Thursday, July 7, 2011

A Full Recap of our Experience

Following is a lengthy article providing the history of how we came to Mutomo, the lessons we learned, and other details.  Happy reading!

A Visitation Education Comes to Life in Kenya

On July 1, I returned from a trip to Kenya, where I spent two weeks with 10 Vis students and four other chaperones working at a rural hospital.  It is an understatement to say that this trip was life-changing, for it opened our eyes to so many facets of Kenyan life, including the dire need for water, the prevalence of AIDS, and the challenges faced by people living in poverty.  But while this mission trip taught us so much, it also allowed our girls to demonstrate the value of their Vis education and model Salesian values at every turn. 

The Idea Begins:
The idea for this trip began with board member and Visitation parent Philip Goldman, who heads Maestral International, an organization devoted to the welfare of vulnerable children in lower income countries.  Following a presentation Philip made to the Upper School in 2010 about the plight of neglected and orphaned children worldwide, two students approached Philip and asked if he would consider spearheading a trip that would help them make a positive difference.  Philip was inspired by the girls’ interest and enthusiasm, so he began planning a trip to Kenya to work with the Sisters of Mercy at Mutomo Hospital.

Mutomo Hospital was started in the 1960s.  Working in a rural and semi-arid area with high levels of subsistence poverty, the Sisters of Mercy originally tended to the needs of patients suffering from leprosy and tuberculosis.  Now – almost 50 years later – the Sisters and their medical staff work with all kinds of medical cases, from traumatic burns and snakebites to malaria and cancer.  However, a significant part of their work is devoted to ameliorating the suffering of people with HIV and AIDS. 

Through Philip’s correspondence with Anita McTernan, an administrator at Mutomo Hospital, he arranged for ten Visitation girls (Ashley Bruber, Samantha Dumler, Elizabeth England, Kathleen Ferraro, Mackenzie Grutzner, Meghan Hickey, Rose McNeely, Olivia Riley, Amanda Scheid, and Jessie Wyatt) and five chaperones (Philip, Jay Bruber, Eric Grutzner, Joanne Mullen, and me) to travel to Kenya and spend a week working there and learning more about the culture.

Once the group – dubbed Team Mutomo – made a commitment to go to Kenya, we began fundraising – not for our own trip expenses but so that we could make a cash donation to the Sisters.  Through our fundraising efforts, which included a solicitation letter to family and friends, a 5K race, a raffle to win an iPad, and a contribution from Sr. Mary Paula’s VISTORY fund, Team Mutomo raised more than $11,000 for Mutomo Hospital.  

Our Time in Kenya:
On June 17, we arrived in Nairobi, and the next day we drove six hours east on some of the most harrowing, bumpy, and unpaved roads we have ever seen.  En route, we passed several small villages and numerous people walking with their animals to fetch drinking water.  Indeed, the water situation grew increasingly dire the farther east we went, as this typically arid part of Kenya has been further devastated by a three-year-long drought.  As a result of this drought, crops can’t grow, and families are forced to find water from far-off catchment sites and in nearly empty dams, murky rivers or other sources.  Families in this area spend both a considerable part of their time and income on searching for water – water that is not safe to drink for any number of reasons, including contamination by microbes and animal feces.  In addition, salt levels in some water sources are too high for effective crop irrigation.

Every morning Team Mutomo broke into sub-groups and worked at various sites throughout the region.  During the week, students and chaperones assisted in the hospital’s dental clinic alongside endodontist Eric Grutzner, comforted sick and dying children in Mutomo Hospital, and played with numerous local children who were either confined to the hospital ward or visiting the hospital to receive their AIDS medications.  One group of students and chaperones whitewashed a new community center in nearby Athi and outfitted it with a volleyball net, a swingset, and soccer balls, making this community center, which hosts HIV-positive orphans, a haven from the difficulty of their daily lives.  In fact, this community center was one of several beneficiaries of our fundraising efforts (another was the hospital, which had new playground equipment outside its waiting area funded by our donation).   

Jay Bruber often took students with him to examine the water-purification needs of the hospital and the town, and other groups went to anti-retroviral treatment (ART) clinics, where people with HIV and AIDS seek treatment.  At the ART clinics, our students and chaperones visited with patients, counted pills, attended therapy sessions, gathered basic medical information (e.g., weight and blood pressure) and learned about the many struggles facing Kenyans. 

Rural Medical Care:
My favorite day in Kenya was at a remote clinic two hours east of Mutomo.  The rutted, narrow, dusty roads to this clinic made Minnesota’s rural roads look like super-highways, and when we arrived at the clinic, which was someone’s 10’x10’ mud-and-thatch home, we were truly in the bush.  The two nurses we traveled with, Lucia and Esther, spent the day conducting pre-natal and neo-natal exams, and the students and I helped weigh the moms and babies, listened to fetal heartbeats, held babies as their moms were examined, and watched as the babies were vaccinated. 

