A Mother’s Voice: Salome Sijenyi, MGHD ’20

Salome Sijenyi, MGHD ’20, was forced to make a difficult decision when the COVID-19 pandemic came to East Africa.

In 2017, Salome Sijenyi walked into the pediatric ward of one of the largest hospitals in her County of Siaya in Western Kenya and was shocked by what she found. Two mothers sharing a bed with their sick children in this overcrowded hospital, other patients left outside as they sought care. On another visit, they found a deceased patient who had been left with other patients for over six hours before they could find a way to transport the body to the morgue.

Sijenyi had been thrust into a role on her county’s health services committee in Kenya while pursuing her Master’s in Business Administration in Strategic Management at Maseno University. She had no health background at the time, but what she saw in her role motivated her to dive deeper into the field of health care.

“The health department was one of the most well-funded in our county, so why was this happening?” Sijenyi recalled. “It was at that time I made the decision to become a health professional so that I could be a part of the solution to problems that I didn’t understand.”

In December of 2018, Sijenyi submitted her application to UGHE’s Master in Global Health Delivery (MGHD) program, eager to learn about health systems and return with the knowledge and skills to benefit her home country. But she had three important factors to consider before leaving – her husband, son, and daughter.

Sijenyi sees an opportunity with her two children to give them the guidance and support she always felt she needed.

A Dream Fulfilled

Sijenyi dreamed of being a mother her whole life. Her mother died in a tragic accident when Sijenyi was young, and so she was raised by her grandparents. 

“They tried to give me an easy environment to grow up in,” Sijenyi said. “They taught me the value of family and really shaped the way I view the world.”

While her grandparents made sure to provide for her, Sijenyi still felt that something was missing growing up.

“Because we never talked about what happened to my parents, it was hard for us to have a conversation about becoming a woman,” Sijenyi explained. “I always wanted to have a family and give my children that guidance.”

Sijenyi got her chance to raise the family she always wanted in 2015 when she had her first child, a boy named Sean.

“From that moment on, I knew it was no longer about me,” Sijenyi said. “Everything I did had to be about that boy.”

Sijenyi had always prided herself on her independence. The experience of having someone completely dependent on her was new, but Sijenyi quickly took to motherhood.

“It was a huge change to me, but it was also the first time in my life I felt a love like that,” Sijenyi recalled. “It was a feeling I can’t describe. The first time he said the word ‘mom’ I think I cried, because that was a word I grew up always wanting to hear.”

An impossible decision

In the spring of 2019, Sijenyi was accepted to UGHE. Her daughter, Adriana, was 16 months at the time and currently breastfeeding, and Sijenyi had to make the decision of whether to stay home or leave and study in Rwanda.

“It was a long and painful internal thought process,” Sijenyi said. “At times I wasn’t sure if it was the best thing to do — I even thought my daughter might forget me by the time I came home.”

After a period of discussion with her husband and family, Sijenyi knew what she wanted to do.

“I looked at my children with love, and thought about how if they got sick right now our hospitals may not be able to treat them effectively,” Sijenyi said. “So I decided to come to UGHE so that I could better understand health care and be able to contribute to improving our health system in Kenya.”

While Sijenyi knew her year away from home would be difficult, she could have never anticipated the magnitude of the challenge ahead. When the COVID-19 pandemic came to East Africa, Sijenyi had yet another decision to make – stay at UGHE or go home to Kenya.

“At the time there were no security measures on planes. I was really worried about infecting my children if I came home,” Sijenyi said. “I ended up staying because I didn’t want to be the reason my kids contracted the disease. 

Sijenyi missed her children dearly, but could not bear risking getting them sick with the virus by going home.

The bigger picture

Looking back on her decision to stay, and as the world continues to battle the pandemic, Sijenyi is grateful she remained in Rwanda.

“I’m proud of my decision to stay,” she said. “I feel it was the right thing to do, but it was still one of the most difficult decisions of my life.”

Sijenyi continues to stay connected to her family while she finishes her coursework at UGHE. As she continues to learn about health systems strengthening, she is able to see her role in building a better health care system in Kenya.

“Now I am able to understand why the problems I observed in our health systems exist,” she said. “And I feel like I am able to see the bigger picture about how I can help solve them.” 

Sijenyi’s year at UGHE has been even more challenging than she ever expected. But through it all, her vision for a brighter future for her children and her country has never wavered.

“In the end, despite the pain I have felt, the goal of going back home a better person and health professional who can make life better for my children continues to drive me,” Sijenyi said. “It is a year of sacrifice for a lifetime of impact.”