Saving Kenyan Lives

Kenya 2012

By Lynn Schreiber

June 27, 2012

Also published at Salt and Caramel

Gordon Okal Owera is a 26-year-old teacher from a small village in Kenya. We visited him last week with the woman who saved his life. It is not an exaggeration; Pamela cajoled, bullied and persuaded him that life is worth fighting for.

When Gordon started feeling unwell in autumn 2011, he thought he had just been working too hard. A school teacher, he worked left home at 6 am and didn’t return until 6:30 pm. He put the fatigue that he was feeling down to the long hours, particularly during the harvest in December. He would work in the fields from early morning till midday then go home and sleep.

In January, Gordon returned to school. One morning, he was doing the school records for his boss when he felt extremely unwell. He was sweating severely and applied successfully to his boss for permission to go home. He intended to rest for a hour but woke up late at night, having slept the day away.

His sister came to care for him and was alarmed by his appearance. His lack of appetite had caused extreme weight loss. She brought him to her village where she could care from him better, and consulted the doctor.

Gordon had tuberculosis. A disease that is all but eradicated in the Western world but is still a killer here in Africa. After two weeks in hospital, Gordon was allowed to go home and referred to the local TB clinic.

The clinic is supported by CDC (which I wrote about recently) and they assigned Pamela to be his support worker.

'I lost hope, I told my mother. I will die and you will go on living', said Gordon.

Not if Pamela Mbuya Otieno had anything to do with it. Pamela is a Nutrition Assistant for the CDC-funded DOT (Directly Observed Therapy) Support Group.

Although he was not really keen on being treated, as he struggled with the stigma of the disease, he was too polite to tell Pamela to go away.

Just as HIV is stigmatized in Kenya, TB patients are shunned by their neighbours. They are told that they have been possessed and should consult a local herbalist to be ‘cured’.

Gordon started taking the medications that Pamela brought him daily. The support workers know that if they do not visit every day, then there is a high chance that their patients will stop taking the meds, particularly when they begin to feel better.

'I developed a likeness for the drugs', Gordon said.

His enlightened friends stuck by him, but some turned away. He was most worried about being able to return to his job as a teacher. He talked of a young child in his class who was malnourished and who was teased for being ill. The children ridiculed the girl. Gordon would sneak the little girl some porridge during breaktime. It was clear that he was worried about her.

When he went to an open day at the school, some of the children expressed disbelief at seeing him as they thought he had died. They were pleased to see him and some have visited him at home since then.

Gordon plans to return to teaching next month. He sees his job now as important; he has to educate the children on living with TB, in the hope that the information will filter through to the parents.

Once a week the children are split into gendered groups and discuss various issues. Gordon teaches the boys how to relate to each other, how to become successful and how to stop harmful behaviour.

They also talk of the importance of family planning, and how the children can protect themselves from unwanted pregnancies that would disrupt their education. Almost no girls go back to school once they have left to have a baby, so providing this information before the girl becomes sexually active is vital.

HIV/AIDS is another topic that is covered by the teachers. The children learn how to protect themselves, the symptoms and treatment and that it is no longer a death sentence.

Pamela sees her work as one of ‘great importance’, and enjoys seeing the people she has helped restore to health. She supports up to 4 people at a time, for the six months until the treatment course has finished.

When asked how she feels about Gordon, she replied, 'I call him my son. He is like a son to me’.

The CDC (Centre for Disease Control and Prevention) is based in Atlanta. The Kenyan office in Kisumu district is one of the most deprived areas of Kenya, with the highest rates of HIV and malaria infection.

We spent two days with the CDC in the area, looking at different projects, from family planning clinics to TB treatment projects. The work they are doing is very effective, even if it only benefits a small section of the population directly.

Their main focus is the research of diseases, in order to find the best method of fighting malaria, HIV, typhoid, TB and other infectious diseases. Their DOT projects, such as the one that Gordon is involved in, saves many lives as these projects are recommended to other areas.

I was impressed by the coordination between the US-funded CDC and the Kenyan health workers. This ensures that the Kenyans do not feel resentful towards the projects, as they ‘own’ them. The Kenyan health workers are accepted and valued members of their communities.

En route to the projects, I spoke to one of their staff about the problems that Kenyans face. I asked why so many people travelled to Nairobi, when they appeared to have a better life ‘up country’. By which I mean, not exactly an easier life but at least one in which they are not living in the slums. The people we met often had small vegetable plots, a cow and perhaps a couple of chickens. It certainly seemed more pleasant than the squalor of Kibera.

He told me that they hoped to find employment in the cities. The work that they do on the farms or homesteads is not considered ‘work’. This is reserved for white-colour work in an office. The tragedy is that the area in which we travelled was verdant and fertile, but it is either not being farmed, or is being farmed by a few large farmers.

The splitting of family farms into smaller parcels over the years has meant the size of each individual parcel has decreased. Many families live on land that is not even large enough to farm enough to feed themselves. Being able to sell vegetables or fruit to others is simply not possible.

Research and development in the agriculture industry is ongoing, to help Kenyan farmers become more efficient and lessen this problem.