A nomadic life inspires mobile health work

Ethiopia, September 24, 2012

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  • A nomadic life inspires mobile health work
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    Mali oversees Mercy Corps' efforts to bring emergency healthcare to Ethiopians hit hardest by last year's drought. Photo: Andie Long/Mercy Corps Photo: dsc_0079_web.jpg
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    Three-year-old Abdi, is discharged after successful treatment for acute malnutrition at a stabilization center in Ethiopia's Somali Region. Photo: Mercy Corps Photo: mom_with_mobile_health.jpg

Mohamed Shariff Ali ("Mali") works around the clock these days overseeing Mercy Corps health and resilience programs in Ethiopia. But when he was growing up, he remembers life revolving around three things: the animals, the weather and the seasons.

“Life was easier during the raining season or just after the rains as both water and pasture were readily available,” he recalls. During the dry seasons the older boys and men took the animals away to find water, while the young children and women stayed behind. There was less milk and food available during the dry season, but the kids amused themselves with games like hide and seek, racing and wrestling.

Though his passport identifies him as Kenyan, Mali is descended from a nomadic ethnic community known as Somalis, who lived throughout the Horn of Africa before it was divided into present-day Kenya, Somalia, Djibouti and Ethiopia.

When he was seven years old, Mali and his family were settled in the city of Mandera in northern Kenya. It was there that Mali first came into contact with a formal health system.

The government of Kenya had begun a mass vaccination campaign and children were rounded up to be given their “jabs.” Nobody took the time to explain to the kids or their parents what was happening. Mali remembers only that the vaccines were very painful and he didn’t like them.

Despite that rough introduction to modern medicine, Mali realized as he was growing up that he wanted to work in public health if he could improve the lives of nomadic peoples. Today health campaigns are much more inclusive than they were when he was a boy. Rather than simply rounding kids up for immunizations, health workers involve the entire community so that parents and children know what to expect and why their participation is important.

Mali’s desire to work in public health won out over a competing interest to become a journalist. He dreamed of reporting about his people in order to help others better understand the nomadic lifestyle.

“Nomadism,” he explains, “is not a barbaric system. It has been a sustainable lifestyle for ages.”

While he mourned the loss of the vast open spaces of his childhood, living in the city gave Mali access to things he’d never had: schooling, healthcare and basic services. He would go on to get his Masters in Public Health and begin working with the government of Kenya as a public health officer.

Now 38, Mali serves as Mercy Corps’ Deputy Country Director in Ethiopia. Based in Addis Ababa, he oversees a holistic set of programs that aim to improve the health and resilience of the most vulnerable people in the country.

Thanks to the support of DC Entertainment’s We Can Be Heroes campaign and A Glimmer of Hope Foundation, one of the programs that Mali’s team began this year is a mobile health service, established to alleviate the suffering of those hardest hit by the ongoing drought in the Horn of Africa. The health units each consist of two nurses and two nutritionists who visit remote villages of around 3,000 households. The villagers are a mix of nomads and agro-pastoralists.

The mobile health teams screen approximately 250 people a day, and focus specifically on pregnant women, nursing mothers and children. Those that are severely malnourished and have health complications are referred to health stabilization centers that are run jointly by Mercy Corps and the government of Ethiopia. In the stabilization centers, the most vulnerable patients receive medical attention and therapeutic foods, such as Plumpy’nut, a high-protein paste made from peanuts.

In order to also have a long-term impact, Mali and his team train local and regional health officers on topics such as immunization, reproductive health, disease surveillance and malaria management. In addition, they work closely with community volunteers on ways to convey information about hygiene and sanitation, how to identify and refer malnourished children, and more.

Mali himself is a father of four — two girls and two boys — ranging in ages from five months to nine years. They have a very different life than he had growing up. They go to school regularly, spend their free time on playgrounds, and receive regular health check-ups.

Despite the fact that his family is no longer nomadic, Mali believes strongly that development programs should fit the nomadic lifestyle, rather than forcing people into a sedentary life. Efforts such as Mercy Corps’ mobile health services do just that — respect the nomad’s way of life and recognize that it is an effective coping strategy in times of scarce resources.