LAMU, Kenya – When Umra Omar came home to Lamu, an island off Kenya’s northern coast, in 2014 after years of studying and working for human rights organizations in the U.S., she was only thinking about seeing old friends and looking after her 8-month-old baby.
But when she heard about how government and NGO health service providers had pulled out of areas along the coast in the wake of attacks by extremist Islamic terrorists al-Shabab and Kenyan military intervention, Omar knew she had to help.
She started by mopping up what little funding departing international NGOs had left to pay for a nurse on a motorbike to access some of the areas that had been abandoned. Travel warnings by governments in the West meant the [cut: UNESCO-protected] tourist island’s fortunes were fading fast, so Omar set up a crowdfunding site to send healthcare workers to remote villages through her charity Safari Doctors.
Earlier this year, while pregnant with her second child, Omar, 33, and a team of health workers started sailing along what she calls “The Al-Shabab Corridor,” [cut: a route along which villages have been attacked by militants thought to be hiding and training in nearby forests,] to deliver vaccines to children and maternal and reproductive health to women in six coastal villages.
The journeys – safaris, in Swahili – take around four days and provide a lifesaving service to many women and girls who might otherwise not be reached. For many of the young women, traveling to Lamu district hospital from their homes can cost up to $300, more than most can afford.
Omar was recently named a CNN Hero, and international aid organizations applaud her work. Even with all of that recognition, Safari Doctors is still a small, local outfit and Omar sometimes struggles to even pay the nurse’s salary, having to dip into her own savings to keep services afloat.
Despite the challenges, Omar is determined to expand the Safari Doctors’ sailing route to reach 10 villages, or 1,000 people, and the services to get surgeons and doctors to deal with more complicated cases. That will involve going deeper into al-Shabab territory – something Omar isn’t worried about because she considers the organization’s small, apolitical, local structure to be an asset that stops it from being regarded as a target.
Women & Girls spoke with Omar about the work Safari Doctors has done so far – and what inspires them to carry on their work despite the threats facing them.
Women & Girls: How were you received when you first turned up in these villages that had been abandoned by other NGOs?
Umra Omar: Usually [this work] is considered something that either you’re paid to do or it’s a project, so people wonder who’s really behind it. Being from the community, there’s a sense of acceptance that’s quite inspiring. And what’s amazing is that anything small makes a huge difference – it could be just going in for the vaccinations. It’s been a very humbling and welcoming experience.
Women & Girls: How does your work help women and girls?
Omar: When it comes to health issues and being a woman, there’s no opt out, it’s compulsory. It’s not like you have to get sick or have an accident in order to access it, it’s a part of our life, from maternal health to reproductive health. So to be in a place where you can’t access these resources …
Most of the men we talk to, the thing they most often ask for is how we can look after their women and children and ease the burden of travel. A man can pick up and go, whereas for a woman or young lady, it’s a different journey. You’re thinking of who you’re leaving the kids with, where you’re going and staying, how safe it is. So women and young girls are the target, because they’re the ones who most consistently need these services.
Women & Girls: Which of your services is the most helpful to the women of Lamu?
Omar: The gratitude that we get is mainly [for] the family planning side. It’s amazing how they’re the ones who are taking the burden of this. You never get a man asking for condoms, unless he’s military. That’s the thing where I see the biggest difference, women saying, “Thank you for bringing this here.” Otherwise you’d have child after child after child, even when you know you’d like a break or to take care of yourself.
Women & Girls: Which stories have stayed with you?
Omar: There was one particular lady in Kiangwe; by the time we were going in with Safari Doctors, it was her third pregnancy. And two of the previous ones had been miscarriages, from simple things like not being able to go for checkups, not being able to access any emergency services whatsoever. If you had to go into an emergency birth, you’d have to just call it a day, because there’s just no way. You’re either blessed with a natural delivery via the midwife or, if there’s any complications, there’s nothing that can be done about it.
What we tried to do was facilitate mobility for this woman, and go and do the basic antenatals. And she has a 3-month-old baby now.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
This article has been updated to correct some of Umra Omar’s personal details and to note that the areas Safari Doctors works in are affected by military action as well as al-Shabab activity.