Kenyan Health Activist: From Mangrove Swamps To Politics

Most Kenyan candidates find their way into politics by navigating the corridors of power in one of the country’s big established parties.

Health activist Umra Omar is hoping to plot out her route to office via a different route – through the mangrove swaps and inlets of her country’s Lamu archipelago.

She has been running the charity Safari Doctors for the past seven years, using small, brightly painted boats to zip around Lamu to take free medical care to people in some of its most remote villages.

Now she says she doesn’t want to just plug holes in the system – she wants to change it. So she’s running for the county governorship in the Aug. 9 elections for the small Safina party, originally founded by conservationist Richard Leaky.

The tall 39-year-old faces significant challenges, not least Lamu’s established incumbent governor, Yasin Twaha, who is from President Uhuru Kenyatta’s Jubilee Party.

She lacks the infrastructure of a big political organisation, but has a clear campaign focus in the coastal county known both for its multi-million-dollar holiday homes and poverty-stricken villages.

The maternal mortality rate there is 676 deaths per 100,000 live births, compared with 495 nationally, according to the African Institute of Development Policy.

There are two clinical officers per 100,000 people, compared with 21 nationally.

“My journey towards politics has been heavily influenced by our healthcare initiative here in Lamu,” she said.

Omar has pledged to launch a health audit in her first month if elected, saying three out of six people who seek treatment are referred out of the county because facilities are so inadequate.

Lamu governor Twaha did not respond to requests for comment on the health situation.

Her other priorities include training youths so they can work at a new port being built in the county, cleaning up the litter that blows around 700-year-old Lamu Town – a World Heritage Site full of old Swahili buildings – and building a diverse administration.

If elected, she would become Lamu’s first female governor. Currently only three out of Kenya’s 47 county governors are female. There are also far fewer female lawmakers in Kenya than there are in neighbours Uganda, Tanzania and Ethiopia.

“We need women in these spaces that makes decisions around matters that effect our lives, our bodies, our children and the next generation,” Omar said.