Following an hour or two of these exams, the nurses turned to other medical concerns – including the wound of a young mother who had whacked her foot with an axe while she was chopping wood.  In some ways, it is astonishing to me that this woman could survive that minor accident because the conditions in this village were so primitive:  there is no running water, rubbing alcohol, or bandages with which to clean or protect a wound.  Indeed, the primitiveness of all living conditions in Mutomo and its environs are eye-popping:  garbage is either strewn about or burned in small piles throughout the villages, animals wander freely, leaving their droppings as they go, flies are everywhere, dust coats everything, and there are almost no flush toilets.  Additionally, water is almost completely absent – which is a problem for so many reasons.

However, the quality of medical care seems, to an outsider’s perspective, surprisingly good.  Lucia listened so attentively to the needs of the patients, and she and Esther provided them with vitamins, medicines, and vaccines as needed.  They also conducted blood tests to determine whether patients had AIDS, and the students and I were tearfully joyous when we realized that all three of the women tested – women whose lives are already fraught with challenges – were HIV-negative. 

Yet this point doesn’t escape us:  the incidence of AIDS is extremely high, and without the help of outside programs like the United States President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), so many people’s lives will be further destroyed.  For example, the anti-retroviral therapies being provided to patients by the Sisters are being exclusively funded by PEPFAR, a $48 billion program that was launched in 2008 to treat people with AIDS and prevent the spread of new infections to millions of people. Unfortunately, PEPFAR funding is already being cut, and the consequences of further cuts for the children we met are unthinkable:  certain and avoidable death.  (To read more about PEPFAR, please click here.)

AIDS is also prevalent in the cities:  At the end of our trip, a group of students and chaperones visited the slums of Nairobi.  Over half a million people live in indescribable squalor, eking out the bare minimum needed to survive in small tin shacks that are accessed via tight warrens full of sewage and garbage.  The Sisters are providing anti-retroviral therapies to thousands of HIV-positive residents of these slums, saving lives in both rural and urban areas of Kenya.

A Word About the Schools:
Throughout the week, several people in the Vis group visited schools where instructors from the hospital taught children about self-esteem, growing up, and positive behaviors – all in effort to prevent the future spread of HIV/AIDS.  The conditions in the schools are startling.  Children all wear uniforms (although most uniforms show signs of wear and tear), but not all children have shoes.  In at least two of the schools, desks were two-by-fours nailed together to fashion a tabletop and bench combo, and three or four children sat at each of these desks.

As a teacher, I was struck by the absence of tools with which to teach:  no books, no pens or pencils, no paper, no comfortable seating, no electricity. The windows had no glass, and although the temperatures were cool by Kenyan standards, they were still in the 80s, which gave me pause regarding the comfort of the schoolrooms once temperatures rise or bugs hatch.  There is no running water, and the toilet conditions are unsanitary at best.  The conditions weren’t lost on our own students, who remarked that Vis teachers have nothing to complain about when it comes to the conditions of their classrooms.  Smartboard not working?  No problem!!  Try going without books.  Or pencils. Or electricity.

Three of the students and I taught classes one day, where we compared American and Kenyan animals, foods, and climate.  To teach this class effectively, we brought our own paper, our own markers, and pencils for each of the students (who promptly whipped out small X-acto blades with which to sharpen their new pencils).  Yet the Kenyan school students never complained; nor did I ever encounter any disciplinary problems – even in classes as large as 40 students.  In fact, the students were cheerful and delightful.  They welcomed us, played with us, and laughed heartily and often (especially when chaperone Joanne Mullen and some of the girls taught local students “The Hokey Pokey”).  It was heartwarming to spend time with the children of Kenya.

Our Vis Girls:
Not only were the Kenyan children delightful, but so were our Visitation students.  Our Vis girls cheerfully worked hard, performed whatever chore was asked of them, and in every possible way demonstrated the Salesian ideals instilled in them through their Vis education.  They were intelligent, polite, friendly, respectful, appropriately curious, and hard-working.  They put others first.  They happily interacted with strangers of all ages, holding the hands of terminally ill children and playing with those who still had the energy.  Many even tried to break down barriers by learning Swahili phrases. 

The girls relished the chance to see babies born, and they mourned when children suffered or died.  And they never once complained about the harshness of the conditions, the quality of the food, the shortage of water, or the squalor that surrounded them in various locations.  At a final dinner with the sisters and Team Mutomo, Anita McTernan thanked the girls for coming and told them that their hard work was an inspiration to her, and the girls’ enthusiasm and infectious energy had re-energized her and the staff. 

