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.) http://www.pepfar.gov/
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.