A group of Goalkeepers community members

Umra  Omar  Goalkeeper

Umra Omar: Humanitarian, Community Conservation Strategist, Listener

Founder, Safari Doctors
Goal 3: Good Health and Well-Being

Blessing: What did a regular day look like for you as a young girl growing up on Lamu?

Umra: It was the perfect kind of grandmother-raising-granddaughters kind of upbringing that you hear about in traditional African families, because my mom had gone off to study. My parents have always been rooted in their origins, which is Lamu, and the culture of moving forward by giving back. Back then, you didn’t experience what we see nowadays in terms of social class or other differences. If it was mango season, I’d go hang out with the girls, but I was a tomboy. There was a lot of walking around with a knife and hot pepper in one hand and salt in the other and hanging out on top of mango trees. Every evening, my grandmother and her “gang” would be playing cards in the front yard, and we would be playing with our dolls right next to them. It was the most carefree childhood, and I’m so happy I can give my kids a very similar experience today.

Blessing: In 2015, you moved back to Lamu and started this social enterprise called Safari Doctors. What was the genesis behind this project, and how has it grown over the years?

Umra: In 2014, there was a huge massacre in Lamu and over 100 people were killed. That’s when I decided to move back home. I had this sense of urgency and responsibility—I needed to figure out what was happening. I also needed to make my next move in life because I had a baby. I had quit my job in New York City because I was done with the cubicle lifestyle. When I was back in Lamu with my boy, I saw him being accepted as a little human being. I started Safari Doctors with the mission that it would be a locally led entity versus the existing French mobile medical project that served as its inspiration. After a year I realized, “Okay...I think I don’t live in New York.” Safari Doctors started with a motorbike and a nurse going to just six villages to see women and distribute vaccines. Today, we travel to over 24 villages and see more than 3,000 patients a month. The idea is to shift how we see health care: Instead of last-mile treatment, we focus on the first mile and preventative care. 

Blessing: What do you think we need to do to be able to achieve universal health care coverage?

Umra: We need to decolonize the health care model. We need to stop making it about waiting for people to get sick. And we need to stop defining health care as curing; health care is preventing. We need to invest heavily in community health workers because they’re the first point of care.

What are the most powerful lessons you’ve learned as a leader?

Umra: Trust. Literally knowing that if you threw yourself back, there’s somebody there for you. You need trust and rapport with the community, and trust comes by involving people.  Our strategic plan involved every single staff member in the office, regardless of their degrees or salary. We involved the imams, the schools, and opinion shapers in order to build that rapport. When the pandemic hit, we made an informed decision and asked questions like “How many cases are in Kenya and Lamu? And how many cases are critical?” We analyzed this data with the team and left the final decision of whether or not to stay open to them. I let the staff know that if they wanted to close until further notice then we can do that, but if you guys want to go in, we can do that also. And literally everyone said, “We want to go in and work.”

Blessing: What does rest look like for you?

Umra: There’s a tea bag that I saved which I have it pinned on my board at home, and it says, “Life is made out of moments. This is one of them.” So sometimes rest is just sitting and holding a warm cup of herbal tea or talking to an old friend on the phone.

Blessing: If you were on a deserted island, what three items would you take with you?

Umra: I would take my two amazing children, Azza and Bwana, along with some music and just dance. I like to listen to Backstreet Boys, but don’t tell anybody. And nowadays, East African music is so badass. I like Mbosso—it’s pure genge music, as we call it. [Editor’s note: Genge is a Kenyan hip-hop genre that was popularized in the 2000s.] 

Umra Omar stands on the beach in Shela, Lamu Island, Kenya
Photo courtesy of Gates Archives/ Mumbi Muturi
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