Across the Jubba River Lives a Doctor

By Simon Nyabwengi, Country Director, World Vision Somalia

She wants to be a doctor. She does not know why. But she knows it is a good thing to be one. Maybe because when she fell sick, her mother crossed the Jubba River in Southern Somalia with her to seek medication. Here she met a doctor who treated her with kindness and gave her medicine that healed her stomach ache and fever.

I met Isnina in her village across the Jubba River. To get to her, I had to drive 6 kilometres across bush-land, the ever-present acacia green and flourishing because of the recent rains. I met with her mother, a soft-spoken woman participating in a village savings group. She told me she has 7 children, Isnina being the eldest, with the other 6 following in quick succession, an average of a child every year.

She described how being a member of the village saving group has helped her take care of her children, run her tea business and treat her children when they are sick. Curious to know what Isnina thought of her hardworking mother, I asked her if I could speak to Isnina, and she was kind enough to allow me to speak to her.

Isnina must have wondered why this tall, dark man wanted to talk to her ( I am not tall, but to children, we must be all tall. They have to look up to us, both literary and figuratively) and why she became the centre of attention of almost the whole village when we sat down at her mother’s restaurant to have our chat. Her mother’s grand restaurant was all of pieces of clothes strung around sticks, with logs for seats. In my opinion, she serves the best tea in Eastern and Southern Africa. Sweet, syrupy, spiced, refreshing and cooling. In Somalia, you take tea to cool down. You don’t have to take my word for it. Visit it. Across the Jubba River. You will have to use the state of the art ferry, made of four 200 litre oil drums, and sticks and a pulley system strung across the 30 meters of the river.

And operated by a wiry Somali captain, dressed in the ubiquitous Somali wrapper, a green short and a t-shirt - a master of his craft, using a big stick as an ore and guiding the ferry across the river, from one steep bank to the other steep bank, banks lined with greenery and dotted with farms, growing succulent pawpaws, and bananas, and because the Somali love their animals, Sudan grass . The goats were obviously enjoying the fodder, grown for them, as they were the healthiest I have seen in a long time.

Isnina has grown on the banks of this river all her nine years. I can imagine her mother warning her as a small girl not to go too close to the bank as it is dangerous and she can fall into the water.

She loves her mother, Isnina wakes up early in the morning to help her wash dishes and clean up the house after which she goes to the duksi, a school for children where she is taught the Koran. She knows that her mother wants her to understand the Koran, as it is part of her religion, upbringing and culture.

She has also heard her parents discuss that it will be important for her to get an education, where she can be able to read, write and speak a foreign language, the language spoken by the young nice and clever Somali woman who was translating the strange language spoken by the big black man asking her many questions.

She has heard her mother wish there was a school and teachers to teach her this education that would enable her to speak this new language. She heard the chief ask the visitors who had crossed the Jubba River to come to their village to consider constructing a school for the village. This education must be a good thing as everyone was speaking about it, and if it could make her speak like that kind, intelligent, smartly dressed woman, she also wanted it.

When she goes to the duksi, during breaks, she loves nothing better than playing with her friend Abai Ibrahim. They play house, imagining that they have their own homes and their own children. Arranging furniture and covering the furniture with nice, beautiful coverings. They cook various sweet dishes in their homes, such as pasta and goat meat which are eaten only on special occasions. They dress their children in nice clothes and send them to duksi and school.

Their imaginary homes are big, and constructed of stone and are cool. When their children fall sick, they take them to the health facility that is just next to them. There is always food and laughter and love, and plenty of Somali tea, like the one that her mother makes at her restaurant.

I can imagine her at this busy hospital,  where she sees sick children and correctly diagnoses what is wrong with them, gives them the correct medicine and at times has to do surgery on them, but they all recover and laugh again, and the worried looks that their parents had when they brought them in are replaced by grateful smiles. And her heart swells with pride and gratitude; grateful that her parents took care of her and took her to school and now she is able to help children of other parents.

I ask Isnina what her favourite food is and her answer breaks my heart. She has two full meals in a day and for lunch, a glass of milk. Not enough food for a growing girl, living on the banks of a river that flows throughout the year and that is able to water enough crops to feed her, her mother and 6 brothers and sisters and the entire village.

But World Vision is doing something about this. We are reconstructing an irrigation canal that will see her mother farm a bigger piece of land and produce a lot more food. World Vision is supporting Isnina’s mother by training her in better agricultural practices that will boost her food production. We will put up a health unit in the village that Isnina can go to and see a trained community health worker whenever she is sick and get the right medicine and not have to cross the big, scary river to Dollo every time she falls sick.

For the last 7 months, Isnina’s mother has saved 200 USD of which she borrowed 200 birrs (6.97 USD. Birrs and dollars are the only accepted currency here, not Somali shillings) to buy medicine for Isnina when she was sick. And her mother’s restaurant is bringing money, not much but enough to take care of Isnina and her 6 brothers and sisters.

With increased investment in Isnina’s village with funding from the American people through the Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA) and private World Vision funding, we are confident that Isnina’s mother’s income and savings will increase and she will be able to feed her well, get her that education that she needs, seek medication for her when she falls sick and buy nice clothes for her.

And Isnina will become the doctor from across the Juba River, no longer playing house, but living the good life she imagined when she was playing house. A life in a real home that has food, laughter and love. And making the lives of children better by applying the skills she will have learned as a doctor as a result of the education that she would have gotten, the education that her mother used to talk about and which she now has, thanks to World Vision.