At a debrief meeting at the end of our time in Kenya, every girl indicated that she would have preferred to spend more time in Mutomo and less time on safari – not because the safaris weren’t wonderful, but because the students’ work in Mutomo was so life-changing.  As I reflect on my own time in Kenya, I am still astounded by how much I learned about AIDS, poverty, the Kenyan culture, economics, and myself through this experience.  I can only imagine the value of this trip for a young woman about to begin her college career. This trip was a gift for them, for me, and for all the chaperones – and it proved that Vis girls are role models for what young women can do and achieve in our world.  We all should be so proud of them.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Team Mutomo: Thursday and Friday (6/24/2011)

Hello, all!  We continue to be busy and productive here in Mutomo.  Yesterday, we had no access to the Internet -- it seems the system was down -- so we had to wait until today to post our news.

Today is our last day in Mutomo.  The group has divided up again.  Most of us (Olivia, Elizabeth E., Elizabeth A., Jessie, Meghan, Mackenzie, Samantha, Amanda, Kathleen, and Joanne) are working at the hospital, helping the administrators file years' worth of records into accessible piles.  During our breaks, the students and chaperones are visiting with the sick children in the ward or with kids who are visiting for their outpatient treatments.  One child LOVES the matchbox car we gave him as he is completely confined to his bed.

Another group -- Jay, Ashley, and Rose -- are working around the hospital and the town to continue their work in resolving water issues.  Eric and Philip have been meeting with Anita McTernan, one of the hospital administrators, to look at various needs around Mutomo Hospital.  The plan for the remainder of the day is mass at 3, a BBQ dinner (we are SOOO excited about that), and sunset on the rocks (Joanne is praying that we don't see any snakes).  We'll also finish packing in preparation for a 7 a.m. departure tomorrow.

Yesterday was another great day in Mutomo.  Each group will write a bit about it.

Elizabeth England (who was with Ashley, Kathleen, Elizabeth Arnstein, and Jay Bruber):
Yesterday was an eventful and action-packed day; we started our work at 8:30 a.m., planning a lesson to teach students at Mutomo Primary School down the road. We arrived at the school at 11 a.m. and were welcomed by countless smiling faces and "How are you's?!" Rose, Kathleen, and I then proceeded to get "mobbed" by the adorable little children who were fascinated by our flashing cameras. After picture-taking and a tour of the school by Benjamin--the school's principal -- our group gathered in a room filled with the entire school population and introduced ourselves. We were awed by the children's welcoming and polite comments, their poise while listening to our introductions, and their energetic spirit when we asked them questions.

Next, Kathleen, Ashley, Ms. A and I went to teach our prepared lessons about America to a combined seventh- and eighth-grade class and later to the fifth and sixth grade levels. We started by asking the children what knowledge they had about our country, and both classes were so excited to tell us that our President's father was from Kenya. But they were more excited to learn and play "Simon Says" and dance to "Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes." Their laughter and joy filled both classes as we compared Kenyan food, animals, and climate to America's. We focused on finding the similarities between the two nations, and we received much feedback on questions we had about their culture and family. We ended both classes by watching the children draw pictures of their homes and families and gave them a pencil to use for school.

Later, some of our Vis students went to play volleyball in a nearby secondary school and got to enjoy playing a game of "football" with the students as well. We were instantly swarmed by students who wanted to touch our long hair and hear about our culture and school systems in the United States. After the sports games we continued talking to the other students, who were around our same age, and we were sad to leave the girls after such an amazing experience.

From Amanda Scheid (who was with Mackenzie and Eric Grutzner):
Mackenzie and I joined her father today in the dental clinic with Tara, the Swedish dentist who has been here about as long as we have. We got to assist in everything from tooth extractions to fillings. (Don't worry -- we wore gloves, a mask and a plastic shield to protect our faces.) We also got to see a woman who had a large and potentially life-threatening infection that originated in her mouth and made half of her face swell up. Unfortunately, we did not get to work on her because she was rushed to the hospital to get antibiotics for her infection. We truly hope she is okay, though, and we are praying for her quick recovery. We also got to hand out toothbrushes to the children who came in for checkups or extractions, and it was extremely rewarding to teach them how to brush their teeth. We learned so much from Dr. Tara and from Dr. Grutzner during our time in the dental clinic and had so much fun.

From Joanne:
Yesterday, Samantha and I spent the day in an Anti-Retro Viral Treatment (ART) clinic, which was housed in a small community outside of Mutomo.  All were there (mostly women and children) because they are HIV positive. I worked with the nurse, James, taking blood pressures, weighing the women and children and taking temperatures. They come to this clinic every month or so to monitor whether they are taking their retro-viral drugs.  Samantha worked with the pharmacist, counting out pills and handing out drugs.  We saw so many women who had walked 10 or more km one way, with babies on their back, just to get the drugs. 

