26 April 2018

Why there’s a mini-Victoria living in Tanzania

It began in 2015 in Shirati, a village in northwestern Tanzania. Medical student Victoria von Salmuth was interning at the local hospital, where a young mother had given birth to premature triplets. But the little babies weren’t growing: the mother wasn’t producing enough breastmilk because she had nothing to eat herself. Von Salmuth went out and bought fruit for her, and that was the start of the Shirati Food Programme. The goal is to provide one hot meal a day for women and children in the maternity ward. Now, two and a half years later, the newly graduated doctor recently returned to Shirati to see how the project is going.

Namesake

Back in Maastricht, she is busy looking for new sponsors and setting up the research programme. She is also looking to specialise in gynaecology, a choice in which Shirati played an important role. During her internship she was suddenly called to a village in the middle of nowhere, together with an older woman from the village who helped out with births. “I’d assisted in hospital deliveries before, but here I was alone in a village with nothing. Fortunately the villagers had received information about giving birth, so there were gloves, disinfectant soap and a clamp for the umbilical cord. And we brought that baby girl into the world right there on the ground. When the mother was holding her daughter in her arms, she said, ‘This is Victoria’. It was so moving. I’ve just visited her again. She’s now two and a half years old and growing steadily. It was partly that experience that made me want to do gynaecology. You’re present at one of a person’s most beautiful moments in life, but if things go wrong, it’s one of the worst.”

Freedom

What makes her so committed and decided? It’s not everybody who goes abroad and immediately sets up an aid programme. “My parents always encouraged me to try things. My mother is a GP and a daily example of someone who works hard, but with passion. I got that enthusiasm from her. If I’m going to do something, I’m going to do it well. In Shirati I learnt about medicine, but also about cultural differences and language. I’ve always enjoyed that; it’s a combination I feel at home with.” Her mother even spent two weeks in Shirati, where they worked side by side. “It was a valuable experience for both of us. She found it very special to see me in such a leading role. Here in Maastricht you learn to look beyond your own familiar world. I got so much out of my internship.”

Victoria and Victoria
By: Annelotte Huiskes (text), Victoria von Salmuth and Daniël van Hauten (photography)