The instructions given over the phone by my latest interviewee were very basic: ‘when you get to Fujairah, look for a green gate near the Gold Souq. That’s where I live.’ Driving through the picturesque landscape of the mountainous emirate, I assumed I was in for a wild goose chase as the 88-year-old protagonist in question did not use Google maps.
But she was right on the button, and I soon find myself in front of a large corrugated green gate.
Slowly the gates slide open and a tiny figure in a bright Jalabiya (traditional Arabic dress), her gleaming white hair tied in a bun, steps out to greet me.
As the photographer and I enter, two dogs set off on a barking spree, but she quickly hushes them with a simple hand gesture. ‘They get very excited when we have visitors,’ she says.
Meet Wilhelmina van de Weg. Or simply, Minie, a midwife from Holland who came to the UAE as a missionary nurse in 1964, even before the country was formed.
She leads us to an outhouse whose exterior looks like it has seen better days, but it’s neat and simple inside. ‘This is where the Fujairah Maternity Hospital used to be when we joined here in 1967. I have been living here since then,’ she says.
Though she cuts a frail figure, a steely resolve emanates from her eyes as she begins to talk about how she began her journey to the UAE.
Born in Indonesia in 1932, she lived there until a little after the Second World War. ‘My mother died of a heart attack when I was 10. After the Japanese bombing (in 1945) the men and women were separated into different camps. Even as a young girl of 14, I started helping out with the patients there. Once I saw a documentary about a leper with no arms and legs. He was smiling and had a very positive outlook. I realised then that this is the attitude I wanted to keep in life and decided to be a nurse.’
Soon Minie went to study nursing and midwifery from Stobhill Hospital in Glasgow. In 1964, an Irishman who worked in Al Ain convinced her that the need for good nurses was great in the Middle East. So she and fellow nurse Joan Elliot (from the UK) set out to work at Al Sarah hospital in Sharjah.
She vividly recalls the ship journey, which lasted more than a month. ‘I was seasick all the time and became so frail that I wondered how I would nurse other people,’ she says.
In the beginning the two fair-skinned foreign nurses were met with distrust by the locals, and they were reluctant to be treated by them.
‘There were no proper roads, running water or electricity back then. We slept on beds made of palm leaves. The instruments to work with were also scarce. We had to improvise with whatever we had.
‘Communication was tough as we didn’t know a word of Arabic. We would gesticulate and they would try to figure out our instructions,’ she recalls with intermittent pauses to catch her breath.
Though trained in midwifery, they were soon treating patients with all sorts of diseases – malaria, anaemia, diarrhoea, fever and even pulling out bad teeth.
‘At the end (of a successful treatment) they would say Barak Allhuma feek. I thought it was thank you at first but later realised they were sending God’s blessings on me.’
In 1967 she and Joan were invited to work at the newly set up Fujairah Maternity Hospital. Expectant mothers arrived from all over the country and even from Oman and Iran. ‘Most of them already had a few kids and were very tired and irritable. Deliveries were done under the dim light of Finnars (lanterns) in a hot and humid room. People did not know the concept of sterilisation. We had to sterilise all the instruments and the sheets and blankets after every birth, all by ourselves,’ she says.
It was a time when infant mortality rate was high and primitive methods of healing were in use. Salt was applied to wounds to close them up. An old treatment form known as Kaiy, using hot iron rods over the wounds, was also very common. Even babies were subjected to this. ‘It took a long time for adoption of the proper hygienic methods to birth and heal,’ she says.
Another challenge was a lack of basic food supplies such as bread. ‘A few years after we came, we got a fridge and an oven that ran on kerosene and had to be cranked up very often. It almost broke our backs.’
They would travel all the way to Dubai to buy supplies for their needs and for the hospital, the journey taking up to seven hours at times due to bad roads. They had an old Land Rover and they maintained the engine and changed its tyres themselves.
‘By the end of these trips we would be exhausted. Once we brought cheese and by the time we reached home, it got spoilt. It was that humid,’ she recalls.