What was most compelling is that we had the opportunity to talk to them through an interpreter.  They had so many questions.  The told us that they have no food or water, and one woman asked how we, in America, took our medicine because with these drugs, they need to take it with food and they have no food.  What an "AHA" moment. 

The landscape here is beautiful, and the people have been incredibly welcoming.  There is so MUCH poverty. As hungry as we've all been, I will never again say, "I'm starving...when are we going to eat?" and will instead know that there is so much food on our table.

From Jessie Wyatt (who was with Meghan, Olivia, Philip, and Rose):
We were asked by the sisters to sort through and organize some of the old patient files between the years 2002-2007. It was extremely interesting sorting through the files and reading about some particular cases where the individual showed increasing signs of improvement or when the file was labled "escaped" (meaning they left without paying). Unfortunately, many of those who are treated at the hospital cannot afford the medication they are receiving, leaving them with what they feel like is their only option -- escaping from the hopital and in turn escaping from their bills.

Among the files were documents stating individuals' time of deaths and causes of death. We were saddened to read that many of the deaths were caused by AIDS. Though our work may not have been the most "exciting" work we have done in Mutomo, we appreciate the new information aquired about the population around Mutomo. We continue to be impressed by the amount of work the hospital does for the surrounding community and we hope  to maintain a strong relationship with the Sisters of Mercy as we aspire to make a difference within the Mutomo community.

A Few Final Thoughts from Elizabeth A.:
One of the lasting impressions here is that we are surrounded by life and death.  Yesterday, I saw a nurse carrying the wrapped-up corpse of a baby out of the hospital.  Meghan saw a deceased child being carried to the morgue.  Yet we have seen at least three births in our time here.  It is a most difficult life that these children are born to, between the drought, poverty, disease, and many other issues.  We are also struck by the number of elderly people who are caring for their grandchildren, because the children have been orphaned.

We ask you to pray for the people we are seeing -- and we continue to ask for your prayers for our safety and good health.  We will never take either for granted again.

It is likely that we won't have access to the blog on safari.  We will blog if we get the chance, or we will see you on July 1.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Team Mutomo: Wednesday, June 22

Hello, family and friends!  Please know how much we miss you and think of you. 

Thank you for your continued comments.  We desperately want to post pictures for you to see, but we're having a difficult time linking photos for two reasons:  1.  we are using someone else's office and don't have immediate or ongoing access to her computer and 2.  the connections are slow and posting the blog is already fairly time-consuming.  We try to blog after we return from our assignments and before the sun sets (which is 6:30 p.m.)  We'll see if we can't share some photos with you because we have taken hundreds, and they are wonderful, but if we can't do it now, we'll do it when we return.

And now some comments from our different teams:

From Joanne Mullen:
Today was a bricks and mortar day, as Philip, Kenzie, Jessie, Amanda and I finished painting the building at Athi, putting up the volleyball net and setting up the swing sets.  It was HOT and I desperately needed a Diet Coke.  Of course I found one, and Cadbury chocolate as a treat for the girls later.  Do not tell. 

Today most of us are exhausted so we are going to lay low tonight.  The village is quieter today because of the heat.  The donkeys are napping and the hens are running into the buildings to escape.  Only two more days in Mutomo.  It has gone so fast.  Love to our friends and family.  Praise the Lord for clean water and health. 

From Kathleen Ferraro (who was with Samantha Dumler and Elizabeth Arnstein):
Today the three of us, along with Kenyan youth leaders Joseph and Jocelyn, traveled to a primary school not far from Mutomo. We spent the day with a class of boys and girls ranging from age 10 to 13 in a one-room schoolhouse made of homemade clay bricks and corrugated aluminum. The day began with a lesson from Joseph, who taught the children about self awareness, self image, and self esteem. After a short break Jocelyn took over the lesson, teaching the children about growing up and the changes that accompany that growth.

Following that lesson was lunch time. All of the school children quickly gathered around us, and although the language barrier made it difficult to communicate, we taught the kids the Hokey Pokey! Several rounds of Hokey Pokey later, we went back to class. For the rest of the afternoon, Joseph taught the children about HIV, AIDS, and awareness and prevention. All in all, it was an amazing day--we made friends, experienced primary school in Kenya, and learned much on the subject of HIV and AIDS. The three of us finished the day with soda. . . it was delicious. Bye for now!
Kathleen Ferraro being silly with the students at a local primary school.

Kathleen and Samantha Dumler getting to know the students.

Inside a classroom.  There are no books and no windows here.  There is no electricity or running water, either.

