intercultural Relations and was already working in Washington DC.
“It was out of a sense of responsibility that I decided to come back home,” Umra says.With donations from friends and just a nurse on a motorbike, in the year 2015, Umra launched Safari Doctors, a group that offers free basic medical services to remote areas in Lamu.
More volunteers began to join and currently, under Umra’s watchful eye, they travel by boat, road and air to assist the locals to have access to medical care. According to the World Health Organisation, 46 per cent of the global populations lives below the poverty line.
In addition, the research discovered that Kenya has a ratio of one doctor and 12 nurses for every 10, 000 people. Most residents who require urgent medical attention have been alienated because of low quality treatment.
Sometimes, this mother of two, travels with her team using a boat as often as she can in the remote islands. The nearest hospital is far and the cost of making such trips for the Bajunis and Boni communities is beyond what they can afford.
They also provide immunisations, maternity care as well as other health services required. In most cases, the visits take up to four days and depend on the amount of funds they receive before the trips are made. In a month, Umra says her team assists more than 1,000 Lamu residents.
So far, under their care, child immunisation has gone up by at least 40 per cent, skin conditions are down by 30 per cent and the number of expectant mothers visiting clinics and also demanding contraceptives has tripled.
Her vision to have thriving communities in remote settings has resulted in the launch of a Health Ambassadors programme, which engages the youth and women who receive basic health education and training. This facilitates their work and empowers their communities too.
Apart from balancing family life and the call to help others, the negative publicity that Lamu has received as a dangerous part of the country has affected their operations. In addition, lack of funds is a problem, but Umra’s persistence assists her deal with the issue. Her work has not gone unnoticed.
Umra has been given many awards for her outstanding work in Lamu Island. In 2016 she was nominated the CNN Hero of the Year. The same year she won an Africa Leaders 4 Change award and was featured in Business Daily’s Top40Under40 Women. In addition, she became the United Nations person of the year alongside her entire team.