Thoughts on Tanzania


Six Surgeon Noonan students last month returned from their four week place placement at the OLA clinics in Bugisi and Mwamapalala. Earlier this week, we caught up with Cork native David O’Connell, Eve Mallon, from County Down, and Ruth Kelleher, who hails from County Waterford, to hear about their Tanzanian experiences.

Group photo with patients helped in SN eye Camp. Sr Yvette.jpg

Surgeon Noonan Volunteers, Srs. Emmanuella and Evette along with staff of Bugisi Health Centre pictured with people helped during the Eye Camp.  Photo courtesy of David O'Connell.


Setting the scene

The volunteers arrived in Mwanza in early June. Soon after they made their way to Bugisi. David painted a picture of the mission areas and what they did during their time in Tanzania.

“We spent 2 weeks in Bugisi, followed by one week in the Mwamapalala before returning to Bugisi for our final week. Both places are compounds, so collections of small buildings very close to one another. They both have inpatient wards for men, women (including post natal) and children and also delivery wards. They also contain a dispensary where patients can collect their medications. Both contained outpatient facilities. Bugisi has some construction going on at the moment – some new private postnatal rooms are being finished off and a theatre is being built for surgery.”

David felt the OLA medical presence was critical in these two rural areas of Tanzania.

These communities very much rely on the OLA centres. If the people get sick – where are they going to go? Many of them can’t afford transport to a district hospital, so they need places like Bugisi and Mwamapalala if they are seeking treatment.

And people come in big numbers it seems, according to Ruth.

Bugisi Health Centre could have 30 patients or more at any one time. The main reasons for admissions were HIV and maternal health related. The Outpatients Department would be dealing with malaria, TB and other infectious diseases.”

Market in Bugisi.jpg

Bugisi Market. Photo courtesy of David O'Connell.

Health Promotion Week

Keeping with the theme of bringing quality healthcare to rural areas – a central part of the OLA mission- Ruth recalled the health promotion week which took place in Mwamapalala.

There was a special health promotion week for outpatient clinics as we were in the village. All tests were free and they just had to pay for medicine. It attracted a lot of attention and we were busy from 9am until after 6pm some evenings. Some would have travelled for a few hours. We saw over 50 people per day.”

Sr. Monica Mafiana accompanied the medical students. Eve was inspired by her the way she put prioritized the patients.

"The health promotion week was very busy! Even though we were all tired being in the clinic from 9am until 6pm – and with more patients still outside waiting to be seen – Sr. Monica was still very much focused on the job at hand. She didn’t take a lunch break or a tea break and just kept working. She had such drive and care for the patients making sure that everyone got seen to. This was inspiring. And there we were. Six hungry and tired students who already had had a lunch break. She was calm and still working as hard as she was that morning starting, with a smile on her face throughout the day!"

 Mwamapalala dispensary, on left is where consulatations take place.jpg mwamapalala town, houses made of mud brick.jpg

A view from the OLA Dispensary in Mwamapalala (left) and houses in the village. Photo courtesy of David O'Connell.

Eye Camps

All Surgeon Noonan volunteers give many hours of their time to fundraising prior to their placement. A proportion of the funds raised goes towards funding the Eye Camps, which are run once a year in Bugisi and Mwamapalala.

Ruth explained how the Eye Camps worked.

"The Eye Camp took place over two days during our second week in Bugisi. Over 100 attended and 20 cataract surgeries were performed, with more taking place after we left. The OLA Sisters organize the camp and arrange for a surgeon to come in from the hospital."

David was very taken by the whole experience.

"I think everyone would agree that the days around the eye camp were quite special. The thanks that we received was astounding. You don’t just get thanks from the individual who had their cataracts removed, their children and grandchildren would come up and thank you personally."

One of patients from eye camp. This lady had her cateracts removed and new lenses put in. She was very happy with the results.jpg

'This lady had her cataracts removed and news lenses put in. She was very happy with the results.' Photo and quote courtesy of David O'Connell.

School Life

While of the group spent most of the time in the clinics, they also had opportunities to visit the schools.

David was impressed.

