she shapes the city

Dr. Wambui Waithaka ~ Medical Doctor and Health Sector Campaigner

Wambui

Wambui’s “moment of radicalisation” occurred when she was only 21 and on an internship at Kenyatta National Hospital. She says the memory is “crystal clear”. One night she was in the paediatric ward and she was resuscitating a baby, suddenly three mothers ran into the ward, they were all holding out their babies who also needed oxygen. Wambui, turning to the nurse for assistance, was told there was only one oxygen tank in the ward that night. It left her with the dilemma of “which one do you pick, which one do you leave?”, all four babies died that night. For Wambui ” It was like the glass had been broken I started to see things for how they really were and not apologise and make excuses for them”. So began a journey, which she continues on to this day.

Wambui explains that” When you give birth to something it becomes your identity…at least here in Kenya, when you give birth you become Mama Jane or Mama Wangari. So you have a new identity”. Wambui’s new identity was tied to co-founding the Kenya Medical Practitioners Pharmacists and Dentists Union (KMPDU), whose ambitious aim was to “reclaim the health sector in Kenya”.

Wambui and her fellow doctors believed that there were inexcusable problems with Kenya’s health system. They knew it “was not how it is supposed to be, but we also had the audacity to see what it should be, and developed the tenacity to take it from where it was, to where it needed go.” They understood that as the professionals on the ground they could inform policy better than any civil servants in their “ivory tower”. An example was the National Health Insurance Fund. The fund had a project that claimed hospitals were being built across the country for civil servants, however when the doctors in the districts went in search of these facilities, they were nowhere to be found. The union collected all the facts and using “the best weapons we had at the time, social media” they shared them with the nation and the government. Wambui believes that because of their work they were able to unearth one of the biggest scandals that has implicated the health sector in Kenya. However this work came at a price “When you fight corruption, corruption fights back” says Wambui. Members of the union were placed under increasing pressure, with one doctor becoming convinced that his car crash was engineered by those implicated in the scandal.

Recently having stepped down from the position of treasurer in the Union, Wambui continues to support the city and the country’s Health System. Her weekly twitter campaign called #CondomFriday, which was started to break the silence on reproductive health, has now evolved into a role on the Shujaaz comic as “Dr Love”. Wambui answers reproductive questions from teenagers and says that “we are leaving the adolescents behind”. Though young people can find the information on their smart phones they lack practical guidance and just recently Wambui was dealing with a case where a 21 year old had just contracted HIV. Wambui also now works at Pumwani Maternity Hospital, the biggest obstetric hospital South of the Sahara. It serves the under-served. She says that she’s learnt many things from her work there but the most significant is that she has “learnt what the face of poverty actually looks like. The first thing poverty takes from you is vocabulary.” All too often her patients are unable to express what is wrong with them and what they need from their doctor.

Wambui tells the story of a women who came in the week before. She was reluctant to sign off permission to release her baby to the ward. It finally became apparent that the woman couldn’t write. Wambui believes that “It was a bigger suffering for her, the fact that she’s going to continue to raise a child in a world that requires literacy, than going into prolonged labour for example.” Every day Wambui works to find ways to approach this problem, helping “these dis-empowered people that need to be empowered but at the same time we need the medical things, a safe delivery and release them from the hospital into good hands”.

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2 comments

  1. KAMAU NDUNGU

    I like her work. once i listen her talk,she is incredibly genus. i had to run n follow on twitter. She never disappoints.

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