By Ajong Mbapndah L
Since her return to Kenya from the USA, Umra Omar has spared no efforts in bringing succor to the needy especially in the Lamu region where she hails from. With Safari Doctors, a community based social enterprise she founded in 2015, Omar has elevated rural health realities to the frontline of development.
Omar and her team at Safari Doctors provide innovative, community-driven health care solutions to marginalized populations with a current reach of circa 2000 patients monthly across some 24 remote villages.
The groundbreaking work of Umra Omar has garnered global recognition from some of the most prestigious quarters. In 2016, she was selected as a CNN Hero for her work. In 2017, Ms. Omar won an Africa Leaders 4 Change award, featured in Business Daily’s Top40Under40 Women list, and won the United Nations in Kenya Person of The Year award. In 2019, Ms. Omar was among three finalists for the Robert Burns Humanitarian Award. She is a 2019-2020 Aurora Forum Goodwill Ambassador and a 2019-2023 World Economic Forum Young Global Leader. She is also part of the Western Indian Ocean Conservation Leadership Initiative, is a Segal Family Foundation Africa Visionary Fellow, and was recognized as a Real-Life Hero by the United Nations during the 2020 World Humanitarian Day and most recently as Kenyan National Hero on National Heroes’ Day in October 2020.
In the following Q & A with PAV, Omar shares insights into her beloved Lamu, its political relevance in the groundswell of Kenyan politics, her humanitarian work, nascent political ambitions, and more.
What is your take on the way successive Kenyan governments have handled the region of Lamu? Have you seen any changes under the leadership of President Kenyatta?
Since independence in 1963, successive governments have severely ostracized Lamu and particularly the indigenous communities along the coastline, compared to inhabitants on the inland. Today, inhabitants of Lamu from the bordering communities on the north and west, are still suffering the remnants of marginalization targeted towards the Northern Frontier Districts. They face challenges around lack of infrastructure, historical land injustices, processing of national identity documents, insecurity, poor education and more. That said, I recognize that the biggest change or innovation in recent time has been through the devolution exercise under Kenya’s 2010 Constitution that has seen services devolved to county governments, a slight reprieve from the past. This alongside the development of the port city has renewed hope, high aspirations and a re-awakening among the populations of Lamu.
Many Kenyans and Africa watchers continue to be fascinated by the county’s politics. How is partisan politics contributing to the challenges of the moment?
We of Lamu enjoy the fascination too. You may remember that Lamu borders neighboring Somalia, Garissa County and Tana River County; it has a long-lasting historical sea-trade culture; and also a richly diverse population. In some ways, the region is significantly bipolar, navigating between the exquisite United Nations World Heritage Site credentials with a vibrant beach holiday culture on the one hand, and extreme poverty-driven identity politics in the backdrop of a perceived terror hotspot to which visits are discouraged by multiple donor country travel advisories.
Historically, there have been ethnic tensions and competition going back to the Shifta wars, and then the emergence of Al-Shabaab in recent years; so what is the common denominator?
In two words, it would be “colonial borders”. The deep-rooted tension between Kenya and Somalia, highlighted by the Wagalla Massacre (1984) can be traced back to the British handover of the Northern Frontier District (NFD) of Kenya. There was an attempt by ethnic Somalis to secede the NFD from Kenya in order to join Somalia. This resulted in the Shifta War (1963-1967). Since that time, Lamu has been caught between a rock and a hard place serving as some sort of a transit battle ground noticeable by a strong military presence out of historic conflict and now support for what has metamorphosed into a global war against terror.
What is the economic potential of Lamu and the region as a whole, and how can that be leveraged nationally and even internationally?
