Nurturing Change in Tanzania: Yaya's Story of Community Health

October 5, 2015
Writing

Originally published September 16, 2016

Yaya, a midwife we met in Tanzania, pioneered the construction of a health clinic and challenged the norms of healthcare in her Maasai community.

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Hundreds of flies buzzed around the Olmoti clinic’s front porch, where we sought refuge from the sun’s rays. The pungent scent of urine burned our nostrils, accentuated by the heat. Despite the unfavorable conditions, Yaya appeared unfazed. If anything, she exuded a sense of regality as she sat next to us, her lime green, plastic sandals contrasting with her draped, traditional Maasai attire and large, beaded earrings.

“A lot of women were bleeding to death at home because they did not have a road here,” she said, indicating the vast expanse in front of the clinic. Creating a designated path to the clinic was only one of the improvements that Yaya’s overseen since the Olmoti clinic was first built. It was a project she initially spearheaded out of desperation for the future of her people; in particular, mothers who suffered from pregnancy-related complications.  

“A person who is in need is even cleverer than someone who isn’t because they have no choice,” she said, almost proverbially. “When someone used to need help, they would not be able to get help in time because hospitals would be 20 km away. They used to get the help of warriors [the term for Maasai men] to carry the sick person to the road and wait six hours or so for a car to come down the road. Often a car would not come in time, and the sick person would die.”

Yaya refused to bear witness to what others accepted as the norm. With the help of Diane Raleigh, PhD, she managed to secure 40 acres of land and break ground on its construction. Her hard work began to pay off once news spread of the clinic and its services. “At first, attendance was very poor – maybe just one person a day,” she recalled. But gradually, more women and children began flocking to the clinic, in search of solutions for their ailments and hope for their future.

Yaya’s advocacy for healthcare, particularly in regard to pre- and post-natal health, stems from her experience as a midwife and her own pregnancies. Apart from the numerous babies she’s delivered as a midwife, over the years she’s given birth to 18 children of her own, although complications and insufficient healthcare resulted in the deaths of nine of them. The death of her husband many years back compounded those traumatic experiences and made her vulnerable to theft, as widows aren’t respected in the Maasai culture.

“I know the importance of women in the society to give birth to children in this world." - Yaya, Head Midwife, Olmoti Clinic

By prioritizing pre- and post-natal health for mothers at the clinic, Yaya hopes to prevent what happened to her from afflicting anyone else. Luckily, “there is a big difference between now and in the past in giving birth,” she said. These days, “women now are much more motivated to deliver at the clinic.” Her status as a midwife enables her to help these women on a deeper level, which she is proud of.

“I learned midwifery from my mom. I can tell from looking, whether someone is going to have a girl or a boy. I am sharing what I know with my daughter to pass along midwifery to the community,” she said. “There are times I get pregnant women coming to me and needing my help while I’m doing my chores, and I have to stop what I’m doing quickly to assist them.” She added, “I know the importance of women in the society to give birth to children in this world.”

Along with other medicines, vitamins are available at the Olmoti clinic for the children and mothers. Yaya attributed them to helping mothers become and stay active, especially since many of them don’t have enough food to eat during their pregnancies. Yaya recalled that when she was pregnant, “I was only given a little [food], sometimes a little milk.”  For expecting mothers in situations similar to Yaya’s, prenatal vitamins provide the crucial nutrients for their babies to develop properly. Apart from mothers’ diets, vitamins help compensate for the Maasai people’s insufficient diets in general – since they traditionally don’t eat vegetables, their daily meals lack many nutrients. “Access to vitamins has helped a lot,” Yaya said. “I can see changes and children are happy, healthy, active and less down.”

With that, she stood up from her chair. “May I ask for the driver of that truck to rush that lady over there to the clinic?” In the distance, she glimpsed one of her patients, a woman who was close to her due date. Yaya turned to a member of our team and asked him to get the truck driver’s attention, inadvertently ending our conversation. Her focus, now on the small figure walking towards us, was indicative of the steadfast dedication that’s driven her pioneering work in this small Maasai community.

View the original piece and full photography at vitaminangels.org.

Photo credit: Matt Dayka for Vitamin Angels