Friday, August 04, 2006

July 22, 2006

So the Luo tribe doesn't celebrate birthdays. Most people don't even know when their birthday is. If you ask them how old they are, they can give you a rough estimate, but age doesn't really matter in Lwala- what's more important is how good the maize crop was on a particular year, or how much rain the area received a certain spring. So when you ask someone when they were born, they may reply, "The summer the maize was bright yellow and sweet." That said, they all know that in America, we celebrate for my 22nd birthday on July 13th, I received the most wonderful surprise birthday party. Dada (who is now all better!) stayed up until 1 am the night before my birthday to bake me a cake (an extremely difficult task when all you have is a fire as an oven). It's so incredible to see Dada now compared to how she was when she was sick. She's smiling, playing, singing (the songs that I taught her!), and just like always, is jumping out from behind doors trying to scare me. All the time we spent trying to make her better was so worth it... and the cake she worked on for 6 hours was the best birthday present I've ever had.

I'm writing this email from a health clinic called Samaria Health Center, located at a ranch in the base of Mt. Kenya. We've been here for 4 days (it's been a mini-vacation in the Kenyan mountains- so pretty here) and it’s been so inspiring to see a well functioning, respectable clinic. Susan Kaburu, a nurse midwife in Ndathi (n-DA-tee) Kenya, runs the clinic. Ndathi is a small farming community about 10 hours away from Lwala and has the feel of a small mountain town. Before Susan started the clinic, the town had little sign of medical outreach and lots of people who needed healthcare- just like the current situation in Lwala. She tells horror stories of people coming to see her at home for health advice before the clinic was open- there is one in particular that sticks in my mind. A few years ago, a young woman in labor was literally dropped off at Susan's front door, bleeding to death. Susan had to bring the woman into her home, bleeding everywhere, and find a way to get her to a hospital-otherwise the woman and baby would have died. Susan opened her clinic in January 2005 (with funds provided by a Vanderbilt nurse, Poppy Buchannan, who I met in Lwala earlier this summer). Today SamariaHealth Center is this clean, beautiful building with white walls and pretty blue doors out in the middle of nowhere, Kenya. The clinic has a labor room, a delivery room, a maternity room, a pharmacy, a waiting area, a lab, an injection room and a general consultation room. It's so great! Patients are expected to pay for the health services if they can (the most expensive visit would cost around $3… drugs included), but if they aren't able to pay they still receive treatment. Often times, patients pay in the form of vegetables, chickens and other produce. It's been so encouraging to see such a wonderful health clinic- it's certainly the first legitimate health facility I've seen since living in Kenya. Susan is hosting Fred, Omondi, Caitlin (a Dartmouth graduate who's tons of fun) and I in her home, which sits next door to the clinic. She's giving us great tips on where to find staff, drugs and supplies- Susan is certainly a mentor for all of us.

The Samaria clinic and surrounding area couldn't be any more peaceful and lovely. The brand new clinic sits in the shade of trees blossoming with bright orange flowers. The windows of the clinic (with curtains of white lace that blow in the breeze) look out onto lush, endless gardens of tomatoes, maize and banana tree orchards. The air here is much cooler than in Lwala, reminiscent of the crisp mountain air in Colorado. Everyone here wears knit hats and chunky sweaters- including the kids who are all bundled up in hand-made hats and jackets. We sip hot ginger tea regularly and curl up at night in Susan's cozy, small ranch house with light yellow walls and windows that look out onto clotheslines in the garden. There's no electricity here, but the clinic uses solar panels and a back-up generator for power. We can't go outside the ranch before sunrise or after sunset because herds ofelephants- huge, wild African elephants!- pass regularly on the dirt road entering the clinic. It's completely unreal to be in the gardens outside and hear elephants trumpeting near by! It's been a breath offresh air to see quality healthcare in Kenya. The first night we were at the clinic, Susan delivered an 8 pound baby boy. The umbilical chord was wrapped around his neck at one point during the delivery, and without Susan's expertise the baby might not have made it. Seeing Susan's clinic has given us all hope that the Lwala clinic will someday have as big an impact on the community as the Samaria clinic has had in Ndathi.

About a week ago I visited an orphanage called Sally Orphanage, where 120 AIDS orphans live ranging in age from newborn to 17 years old. Thewoman who runs the clinic is called "Mamma Molly." Molly is so incredible. She loves every single one of the 120 children as if they were her own. The moment I met Molly I was struck by her warm, accepting nature. She took me in and called me her daughter for the duration of my stay in the orphanage. Molly looks like something out of an African fairy tale. When I met her she wore a bright headscarf, a beautiful hand-made dress and was wrapped in a dark blue shawl dotted with cream-colored swirls. She's about 50 years old, speaks with a rich, clear Kenyan accent, wears 3 silver bracelets on her right arm and has these big, wise, dark eyes. I loved Molly instantly and felt calm and safe as she gave me the tour of the orphanage-holding my hand the entire time. The children of this orphanage are unbelievably beautiful. Molly knew every single one of them by name and would introduce me to each wide-eyed child with a small anecdote such as, "This is Monica Atieno. She's 3 years old and was found abandoned in a maize field 2 years ago. Her parents are both dead from AIDS." Molly explained how the area we were in was the worst hit by AIDS in all of Kenya. She described deserted huts near the orphanage that were empty because everyone who once lived in them- mom, dad, kids- all died from AIDS. The entire time I was at the orphanage I fought back tears- many of the kids were HIV positive. Molly described how at least once every few months one of the children dies of AIDS at the orphanage. I held twins for a long time while at the orphanage. A boy and a girl, the twins were so tiny and so fragile in my arms. They, like many of the tiny babies, are HIV positive. I'm going back to the orphanage on Monday to spend 2 nights and play with the kids. The website for the orphanage is if you want to see pictures.

And to my brave sister Laurie who just gave birth to a healthy baby boy on July 14th (Owen William Green)- I love you and can't wait to see you, Scott and the baby! We had a birthday party for Owen in Lwala. We ate leftover cake from my birthday the day before and my friend Jappollo (his nickname, meaning “of heaven”) sang "Happy Birthday Owen" about 10 times during the party.

Oriti for now-
Love, Abbie


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