To date, the heartbeat of Lamu County is Amu town on Lamu Island. This is Kenya’s oldest continually inhabited town and the original Swahili settlement in East Africa established as far back as the 14th century. Between the 17th-19th centuries was considered Lamu’s golden age, as the region became the epicenter of poetry, politics, arts and crafts as well as trade. Lamu has, from time immemorial, been a major player in the trade route serving as a gateway to the Indian Ocean, to the Middle East, and to India. A natural harbor, the county is home to the Lamu Port-South Sudan-Ethiopia-Transport (LAPSSET) Corridor project, also known as Lamu corridor. Lamu is also home to a $25 billion infrastructure project. The region is rapidly crossing new frontiers promising great potential in the development of the Blue Economy. And that explains why we are so proud of what we have and what we can offer the country and rest of the continent and the world.
Lamu’s diversity is also a source of strength, so what do you see as the impact of this diversity in the medium to long term?
Lamu is made up of four main indigenous communities: the Bajuni, Sanye, Aweer (Boni), and Orma with the first being the largest in population of the four. Due to its history rooted in trade, Lamu to date is a cosmopolitan county hosting various communities from across Kenya and the world. It is projected that in the next decade, Lamu’s population will grow from a mere one hundred and fifty thousand people into the millions. It is therefore incumbent upon those that govern to advance development without compromising the heritage and welfare of the people.
Back to national politics, President Kenyatta is in his last year of Office, what legacy will he leave behind, and what would you say should be the ideal profile of the next president of Kenya?
President Kenyatta has done very well for Kenya in many aspects. He has overseen devolution carrying the flag as the first president to take office under the new constitution. He has done significantly well in seeing through the legacy of the former President Mwai Kibaki who invested heavily on infrastructural developments; constructing roads, railways, connecting electricity, as well as building and expanding airports and seaports.
On the other hand, this has been perhaps one of the most unfortunate transitions in Kenya’s politics as the disastrous and costly Building Bridges Initiative spearheaded by President Kenyatta almost consumed the country through an unconstitutional process that would have undermined the integrity of the Nation by attempting to pre-determine his successor. The ideal profile of his successor, in my opinion, would be a sober development-driven leader with the capacity of creating an inclusive agenda for all of Kenya as opposed to an ethnic agenda to only benefit some parts of the country and not others. I hope the next president has a global outlook and works to reposition Kenya as the socio-economically sound heartbeat of Africa.
A few years ago, you launched “Safari Doctors”. What impact has this initiative had in Lamu and the region?
The largest impact that Safari Doctors has had in Lamu and the region is to clearly chart a model around what Universal Healthcare could look like. The award-winning community-based social enterprise founded in 2015 has amplified that WE are the solution for the challenges that we face in access to healthcare. We have been able to reach over three thousand people and domestic animals every month, in remote villages – a contrast to the colonial model of centralized healthcare services that shut out many indigenous people. Our First Mile Healthcare model is to healthcare what Mpesa is to banking.
Having been recognized by the American network CNN as one of their global heroes, alongside other awards that have come your way, how do you plan to continue impacting lives in Lamu and across Kenya?
My plan is to continue serving the people of Lamu and across Kenya by opening up opportunities in healthcare, education, sports and bringing on board partnerships that are keen to explore the potential that we have as the gem of the Blue Economy agenda. It is my hope that serving as the next Governor of Lamu County will be the key in crafting the new golden age for Lamu County and uplifting the living standards of our people
As a youthful, indigenous, woman politician, do you see a role for yourself and your peers in shaping electoral politics in Kenya this year, 2022?
As young voters and as women, we stand to shape the 2022 political narrative in Kenya. We must disrupt the status quo and make room for our large voting block on the table where decisions are made; to help craft the decisions that affect us more than they affect those making them.
You mentioned being Governor of Lamu; would you consider running for public office if nominated by one of the country’s major political parties?
There are a lot of conversations along those lines, and the major political parties and coalitions know what I represent and can bring to the table. It’s also obvious that with or without a nomination from the country’s major political parties, I will be vying for the Lamu County gubernatorial seat come Tuesday 9th of August 2022. I look forward to making history for our people, for Lamu County, and for Kenya.