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  • AKU-SONAM alumna, Emelda Kuvumbi, visits patients at a health centre in Tanzania.
Sharon Brownie: Celebrating the contributions of nurses and midwives in East Africa

By Sharon Brownie, Research Associate, University of Oxford and Former Dean, Aga Khan University School of Nursing and Midwifery.

In May each year global communities join together to acknowledge and celebrate the contributions of nurses and midwives. At 23 million strong, nurses and midwives are the world’s largest healthcare profession forming 50% of the total health workforce and up to 85% in many low-resource settings. As a profession, nurses and midwives are closest to the point of care—at the bedside, in homes and in communities. They bear firsthand witness to the influences and impact of social, environmental, economic and political factors on the health of families and communities. Subsequently, nurses have substantial ability to influence health and socioeconomic-related policy and practice and to exercise that power on a global scale. As the single largest cadre of healthcare providers, nurses and midwives have the most capacity to advocate and influence best practices and change.  Properly supported and allowed to practice to their full potential, they hold the key to the rapid scale-up of affordable and accessible health care for all. 

Currently, nearly one billion people lack access to quality health care. Nowhere is this truer than in low-resource settings such as East Africa. In Africa particularly, large-scale need and opportunities exist for nursing involvement in addressing and resolving maternal-child health, adolescent health and socioeconomic issues. In most primary healthcare facilities, the only health professional is a nurse or a midwife. However, the most frequent thing we hear about nurses and midwives in low-resource settings is the paucity of workforce numbers and the large-scale gaps in patient care  Albeit these shortages, there are many nurses working in these contexts, delivering care in challenging settings, working with skill and dedication despite the resource deficits and high patient loads – their stories waiting to be told and their invisibility unveiled.  

Thus, as we celebrate International Nurses Day and International Midwives Day 2019, I am both privileged and humbled to have worked with a team of outstanding co-authors and photographers to present two collections of photographic essays profiling the extraordinary work and contributions of 65 nurses and midwives in the East African nations of Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania and the Zanzibar Archipelago. 

The richness and diversity of their stories illustrate the enormous contributions nurse and midwives can make to the health of their communities and in progressing towards the attainment of universal health coverage. Their stories show leadership in practice, in policy settings and in teaching. Stories include examples of nurse-led services, task sharing with other members of multidisciplinary teams and independent practice, which show East African nurses and midwives at the forefront of healthcare innovation and practice.     

Thank you to each and every nurse and midwife who shared their stories with us. Together we celebrate your stories of leadership, innovation and courageous care for the communities you serve. 

Professor Sharon Brownie, currently at the University of Oxford, served as Dean of the Aga Khan University’s School of Nursing and Midwifery (AKU-SONAM) from September 2015 to April 2019. She is also co-author of the books, Nurses and Midwives - Leaders in Healthcare in East Africa and Zanzibar - Nurses and Midwives: Transforming the Landscape of Health.