Book review: Call Mama Doc­tor: Notes From Africa

Book cover for Call Mama Doctor

By Lou­ise Jilek-Aall, MD. 2010. ISBN 978-0978404925. Paperback: 224 pages. $24.95. Avail­able from

This is a very enjoyable and readable book, written and illustrated by Dr Louise Jilek-Aall, who spent years working in rural Africa. It details her experiences as a young doctor in the former British Trust Territory of Tanganyika (now Tanzania), starting in the 1950s. She skillfully and poign­antly weaves to­gether a series of vignettes describing her work and the people she cared for. Each chapter is titled and illustrated by the author in a simple, yet entertaining manner. 

Dr Jilek-Aall has done a good job of describing the challenges she faced as a white woman trying to adapt to a traditional African culture. It is obvious that she worked hard at becoming accepted by the local population. 

She learned Swahili and came to understand many of the local superstitions and taboos. She also writes about the struggle she had in dealing with the desperate need for medical help that the Africans faced. In one chapter she muses about the many life-and-death struggles her patients had to endure. 

Often the treatment she provided was quite rudimentary—sugar water, iron tablets, or vitamin injections. In many cases, this was all that was needed. She also had to face an outbreak of measles pneumonia with limited supplies of penicillin.

Dr Jilek-Aall writes about her dealings with traditional healers (medicine men) and diviners, as well as her interactions with Catholic priests and Ismaili traders located in the most remote parts of the country. 

She learns an important lesson from which we could all benefit. She writes, quoting a Catholic priest: “In the African bush we have to learn to know our limits. We must be humble and not think we are like God, able to do anything we want. We must show self-discipline. Enough sleep, enough rest, enough food, caution about where we go and what we do, all this is part of keeping ourselves fit and capable. Only in this way can we be efficient and give our best to those we want to help.”

The most poignant part of her book is her descriptions of treating epileptic patients. These patients were outcasts due to the stigma and superstition surrounding the condition. This led her to start a treatment centre for epilepsy in rural Tanzania 50 years ago. This clinic is still in existence today and was a crucial part of the research into the disproportionately high prevalence of epilepsy in this region. Dr Jilek-Aall now lives in BC and continues to support the work she started years ago in Tanzania.

David B. Chapman, MBChB. Book review: Call Mama Doc­tor: Notes From Africa. BCMJ, Vol. 53, No. 1, January, February, 2011, Page(s) 9 - News.

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