From Elizabeth Arnstein:
We have switched the schedule around a bit today, so we might not get to hear from all the groups.  But we have created a list of things we are learning.  I'll share some of that list here:
1.  If students attend school, they will learn three languages:  their "mother tongue" or tribal language, Swahili (the national language of Kenya, which is used so people from different tribes can communicate with one another) and English, the official language of the various ministries.  There does seem to be a direct correlation between a person's English fluency and his relative affluence or status.
2.  People -- almost always women or children -- have to walk many miles to fetch water, typically using donkeys carrying several 10-liter containers.
3.  Many children suffer, are left alone, or become injured when their mothers need to leave them to fetch water or receive medical care for HIV or other illnesses.  Additionally, we are astounded at the number of young children who are walking along the roads unattended.
4.  When asked about their favorite animals, many children respond with animals that revolve around their survival (e.g., "I like donkeys because they fetch water," or "I like goats because they give meat.")  Not many children talk about cats or dogs or other animals.
5.  At some schools, children must speak in English on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, and in Swahili on Thurs, Fri, and Sat.
6.  Often, the health levels (CD4 counts) of HIV or AIDS patients declines because they don't follow directions about taking their drugs.
7.  The infrastructure in Kenya seems non-existent in rural areas.  There is no electricity, no pumping from wells, no good roads, no medical facilities, no modern construction, etc.  When infrastructure is put in place, it often is not maintained, so it collapses over time.  The poor quality of the roads is a perfect example of this situation.  The roads were good at one time, but they have not been maintained and now are disastrously pitted and damaged.
8.  Men usually do not acceprt that they have HIV or AIDS and often don't seek treatment. 
9.  Children seem to have a notion that men do certain types of jobs (e.g., grazing of animals) and women do other types of jobs (e.g., cooking).
10.  Children are very joyful, happy, and well-behaved despite their difficult lives.

More observations tomorrow!

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Team Mutomo: Tuesday, June 21

Again today, one student from each group will write about her experiences.  We love it here, and we are working very hard.

From Mackenzie and Eric Grutzner and Kathleen Ferraro:
Today Kathleen, my dad, and I worked in the dental clinic, the Anti-Retroviral Therapy (ART) clinic, and we also worked in the archives with Sister Kathleen. Kathleen F. and I enjoyed working in the dental clinic because we got to do actual dental work along with Tara, the dentist from Sweden, and my dad.  Then we went to the ART clinic and worked with the clinicians as they saw patient after patient. We learned about the drugs they were giving the patients, and we helped them sort the pills for the patients. In the meantime, Eric worked on leveling a seesaw for the clinic.  Finally we went with Sister Kathleen to burn the records of the hospital before 2011. We had a wonderful time, and learned many things.  Today was a very fun day!

From Amanda Scheid, Samantha Dumler, and Philip Goldman:
Today Samantha, Philip, and I went to an ART clinic in a villiage 90 minutes away. Samantha and I got to help out the specialist who not only ran the clinic but catered to the medical needs of the entire community. He was extremely relieved to have us help, so we got to separate and count pills for him while Philip assisted in the weighing of the patients. We then got to sit in on a therapy session with a group of women and one man who were all HIV/AIDS positive. They were all extremely open with us and gave us great insight into their lives. They also asked us questions about our lives and we compared the HIV/AIDS stigma in the United States and Africa. Almost all of them were doing well and it was truly a memorable experience.  (by Amanda)

A note from Philip:  Some rough math -- we served about 18 people today through this program with HIV/AIDS medications, many of whom walked up to 15 kilometers for the treatment.  The anti-retrovirial treatments extended each of their lives by about a month, meaning that this AM, the program saved the equivalent of one-and-a-half life years.  Rough, but beautiful math.

From Jay Bruber:
Today was "a water discovery day."  I spent the day looking at different water sources around the area with a representative from WorldVision and one from the Mutomo Hospital.  We also went to a school to look at their water system.  Water is pumped into this area from a dam five miles away, and the water filter I brought could be very useful at the hospital and at the school I visited.

From Meghan Hickey, Olivia Riley, Liz England, and Ashley Bruber:
Today we stayed in Mutomo and attended a Behavior Change Process Seminar for out-of-school youth. We observed as the patients talked about at-risk behaviors and how to change and prevent them. The peer leader who was in charge of the seminar often asked for our opinions, and we were an active part of the group discussion and at times were able to talk with the teens in smaller groups. A highlight was a baby that was extremly intrigued by Olivia Riley, and by the end of the workshop the mother would turn the baby around whenever he got sad so he could look at Olivia's face and he would immediately start smiling.

