Africa Stories

One volunteer's story...

An extraordinary tale...

January 5, 2006
Dear friends and family,

As the jetlag and shock of modern technology slowly begin to fade, I would like to share with you some of the final events of my stay in Kenya. It is still hard for me to believe that I was actually in Africa;  it's also hard to conceive how much I miss Kenya after only a few weeks.

My last week at Mama Maria, my second site, was better than I could have possibly imagined. The clinic was still closed, and even though I craved to work in the healthcare setting as in my previous site, I found that I really enjoyed teaching English in local schools. One of the primary schools, Shining Star, has an enrollment of 80 students in two crowded rooms built of cow dung and bamboo. It was founded and directed by Hevron, one of the most amazing Kenyans I met. Concerned about children who were not attending school because they were unable to pay even the minimal public school fees, Hevron started a free school. I was touched by his dedication to the children, and promised that I would seek funds to build an addition to his school. He was so grateful that he decided to change the name of the school to Maura Star, which made me want to stay forever. I guess my name is staying along with my heart.

I spent my final working week in a Maasai village, one of the most traditional tribes in Africa. They are a nomadic people recognized by their lengthened ears and the red blankets they wear even in the extreme heat. I was able to work in a neighborhood clinic, where I assisted in giving vaccinations, giving health talks to new and pregnant mothers, and even providing teenage boys with sterile supplies for their upcoming circumcisions, a tradition still heavily practiced in the area. The only challenge encountered at this site was with my host family, who wanted me to be at home to play with the kids and had a hard time understanding that I wanted to work full days at the clinic, among other things. However, I do not regret staying with them, as they taught me a lot about relating with people and made me appreciate my first two sites even more.

On my last night during my “final supper” the family with whom I was staying asked me my favorite part about Kenya, a question I did not know how to answer as I felt that I had fallen in love with everything about the country. My answers came slowly and deliberately.

I stated that I loved the many “firsts” I encountered in Kenya: I experienced my first motorcycle ride, and had to hold on so tightly over the incredibly rough road that my palms bled. I witnessed my first police bribe, which I then saw every time I rode the bus. For the first time ever, I was thought to be male because I wore pants to play basketball. It was the first time anyone had asked for my hand in marriage. In total, I experienced about 15 marriage proposals, which I learned to handle deftly and definitively. And, of course, it was the first time I had ever had to smoke out an unwelcome bat from my hut.

Besides the people themselves, what I appreciated most in Kenya was all I learned during my time there. I experienced firsthand the devastation that HIV/AIDS can cause to entire families and villages; at the same time I also witnessed the strength and resilience of the human spirit in the face of such devastation. I met many single mothers with 5 or 6 children struggling to survive with the disease, and grandparents raising young orphaned children. Although it took almost my entire time in Kenya to learn patience when confronting ingrained falsehoods, I learned to combat myths about AIDS by talking with teenagers in the area. I developed an attachment for pregnant and new mothers, most of whom were younger than I and who often neither wanted nor were ready for marriage or children, but who could not fight the tradition of arranged marriage. I learned to channel my anger towards the number of preventable deaths of children in the area by teaching parents the importance of immunizations and boiled water. Best of all, I learned how a simple game of pick-up basketball can break down cultural barriers and prejudice. I told them that I was convinced that all of these things have made me a stronger and more empathetic person. I sensed that my friends were satisfied with my answer. Their country had, as they put it, "‘done me good.”

During my stay in Kenya I learned to dispense medicine, dress wounds, give classes on immunizations and nutrition, and weigh and measure infants. I played basketball at the high school, shocked everyone when I made the village elder wait his turn at the clinic, and spent many evenings laughing and talking with neighbors. At a class on teaching potential complications on childbirth, I concocted a teaching technique in which a black baby doll was ‘birthed’ from a hole cut into my old pair of Notre Dame running shorts. Kenya was an exciting and challenging post-grad education! What I carry most in my heart, however, are the memories of the inspiring people I met. People like the schoolteacher Hevron and Peter, who started a health and nutrition center. I remain in awe of Ana, a mother of 12 grown children who was now raising orphaned grandchildren. A volunteer at the clinic, Ana came every day to teach young mothers about childcare to do whatever else needed to be done. There were so many people I met whose vision, selflessness, and generosity were unforgettable.

And what did I learn about myself? I learned that it was a gift to have been born and raised in mission and later, given a first-class education. Grounded in service and supported by all of you, I wanted to go out on my own, as an adult, to contribute what I can now, and discover what else I need to learn for later. Two major frustrations for me were my own limited medical knowledge and the very limited health care resources for the people in the villages. With the dream of returning to my medical missionary roots confirmed, I am now ready for four years of work in medical school. Looking back, it’s funny how much of my Kenyan experience was like growing up in Oaxaca, especially when l once again carted water to the house and shot marbles on hard-packed dirt, yet how much of it was uniquely African, uniquely mine, and separate from my parents. Oftentimes in the evening I would look out at the glorious orange-pink sun setting behind Lake Victoria, and I would think to myself “ I can't believe I am actually in Africa!”

Thank you all for the incredible love and support that you showed me during my trip. I feel truly lucky to have had such a successful and incredible experience.

Latia's Story

(picture below) This is Latia at 18 months, weight 11 lbs., when she was found abandoned outside the gates of Nyumbani ( HIV+ and close to death, she was not expected to survive. But