Saturday, February 1, 2020

Leah George: Women Who Changed the World

Leah George was the Chief Nurse at Nzega Hospital in northern Tanganyika in 1950. She was one of the few female nurses in a large territory that served tens of thousands of people. Nzega hospital was one of the few hospitals in the region that provided needed urgent medical attention for many, particularly women. It was common for people to walk fifteen miles to go to the hospital. Patients were in a bad state when brought to the hospital. Women travelled up to twenty miles to give birth at Nzega hospital. It was women who often had to travel many miles to bring their children to get medical attention. The hospital provided critical service to a large population that needed it the most. Leah George trained student nurses and took care of patients in critical condition. The services the hospital provided was everything to the many who depended on it; the life saving services meant the world to the patients who came to the hospital. Leah George was the heart and soul of hospital and the services it provided to the community.

Leah George’s journey, her story, is an inspiring one; it provides an example of day to day heroines who are often left out in history, or at best, relegated to the footnotes of history. Her story is a story of determination, defiance, commitment; it is yet one important reminder of the importance of telling "her story" as history is already inundated with his-story. Not much details of her story are available. The few details we have are enough to present a powerful story of a woman who changed challenged the societal norms, excelled in education, changed those around her, and in the process, changed the world.

Nzega township was the administrative center of Nzega District in Tanganyika in the 1950s. Plans for the Nzega hospital were formalized in 1928 under Dr. Nina H. Maynard, a pioneer in providing training and medical services in Tanganyika. She was the wife of a missionary, Rev. William J. Maynard, of the African Inland Mission in Tanganyika. Dr. Maynard was one of the first to provide training to African midwives to provide extensive services that were more acceptable to local communities. She proposed a hospital that would provide health education, western style birth procedures, and curative medicine for the sick. The governor of Tanganyika endorsed the proposal for the hospital at Nzega in 1928. Thus it is clear from the outset that it was a woman who set the stage for the important work that others like Leah George were to follow later.

The population of the District of Nzega was estimated to be about 200,000 people by mid-1950s. Medical services were beyond the reach of most people in the region. In mid-1950s, a medical officer visited the district once every three months. The hospital at Nzega did not have enough staff, equipment, or medicine to meet the needs of the people in the district. Infant mortality rates were estimated to be between 400-500 per 1,000 birth. The infant mortality rate was almost fifty percent! It is not clear how many women died giving birth at the time. However, it is clear that the number was very high taking into consideration the infant mortality rate. African “general-practitioners” provided clinical services at the thirteen “native authority dispensaries.” Leah George was on the frontlines of the battle to save lives. She served first as a student nurse in the early 1940s. The program she studied under was the one set up by Dr. Nina Maynard.

The first day at school is often the most difficult. That experience is more difficult when you are an adult enrolled in a school with filled with mostly teenagers. Leah George showed up in Nzega, northern Tanganyika, with one desire: to get an education and become a nurse. She was in her late twenties. Determined to pursue her education and change the world. This was the late 1930s. Few, male or females, were able to get an opportunity to go to school in Tanganyika in the 1930s. It was much more difficult for girls, for women. She was determined!

Leah George enrolled in a program as a student nurse. She travelled in Nzega and neighboring areas treating patients and educating the public about hygiene. At the age of forty, she heard about opportunity to enroll in a midwife program in neighboring Uganda. Uganda was the closest place that provided opportunities for Tanganyika students to study medicine. A number of Tanganyika males studied medicine and became Doctors in the 1930s and 40s. Among the earliest Tanganyikans to study medicine at Makerere were Joseph Mutahangarwa and Francis Mwaisela. Dr. Joseph Mutahangarwa became the first Tanganyikan to complete medical course at Makerere. Doctor Francis Mwaisela, to whom a ward is named after him in Muhimbili Medical Center today, was among the first Tanganyika doctors to practice at Nzega hospital. Leah George was, therefore, not the only Tanganyikan seeking education in Uganda in the 1940s; however, she was probably one of the few women from Tanganyika studying to become a nurse in Uganda. While men were allowed to enroll in medical school and become doctors, women could only pursue nursing courses at the time. Leah George was fort years old when she enrolled in the program in Uganda. Nothing could prevent her from accomplishing her educational goals. She left Tanganyika for Uganda. But first, she had to learn a new language, Baganda. This was a three year course. She completed the course with flying colors sometime in the 1940s and returned to Nzega.

By 1950, Leah George was working hard providing medical care to those who needed it the most, and at the same time, she was training a new generation of women to continue with the important work of providing badly needed medical care and health education. She was a trailblazer, broke barriers, showed a generation of young girls that by hard work and determination it was possible to make their dreams come true. Not much details of her life and work is available. Looking at the little information that is available about her, one comes to the conclusion that she was a remarkable woman, an extraordinary human being. She was a role model, a person who saved lives and inspired countless girls to pursue their dreams and service society. Leah George changed her world, and in the process, changed the world around her.

© Azaria Mbughuni
February 1, 2020