It’s a sensational feeling to change the health of a village. It motivates me daily to work hard for the people
It’s a sensational feeling to change the health of a village.

Health & Education For All: The story of Emilien, a doctor and 'miracle worker' in Mali

This is Emilien. He’s a doctor at the district hospital in Angsongo, Mali. He’s also something of a miracle worker.

Despite having to deal with chronic staff shortages, insufficient funding, a lack of water, and a sporadic electricity supply, since arriving at this rural hospital he’s helped make major inroads into some serious local health problems. “We’ve eradicated meningitis and whooping cough in my village,” he says, “and you can count the number of measles cases on one hand. I know change is possible – that’s what motivates me and gives me hope.”

Emilien decided to be a doctor when he was a child, after watching a local medic stitch up a cut on his sister’s leg. He trained in the capital, Bamako, but unlike most of the doctors who qualified with him, decided to take a position in rural Mali. “I am at the call of the people,” he says. “While I am young and have strength and enthusiasm to give me lots of energy, I am ready to work far from comforts. I am ready to go wherever the work takes me.”

He was first posted to the small village of Menaka, before moving to the district hospital in Angsongo. It’s the main hospital for the surrounding region, and referrals come from 11 different health centres. Staffing levels, however, are nowhere near adequate.

“There are two doctors, including myself,” Emilien explains. “Imagine, only two doctors for 11 centres. There are few nurses that are trained to the level needed for a referral hospital; we really need nurses. There aren’t any doctors or nurses with specialist skills like radiography. And the most crucial problem is finding obstetrician nurses who can look after mothers and children.”

Working in secluded villages also brings challenges. Many local people are pastoralists; nomadic farmers who graze cattle and move regularly to give the land a chance to recover. “To reach nomadic people you need to travel to them,” Emilien says, ”but we only have two cars and few staff, many of them without proper training. Also many nomads have a certain perception of illness and can be suspicious of the health centers. So you have to be patient, very patient.”

“One of the greatest health problems in this part of the country is the guinea worm,” he continues. “It’s a disease that can be easily eradicated, but it’s a question of changing people’s behavior. Through education campaigns, we have started to bring down the number of cases. And it is through our efforts to educate the population that we’ve also managed to eradicate meningitis and whooping cough.”

Progress takes time, Emilien says, but he is understandably proud of what has been achieved: “It’s a sensational feeling to change the health of a village. It motivates me daily to work hard for the people, and can only inspire me to keep going.”

Government support has increased recently, he says. There is now no charge for Caesarian births, mosquito nets are freely availably, anti-malarial tablets will soon be free for children under five, and the price of essential medicines is falling.

But Emilien still has to contend with an enormous number of obstacles, making the progress he has made locally – which would be impressive anywhere – seem nothing short of incredible. “I am very proud to be a doctor and I love my job,” he smiles. “Despite all the difficulties, I still have hope for the future.”

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