“In Bugisi, we were given a tour of the OLA English medium school by Sr. Rita. They have children from junior infants going up to about 4th or 5th class. To be honest they looked very similar to Irish classrooms! Posters on the wall, a big blackboard, all the kids in uniform and happy out – a very nice place. We were going around with Sr Rita and she was asking the children what they wanted to be, lots of them want to be doctors its seems, which is great ambition. I’m sure some of them will be back working in Bugisi when they grow up.”

Ruth felt learning English at such a young age gave the children a wonderful platform.

"It offers a great opportunity to the children as not all primary schools are in English whereas all second level schools are. If you don’t go to an English speaking primary school you are at a great disadvantage when it comes to attending second level."

She also highlighted what is happening in the Skills Training Centre which is also having a huge impact on the lives of many.

“The Sisters also run a skills training centre for teenagers who attend for two to three years before qualifying with a trade such as a seamstress or an electrician. Here we meet Rachel. She was 13 years of age and had two younger siblings. She attends the skills centre and is also learning English. She was delighted to be back there after the holidays. According to the Sisters, she was very shy at first but is now thriving in school.”

corpus christi procession, mass brought up to front and introduced to everyone, whole procession walked around town. Massive crowd, everyone singing, great atmosphere..jpg

Surgeon Noonan Volunteers taking part in the Corpus Christi Procession in Bugisi last June. Image courtesy of David O'Connell.


Now back in Ireland and preparing to resume their studies, what did they learn from their time in Tanzania?

“I learnt that happiness can be found no matter what your circumstances are,” remarked Eve.

Ruth noted that “Tanzanian people are resourceful” and she felt this was also the case in the clinics where “staff rely of recognizing symptoms or patterns rather than having everything at their fingertips.”

In a week when the north-west of Ireland was hit was torrential rains, Ruth highlighted that the increasingly erratic weather patterns are also having a severe the impact in Tanzania.

In general, live revolves around the land, crops and the livestock. We were told that this year was a very hot year with no rain resulting in a poor harvest and no feed for the animals. Most people rely on the land.”

 It was something which Eve also noted.

 “In Bugisi there had been no wet season, and so there were not many crops. Instead we saw dried up fields where corn was meant to be growing."

David felt we could learn a thing or two from the Tanzania approach.

People where we were in Tanzania are very chilled out and relaxed. Nothing is ever a panic or a hurry. They have a phrase ‘pole-pole’ which translates as ‘slowly-slowly’ but actually means something more along the lines of ‘take it easy’. It’s not that people live their lives over there worry free, certainly they have their own problems, but it goes to show that most circumstances can be approached without the need to be hectic about things! It’s definitely something that could rub off on you.”

Beside the hospital in Mwamapalala, much greener than Bugisi as you can see.jpg

A view from close to the OLA compound in Mwamapalala. Photo courtesy of David O'Connell.

'Can't thank them enough'

On the work of the Sisters, David remarked on the way they help in the communities.

“For a lot of the people in these communities, the OLA Sisters are the first port of call – education, health, social etc.  For example, they may support families of limited means who wish to send their children to school, help people seeking employment or assist if a family has a poor harvest.”

Eve also honed in on the support they give to the local communities in both areas.

"The OLA sisters give great support and guidance to a huge number of families in the area. They also help run the schools there and help young women get into business or learn a skill to help support their futures."

Ruth had the last word.

"All of us agreed that we were made to feel so incredibly welcome by everyone in the OLA and we really can’t thank them enough for giving us such an inspiring experience. I knew the Sisters did great work before going to Tanzania but I guess you don’t appreciate this until you see it first hand that you get a sense of it. They are selfless people who care about others and give 100%."


* Ruth Kelleher, Jane Burns, Finbarr Crowley, Eve Mallon, David O’Connell and Oisin O’Sullivan spent one month with the OLA Sisters in Tanzania during Summer 2017. The six are part of a larger group of fifty Surgeon Noonan Society students who volunteered their time and skills in medical settings across Africa over the summer months. Click here for more on the Surgeon Noonan Society.

** Click here if you are interested in volunteering overseas with the OLA Sisters.