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Image credit: Safari Doctors

Umra Omar: Safari Doctors

Umra Omar: Safari Doctors

Delivering healthcare against all odds

Image above: Umra Omar with some of the Safari Doctors crew

When Umra Omar came back to her native home in Kenya for a family vacation with her newborn, she had no idea she would be moving back home permanently. Oluwabusayomi Sotunde, reports how a young Kenyan doctor started providing health care to civilians in a war zone.

Umra had learnt of the medical need in Lamu and the health projects that had come to a standstill given the perceived insecurity in the region. With support from closed-down projects, she decided to start up Safari Doctors, a group that provides free basic medical services to remote areas in Lamu.

However, starting out – and what she does – isn’t as simple as that.


Lamu – a pristine 14th-century town of Swahili-heritage – is an improvised community with little or no access to basic social amenities.

The conflict-laden coastal region is close to the Somali-Kenyan border, an area that has been scarred by conflict between the Kenyan military and Al-Shabaab, a militant group that has been courted by the Islamic State (ISIS). The militants have claimed responsibility for a number of notable attacks, including the Garissa University massacre in 2015 – a year after Umra founded Safari Doctors.

“It was quite scary with all sorts of warnings coming my way about going out into some of these regions. There were the naysayers and a bucket load of self doubt. Plus the financial challenge of getting support for a start-up project in an area where donors were not interested.”

Women by a tree in a Kenyan village

Safari Doctors began with very basic service delivery – hiring a nurse to conduct motorbike outreaches once a month to six very isolated villages near the Boni forest. They served about 100 patients per month in 2015.

The organisation has since grown into conducting mobile boat services and plans to provide services to at least 1,000 patients per month.

“My vision is to have quality healthcare model," says Umra, "where private services for those that can afford it, lend profits and resources to support regular outreach programmes to isolated communities – a sustainable and scalable healthcare model that could be applied beyond Lamu.”

A sense of purpose

Umra has a Bachelors in Neuroscience and Psychology and a Masters degree in Social Justice and Intercultural Relations from two prestigious American schools. Before re-locating to Kenya, she was already working full-time in Washington DC in the United States.

However, she says staying in Kenya to serve her community is less of giving back and more of getting back.

“With what I do I get a sense of purpose. I get joy. I get inspired. There is so much to get from giving back. If we all tap into that core satisfaction of serving our world, humanity would go a long way.”

But where does this sense of responsibility come from?

From her parents, especially her dad who she calls her truest inspiration. “Coming from a conservative background where daughters are a liability, he turned his into possibilities. He taught me that I could still reach for the stars with my feet planted on the ground, I could still be part of the world with Lamu in my heart.”

Umra also grew up under the influence of Oprah Winfrey. “[Her show] graced our living room on TV, regularly teaching me that leadership is all about heart-to-heart connections.”

Braving danger

Umra is unfazed by the insecurity hype on Lamu. She says understanding the purpose – plus the ability to differentiate between fear and actual danger – helped.

“The ultimate form of bravery is to overcome one’s fear. If you can just turn off that noise, only then can you embark onto a journey of possibilities and find your higher calling.”

Although she struggles with co-ordinating childcare during travels and the three-hour sleep cycles with a new-born, Umra says these challenges fuel her passion.

“What keeps me going is that the need is real and we need to step up and make a difference. It’s my children whom I hope will one day look back and know that the responsibility to make their world a better place is within their power,” says the 33-year-old mother of two.

Getting the pots filled

The biggest challenge facing Safari Doctors is the bad publicity being afforded by the media, Umra says.

“One-off security incidences have lead to a blanket classification of Lamu as a dangerous part of the country. It seems like Nairobi and Paris are allowed to move on, but Lamu is not.”

boys and young men with Umra Omar on the shore

Then there is the component of funding. Nothing moves without money.

“The main strategy to dealing with this is persistence. I refuse to get overwhelmed so we keep on knocking on doors as we explore the power of 'habanahabahujazakibaba'," she says explaining that this is a Swahili saying that means "bit by bit gets the pot filled".

"Thanks to small contributions, both financially and in kind, we have been able to put pieces together slowly but surely.”

Working together

Despite these challenges, Umra believes serving does not have to be painful or draining.

“We try to make the [medical] outreach a fun experience," she says.

"Another tactic is strategic partnerships that allow us to offset costs by engaging fellow partners that have an interest in serving the region – like the United States Civilian Service that is located in Lamu, Northern Rangeland Trust that is a conservancy in the region, and the County Government of Lamu.”

In recognition of her work, Umra was named a CNN hero in 2016. She says the biggest impact from such an award is the pressure to perform.

In the future, Umra wants to be remembered as the fearless “little engine” that made an impact in her community. “As a role model for young women! For them to realise that we can fly beyond cultural norms to unlock our full potential!”

As a young leaders, she believes that it's important to “know your strengths and focus on just that. That is what the world could use.”