From Jessie Wyatt, Rose McNeely, and Elizabeth Arnstein:
Today we worked in a women's clinic out in the bush. The clinic works towards the prevention of HIV/AIDS in children and mothers. It took two hours just to get to the village so when we say it was in the bush, we mean it was really in the bush. The clinic took place in a family's hut (about 6 feet square), and they were compensated 20 shillings or $1.80 per person. Women walked miles just for the quick check up -- some just to register progress for their pregnancies or babies and others just for check ups. One man was there with two of his pregnant wives -- quite a culture shock. (BTW:  Our lead nurse for the day is the daughter of the chief of a tribe and is one of 40 children by six different wives.)

A grocery store en route to the bush clinic.

Women and their babies waiting for vaccines and neo-natal care at a clinic two hours east of Mutomo.

Jessie Wyatt and Rose McNeely with nurse Lucia from Mutomo Hospital.

We also had the privilege of witnessing the testing for HIV/AIDS. It was extremely nerve-wracking and left Rose and Jessie in tears. Fortunately, all those that were tested were negative. We all were able to hold babies, smile with new mothers, take blood pressure, weigh all of the mothers, listen to heartbeats, feel the heads of babies still in the womb, and learn about rural health care. Overall, it was an experience that forever has changed the way we view our health care system and the appreciation we have for our doctors and sanitary health environments. For example, a woman can have a Caesarian Section for 8,000 shillings -- roughly $100. Our prayers will be with these mothers and children.

Please keep the comments coming.  We love hearing from home.  ASANTE SANA!

Monday, June 20, 2011

Mutomo: Monday, June 20

Today, one girl from each of the groups that worked in and around Mutomo will write briefly about her group's experiences.

From Kathleen Ferraro, Liz England, Sam Dumler, Olivia Riley, Jay Bruber, Eric Grutzner, Rose McNeeley and Phillip Goldman:
Today after a long, bumpy ride to Athi (a village about 90 minutes from Mutomo), we arrived at the community center. We spent the morning setting up a swingset for the children, preparing to whitewash the entire exterior of the building, and administering medication to AIDS patients. The rest of the day was spent whitewashing the building. While we were working, we were able to learn Swahili from some Kenyans and play with local children. At the end of the day, we had whitewashed the building with almost two coats, putting us way ahead of schedule on that project! It was a great and productive day!

From Jessie Wyatt, Amanda Scheid, Mackenzie Grutzner, Ashley Bruber and Joanne Mullen:
After a quick, 3-km ride, we arrived at Kandae Primary School. We were instantly greeted by children hurtling themselves on top of us -- especially on Ashley as she climbed out of the front seat of the van. After spending time high-fiving the kids as they pulled on Amanda's blond and seemingly unusual hair, we went to the administration room. Unlike Vis in every way, the school was a small room, with a large desk for the School Dean and the other desk for all of the teachers surrounded by not-so-gently used books and yellowing maps and paper. This truly was a reality check at how fortunate we are to go to a school that provides not only textbooks but also paper, pens, and even Smart Boards.

When we went to the classroom, we were yet again shocked. The classroom, holding roughly 25 students, was covered by an aluminum roof, it had holes in the walls, no bookshelves whatsoever, and a painted-on chalkboard. The students had two notebooks to share and roughly five pens that were being passed around. The class we visited with were students of all ages who were learning about self-awareness and HIV/AIDS. Their intelligence was impressive, and their ability to understand and accept was remarkable. We spent parts of the day thoughout the entire day playing with other children from the school and singing and dancing -- hilarious videos of Joanne will follow! It was a wonderful day that helped us realize how fortunate we are and how much we have to be thankful for. These children will remain in our prayers throughout the rest of the trip and we hope to emmulate their energy in our daily lives! ASANTE!

From Meghan Hickey:
Today I stayed in Mutomo with Elizabeth Arnstein and helped out in the hospital. We worked with children who were waiting for appointments in the Comprehensive Care Unit (where the children recieve their HIV medication) and played with them to distract them. Ms. Arnstein showed off some pretty impressive soccer skills, while I was told just to take pictures instead of playing. :-) We also sorted boxes and boxes of old toys and books for the kids that had been in storage for years because no one had time to sort through them or organize them. The job took hours, but Sr. Bridget was so pleased with our efforts. 

Meghan Hickey sorts through toys at the hospital.

One of the long-term patients at the hospital plays while we sort.

A highlight of the day is that in the morning, we were also able to see a baby being born.  It was a boy!

From Elizabeth Arnstein -- with contributions from everyone:
One of the things we have noticed about Kenya is that it is a land of contrasts.  Here are some examples of the contrasts we have seen or experienced thus far:
One of the main streets in Mutomo.

A "parking lot" in Mutomo.

