Two weeks in Kenya opens our American eyes, melts our hearts

A little departure from my usual blogging as a corporate communicator to a more personal reflection as a citizen journalist…

My wife and I returned to America a week ago from a medical mission to Kenya. We ended our two-week stay in this impoverished country with a couple hours in an relatively upscale shopping mall in the capital city of Nairobi as a bit of a decompression chamber on the way back to the modern world and a chance to buy one more souvenir. As we would find out when we landed in Chicago after eight-hour flights from Nairobi to Amsterdam and Amsterdam to Chicago, less than 24 hours after we departed a terrible terrorist attack began in a very similar mall in Nairobi. Our hearts and prayers go out to the people of Kenya, who have so little, and especially to those killed or injured in the attack. The terror continued for days until the Kenyan military rooted out the last terrorists in the mall and could clear out the boobie traps they had set to try to increase the toll of lost innocent life. We ourselves never felt in any danger while guests of the poor but beautiful country. And, of course, we are thankful we had left before this madness began.

Our time in Kenya was eye-opening to say the least. For two weeks, Mary (a physical therapist) worked alongside doctors and nurses on our mission and the medical people at a hospital in Naivasha (about 40 miles from Nairobi) and at the clinic at Upendo Village, a community established by a visionary nun, Sister Florence Muia, to provide comfort and treatment to women and children suffering from HIV/AIDS. Many of the patients Mary saw were burn victims (including many young children and IMG_0494babies with severe burns from falling into the open fires and boiling kettles on the ground that serve as their family kitchens. She spent hours in “debridement,” cleaning the open wounds of the burn victims each day. The desperate crying of babies in such pain as she worked on their wounds will stay with Mary for a long time. But also the soft “thank you” from each mother as she held her baby for Mary to treat. Conditions at the hospital were horrendous compared to what we expect–most of the little beds held two patients. In the men’s ward, a sick prisoner with open wounds was shackled to the bed frame, guarded by heavily armed police, and sharing the narrow bed with another male patient with an entirely different malady. Mary could add many, many hard-to-believe stories that are not for the faint of heart.

I spent the two weeks working with the construction team mixing and pouring cement floors to add a little bit of modernity to four simple houses that earlier mission teams had built outside Naivasha.IMG_0531 This involved carrying dozens of wheel barrows of gravel, sand and cement mix on to a dirt surface and mixing it by shovel before we added water, then filled five-gallon buckets of concrete mixture that we poured into the dugout floors of the primitive houses. Again, I could tell you many stories that would make you scratch your head–and to be thankful for the many comforts we all take for granted in the comfort of the First World. It was hard work, but rewarding and much appreciated by the people whose homes we were improving.

Still, I think the biggest impact we made was in the goodwill shared between strangers–the warm smiles and waves we gave and received from those curious at the white people who had come to visit them. Especially the children, who would look at us with wide eyes and burst into wide smiles when we smiled and waved at them. One such incident I will long remember occurred toward the end of the first week there. The construction team was working on a house in a little crude farm worked by a multi-generational family. I was feeling the onset of diarrhea (despite my drinking only bottled water and beverages and avoiding fresh salads and vegetables that might have been washed in contaminated water). I moved over into the shade beside the house and sat down to rest. A little girl came over and began talking to me rapidly in Swahili which I of course did not understand. All I Jon and friend in Kenyacould comprehend was her warm smile. I spoke back to her in English, which she didn’t understand either. She began putting pebbles and acorns in my hand and letting me put them into her hands. We played like this for a long time, perhaps an hour, and I began to feel better. I’m grateful for this little girl who came over to cheer me up.

You may wonder why we traveled so far when there are people in need in our country, indeed in our own communities. We do try to help those close at home as you undoubtedly do as well. But we also know that there are many safety nets, public and privately offered, to help the needy here in America. There are no such safety nets for many of the wretchedly poor people of the Third World. And even more importantly, there is great good that comes from these poor, nearly forgotten people seeing that someone cares enough about them to travel from far-away comfortable places to help them, if just for two weeks. And, too, there is much we can learn from these patient, generous and hard-working souls so happy to welcome us into their homes.  We in America take so much for granted!