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On a mission to help Tanzania`s poor

7th February 2013
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Lucy Rodriguez, the Founder of Operation Upendo

Although the government is doing its best to ensure its citizens have access to health care, provision of the service in the country remains an uphill task, especially for the poor. Public hospitals face a lot of challenges. Drugs and staff shortages or a lack of, crowded wards, unskilled personnel, lack of power and water in some areas are some of the challenges facing health care provision in the country.

It is not strange to be told there are no pain killers at a public hospital or to be sent to a private hospital for tests. Sharing a bed in public hospitals is normal. Three mothers with their newborns share a single bed sometimes. Some sleep on the floor with their newborns. And the situation is worse in remote rural areas.

Three years ago, a niece of mine, Irene, was admitted at Mwananyamala hospital in Dar es Salaam with severe anaemia and my experience there made me pity people who have no choice but to be treated in public health facilities.

We did not end up at Mwananyamala because we wanted to but because we had no choice. Given Irene’s condition, no private hospital among the two we went to would admit her. I had stopped going to public hospitals a long time ago given the poor services there.

So before I left for work that morning, I gave Irene money to seek service at a private hospital in the neighbourhood as she had not been feeling well.

My house help called me later to inform me that Irene had been referred to Mwananyamala. I rushed home and decided I was not going to take her there. I took her to a nearby Mariestopes hospital but again, the doctor there insisted I should take her to Mwananyamala.

That is when it dawned on me that all was not well with her. I had no choice but to do as the doctor said.

Irene was admitted at Mwananyamala but apart from being shown a bed on where to sleep, no nurse came anywhere near her during the four hours we spent there. Shortly after she was admitted, Irene developed a fever and I had to seek assistance from one of the nurses in the ward. The nurse did not even bother to come take the temperature let alone go near her. “We do not have panadol,” she told me, seemingly unconcerned. “You can go buy the medicine at a pharmacy outside,” she told me after I remained glued where I was. I could not believe that was coming from a public hospital nurse. How could the hospital lack panadol?

I could not imagine leaving Irene in the hands of the careless nurses that night. What if they did not give her any medication the whole night? There was no sign she was going to get any medication at all.

I had to transfer her that very evening to a private hospital where she had a transfusion that same night. Had she spent the night at Mwananyamala hospital, perhaps the story would be different today.

If this is the situation in Dar es Salaam public hospitals, one wonders what it is like in the remote areas of the country. People in rural areas walk long distances to get health services. Some dispensaries have a nurse or two plus a medical assistant who lives far from the dispensary. Sometimes the medical assistant is unable to attend to emergencies given the distance from home to the dispensary and lack of transport. Some hospitals in rural areas are run by hospital attendants!  The hospitals have no ambulances, some go without medicine for a long time and most have no power, water and laboratories. We have heard stories of hospitals where operations are performed under candle light. And the list of problems is long.

It is the poor state of hospitals in our country and the people’s poverty that inspire people like Lucy Rodriguez, the Founder of a non profit organisation called Operation Upendo to come all the way from their countries to Tanzania to offer a helping hand.

Lucy, a US citizen decided to help improve the lives of the people of Njombe and Ruvuma Regions after she met two people from the two regions who explained to her the plight of their people. Lucy travelled to those areas “to personally observe the conditions and evaluate what we can do to help,” she says. It is the poverty that she saw in Tanzania during a holiday trip and her passion to make the world a better place that inspired her to establish Operation Upendo, an organization through which she intends to realize her dream of helping the poor in Tanzania.

Give a man a fish and he will eat for a day, teach a man to fish and he will eat for the rest of his life, so goes a saying of the wise. Operation Upendo takes a similar approach. According to Lucy, the organisation’s approach is to provide the training and the means that will make it possible for the people to improve their living conditions and become self-sustaining; a jumpstart rather than endless handouts.

“Operation means Action and Upendo means Love in Swahili and God mandates us to love our neighbour and to take care of the widows and orphans but in Tanzania, especially the remote areas where the people are forgotten, all are orphans: Men, women, and children,” says Lucy.

Operation Upendo aims at providing relief to the people of Njombe and Ruvuma. It’s long term goals include providing potable water and reliable power to these areas, one at a time. “Our goal is to provide relief to all the villages beginning with the villages in remote areas far from the cultural centre. Our goal is to provide reliable electric power to the medical facilities in the remote areas to improve the quality of care provided to the residents,” says Lucy.

Most villages in Tanzania lack infrastructure such as reliable electric power, which affects everything: the delivery of healthcare, the delivery of water crucial to the survival of the residents, especially those living in remote areas far from the cultural centre.

Water is one of the problems facing people in Njombe and Ruvuma. In many rural areas, women often walk long distances every day to fetch water. They spend many hours to get the precious liquid, time they could otherwise have spent doing other productive activities.

These women not only spend hours fetching water but also risk their health. They transport the water in 20 litre buckets or jerry cans on their heads, harming their spine in the long run. Operation Upendo intends to relieve these women of this burden by bringing water closer to them.

The organization will also bring in expertise from abroad to work in hospitals in the two regions. Hospitals that will benefit from Operation Upendo’s generous support include St. John’s Hospital in Lugarawa village in Njombe Region and in Ruvuma Region, Litembo Hospital in Litembo village, Lituhi Hospital in Lituhi village and Ruanda Hospital in Ruanda village will also benefit. Others are Mpapa Health Centre in Mpapa village and the numerous dispensaries in Ruvuma Region in need of improvement.

The organisation is currently seeking health volunteers to come work in the hospitals and make a difference in the lives of the people the hospitals serve. Operation Upendo’s plan is to help the medical facilities become self-sustaining.

“Volunteer doctors and other medical personnel will contribute significantly. Our plan is that doctors and other medical personnel who go to Tanzania will not only perform medical procedures but will also participate in the training of locals,” says Lucy.

Like many hospitals in Tanzania, the hospitals under Operation Upendo’s programme suffer staff shortages among other things. To be able to operate smoothly, they need in place seven doctors, four clinical assistants and 60 nurses.   Most of the hospitals also face a staff housing shortage. Operation Upendo’s plan is to build staff housing after improving the infrastructure.

The organization needs millions of dollars to fulfill its objectives and one way of raising the money is through fundraising. Operation Upendo plans to soon have a kick-off fundraising event with Hollywood actor, Leonardo DiCaprio, who will be the guest speaker.  “It will be our first biennial fundraising dinner gala,” says Lucy.

Currently, the organization is initiating the fundraising and the recruiting of volunteers. “We have already received a donation of USD100,000.  I am presently planning the construction of our first project, a satellite office and living quarters in the village of Ruanda for myself and the volunteers who will accompany me,” says Lucy.

She says it will take millions of dollars to accomplish all of Operation Upendo’s goals and that one of the challenges is to prioritize the projects “as we receive funding,” says Lucy.

But for her, only the sky is the limit. Lucy says she will ensure her dream of helping the poor in Tanzania, Ruvuma and Njombe regions in particular is realized no matter how long it takes.

SOURCE: THE GUARDIAN