  • People here are surrounded by misery in every form (poverty, sickness, death), yet they are some of the happiest, most cheerful people we have ever met.
  • Births and deaths take place just feet from each other.
  • The scenery -- the cliffs, the hills, the animals -- is beautiful, but up close, you can see the squalor, filth, and garbage all around.
  • The landscapes are lush at a distance, but up close, one can see how the drought has deeply affected the land.
  • In the clinics, tens of thousands of dollars' worth of drugs are being dispensed in buildings with no electricty and no water.  The people who run the clinics can't even afford to paint the buildings.
  • Everyone here has cell phones, but there is NO water.
  • People are beautifully dressed (men in suits, women in gorgeous dresses), but the surroundings are filthy.
  • There is an astonishing absence of water, yet people are power-washing their motorbikes.
  • Very friendly people -- unless you have AIDS.  Then you are ostracized.
  • Additionally, we -- the Vis group -- are very tired, but we are so energized and astounded by our daily experiences.
The daughters of two nurses at the hospital.

A boy waiting for medical treatment plays with the newly sorted toys.

I cannot emphasize this enough:  we are having a great time in Mutomo and its environs.  We are also learning a lot about Kenya, AIDS, the hospital, poverty, and ourselves.  This has truly been life-changing for us.  And we hope it will be life-changing for the people we are meeting.  Indeed, within the last 24 hours, the Sisters' outreach community in Athi has received a swingset, a volleyball court, and a fully-whitewashed building through our efforts.

Thank you for the comments on our blog!  We love reading them.  And thank you for your continued prayers for our safe travels and work.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Our First Days in Mutomo

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We have made it safely to Mutomo after many, many hours of traveling.  We will work our way backwards on today's blog -- telling you about today's adventure and working back in time (if you are interested in hearing all of the details).

Today--Saturday, June 19:
Happy Father's Day!

This morning our group went to mass at the church located next door to the Mutomo Hospital.  At the church was the population of a girls' school from across the street and several other people from the community.  The priest was escorted in by two rows of dancing girls, with beautiful music sung by the entire congregation. During Mass, we were welcomed into the church by the priest, and Philip was invited to speak at mass.  He encouraged everyone to come say, "Hello, Minnesota!" to us, and we were to respond, "Hello, Mutomo" -- after which we would introduce ourselves by name.  This introduction "exercise" has been so helpful because many people in the community have approached us, and they feel more comfortable around us now that they know who we are and what we are doing in the community. 

Following tea with the sisters, our groups split up.  One group stayed at the hospital and was able to witness the birth of a baby.  That group included Lizzie England, Eric Grutzner, Ashley Bruber, and Rose McNeely.  The group went into the delivery room, where the expectant mother lay.  Attending the birth were one doctor, one midwife, Sr. Josephine, and one nurse.  Once the mother delivered the baby, the doctor hoisted the baby in the air so that she could see its gender (as opposed to having the doctor announce the gender).  It was a boy, who weighed 2.6 kilograms.  He was swaddled and given some injections.  In addition to seeing the birth of the baby, the girls saw the placenta delivery as well. The girls are clearly impressed by the experience, and they were delighted that the doctor explained the entire procedure.  One memorable impression is that the mother held her own legs, as opposed to having them in stirrups, but the students were also surprised that they were allowed in the delivery room without being required to wash their hands or wear protective gear. 

This same group found that the most mortifying part of the day was that they had to sing the Vis graduation song to over 100 moms and kids at the hospital.  The girls felt their voices didn't compare at all to the various kids at Mutomo who stood up and sang in front of the group.  Mr. Grutzner later assembled a rope out of strings and constructed a volleyball net.  The kids here are also thrilled with the soccer balls we brought because the kids here make their own soccer balls out of wet newspapers bound together with twine.

Another group went to Kasala (they aren't back as of this writing, so more news later), and one group went to a remote medical clinic in Athi.  The truck ride was, in Jessie's words, "crazy" with moments where we thought we might run over young children or any of the various animals (camels, donkeys, goats, cattle, and -- no joke here -- chickens) crossing the road.  The roads were all dirt, deeply pitted and grooved in spots, except for a 500-foot section of pavement graciously provided by the Japanese government (which amused us to no end). 

Upon our arrival, we were greeted by a group of 20 or so children singing (even including our names in the songs) and dancing.  The singing here -- and we can't emphasize this enough -- is absolutely beautiful!  We were also given dance lessons and the students (and by "students," we mean Jessie Wyatt) also taught the local kids some dance lessons, including "The Bernie" and "The Stanky Leg."   Meghan Hickey led the kids in drawing and coloring, and some students even wrote compositions about their lives and their HIV status.  (All of the kids at the Athi clinic are HIV positive and most are orphaned).  The Vis group was also asked to write compositions with info about our lives.