Soon after the formation of the UAE in 1971, development was rapid and the hospital started gaining popularity. Minie came to be known affectionately as Doctura Mona or Amina. ‘When we came here there were no doctors on this side of the coast. I tried to explain to them that I was not a doctor. When real doctors came in later, they addressed them as Tabeebath (doctor in Arabic) and us as Doctura. So we became Doctura Joan and Doctura Mona,’ she says.
The women also doubled up as carpenters and mechanics, building makeshift beds and other furniture for the hospital. Minie established a bell system for the patients to call out to them.
In 1975, her best aide Joan left for Britain due to ill health. Minie was also planning to follow suit but things were so busy with the hospital that ‘I didn’t have time to quit’, she says.
‘We were growing very popular with the Arab women as the word spread that we had ‘magic pills’ to treat pregnant women. It was just iron pills, which helped them get over their anaemia. But as they got healthier and deliveries became smoother, they began to trust us and take our instructions seriously,’ she says.
By the 80s, babies who Minie helped deliver were having babies of their own. ‘The families would come in large groups and share stories of their (respective) deliveries. Soon we had a custom that if a family had a 10th child, we would celebrate it in the hospital. Every week we ended up having a celebration. It was a great bonding time for us as well as the families.’
In her free time, having a penchant for photography, she would capture images of the emirate on her Olympus Trip camera. Being passionate about nature, she would also go on treks to wadis and deserts across the country and neighbouring states like Oman. Whatever caught her fancy, she captured on film.
In 2010, a few good friends convinced her that she should turn her snapshots into a book. ‘I never had the time and writing was not really my forte. But they convinced me that Fujairah was the only emirate without proper representation. I said fine, and spread more than 1,500 photos in front of them,’ she says.
Good friends such as Shaikh Abdullah Suhail Al Sharqi (a member of the Fujairah ruling family), Dr Michelle Ziolkowski, Salam Baldwin–Khoury and Susanah Bilson helped her compile the photos and frame the captions.
Taking two years in the making, the book, titled Focus on Fujairah, documents the creation of the Fujairah Maternity Hospital and its daily running. It also highlights Minie’s travels on the east coast and her attention to detail of her surroundings. ‘The book is not about me, it is about Fujairah’, she is quick to clarify.
Five decades down the lane, Minie is now retired and still lives in the same premises of the old hospital in Fujairah. (It will soon be renovated to a new multi-speciality hospital but the lodging will be kept intact). She has a maid and a cook to take care of her and two dogs to keep her company
Over the years Minie says she has discovered places in the desert no one else has ever seen. She loves to go on trekking adventures and speed-boating, but admits that her health is not keeping up with her spirit.
Early in 2019, knowing her zest for adventure, her friend Rose treated her to a paragliding experience over the Arabian Gulf. She is touted to be the oldest person in the region to achieve the feat.
‘It was in Khorfakkan. I had so much fun and was just sad it lasted so short. I don’t know why the media became so crazy about it. After that there were interviews in newspapers and TV channels. Why is it hard to believe that an old lady can have so much fun?’ she asks with a laugh.
As for her family, she has never married and doesn’t miss having kids because the thousands of children she helped deliver are almost like her own. Among her nine siblings, only an elder sister and her twin sister remain. She used to visit them once a year but now her ailing heart and legs cannot withstand the journey. ‘
And I don’t want to be pushed around in a wheel chair throughout the journey,’ she states. ‘So we call each other occasionally and keep in touch.’
There isn’t a family in Fujairah whom she hasn’t helped with delivering a baby (if not more). ‘When you have helped to bring to life three or even four generations, people are bound to remember you,’ she says.
‘Even now they come to me for birth certificates and other documents and I can identify most of them by their family features.’
‘Once I went for a holiday in Muscat and an Arab youngster recognised me. My friends were pretty amazed by this,’ she recalls.
So to sum up, how would she describe her eventful life?
‘I am blessed to be part of such a great country and people. If God hadn’t helped me, I wouldn’t have been able to achieve anything here. I came here with no money, no experience and no language even. But the love of the people helped me to help them. I miss the good old days. Admittedly, things were tough, but we had courage and we made good things happen,’ she says, with a whimsical smile.