Amanda Scheid, and eventually all of us, played with the kids.  We then had tea, and the kids ate lunch provided by Mutomo Hospital.  After more singing and dancing, it was back to the hospital.  Philip reminded us that the funding from the United States government is keeping alive all of the HIV-positive children we saw today.  If these programs are cut, these children we met will sicken within a month or two and then go through the remainder of the HIV cycle and die. 

The children here are so well-behaved and friendly.  They love singing and dancing, and they all approach us by introducing themselves with a handshake (even the toddlers know to do this).  But we can see that their lives are challenging.  Food, disease, the lack of water, and the lack of money to pay for education complicate these children's lives.  Eric learned that the cost of secondary school (high school) is prohibitive for many families either because of location or the cost of uniforms and fees.  The cost for secondary schools is just $250 a year, but that is a significant sum of money for many of the local families.  Organizations that can manage funds for the children's school fees would be an ideal fix for this situation because one-on-one sponsorships don't effectively help kids through the secondary schools.

A quick note about the drought:  the earth here is unbelievably dry and dusty.  Indeed, during our drive today, we saw 50 or so camels and an enormous herd of cattle being driven south (the camels were from Somalia) so that they could reach water down in Tsavo National Park in Southern Kenya.  In fact, it's so dusty that Philip's gray hair was turning brown as a result of the dust being blown into his hair.  (He approved the telling of this story :-))

Our Arrival in Mutomo Yesterday (June 18):
We woke up in Nairobi at the Southern Sun Hotel and then had a fabulous, gourmet breakfast poolside.  After loading the mini-bus and taking photographs of the friendly guards (who also taught us some Swahili words like "cool" and "awesome," we headed to the bank for money and then the grocery store, which was astonishingly well-stocked and large.  The girls enjoyed looking at different brands of food, and they learned how to say "Happy Father's Day" in Swahili. 

Following the trip to the grocery store, we went on a fairly long and slightly harrowing trip to Mutomo via mini-bus.  To distract themselves, the girls took videos, sang songs, reminisced about their Vis experiences, discussed first kisses, and pelted Mr. Bruber in the head three times with snacks (actually, only Jessie pelted Mr. B in the head -- unintentionally).  The roads here are astonishingly bad -- dusty, ridged, pitted, and with deep gulleys in some points.  Drivers weave all over the roads -- right, left, right again -- so they can avoid the worst parts of the road and protect the car from damage.  The scenery, however, is astounding, with small towns here and there.  The towns are almost identical to each other in their appearance:  small and windowless concrete huts line both sides of the dusty roads.  Donkeys and chickens mill about, and the roads are dotted with people (mostly kids) walking with their animals to get water.  Regardless of their conditions, the kids always waved and smiled broadly as we drove by and waved.

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After six hours, we finally arrived in Mutomo at the Paris Bed and Breakfast.  Each girl has her own room, but many of the girls decided to share rooms last night.  We had dinner with the Sisters (goat stew over rice, chapatis, and braised cabbage with fruit for dessert), and then we retired to the hotel for a quick debrief before we all collapsed from exhaustion. 

The Plane Rides:
The travel was unbelievably long, but the flights were smooth, and there were no problems.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

We're Heading Out of Town!

The group met one final time tonight in preparation for the trip to Kenya.  The students and chaperones gathered to weigh suitcases (no one was over the 50-lb limit!) and distribute amongst our various bags the many gifts we will bring with us to Mutomo.

Many thanks to the Grutzners for hosting us (Barb specially prepared a delicious meal for us that we likely won't be able to eat again until we return from Kenya) and to Martha Dumler, who notarized all of our medical forms.  Our thanks also go to the people who donated gifts for us to carry along.  We have all kinds of toys, clothes, toothbrushes and toothpaste, and more to give to our future friends in Mutomo. 

As we get ready to depart, we ask for your prayers that our travels will be safe and that we will contribute meaningfully to the work the Sisters of Mercy are already doing in Kenya.  Thanks to everyone for their support and encouragement as we embark on this great trip.

Friday, June 10, 2011

About our Trip

In less than one week, ten Vis girls and five chaperones will head to Mutomo, Kenya!  Assuming that we have both the time and the technological capability (read: reliable Internet service), we're going to try to maintain a blog of our activities and work in Kenya. 

While we're in Mutomo, we will assist the Sisters of Mercy, who work with more than 700 children with HIV/AIDS in Mutomo (a remote part of Kenya) and at several mobile clinics throughout the region. 

We leave for Kenya on June 16.  We will be in Nairobi on June 17, and in Mutomo on June 18, where we will stay for a week before heading on a safari for a few days.

Stay tuned!