Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Motivation and Mud - Building a Home in Kisii

Impossible as it sounds, I have now experienced what it’s like to build a house in one day.

A week ago today (Sunday, August 14), our team from HEART loaded up the Land Cruiser and set off on the seven-hour drive to Kisii. (On the way, we passed some zebras – not something I get to see every day!)

Located in West Kenya, Kisii is a beautiful town of rolling green hills – blazing color that feels like water soaking into your eyes after the harsh dirt of the scrublands. Lush emerald undergrowth mixed with brown earth stretches as far as the eye can see, studded with tea and coffee fields, flowers, avocado trees, clusters of sugarcane, and floods of children idling, playing, or minding goats by the side of the road (always shouting “mzungu, mzungu!” excitedly as soon as they notice us). Paths hacked through the foliage wind their way to ramshackle houses.


Compared to the rest of Kenya suffering from severe drought, this town seems like another world. Populated by people of the Gusii tribe, Kisii drips with rain - and with poverty. HEART operates a Kids For School (KFS) program there, which involves setting kids up with breeding goats (a source of nourishment and income) and uniforms (required to attend school in Kenya).

Kids For School currently helps over 1,000 orphans and vulnerable children throughout rural Kenya. Out of that number, 650 are from Kisii alone. The need there is great – I could see it as we drove along, as children in dirty, torn clothes stared at us from every bend in the road. How many of these were orphans?

The local HEART project management team, led by a man named Bernard, HEART’s Area Coordinator for Kisii, also monitors the needs in the community and determines which children and families could use immediate help.

According to Bernard, there are 800 more orphans and vulnerable children on the “waiting list” for the Kids For School program in Kisii. “If this aid could just keep coming, we could impact so many people,” Bernard told us.

The true depth of the impact HEART’s work can make on a Kisii child’s life really struck me as I thought about Dr. Meshach Onguti, the man whose work I described in my last post. (During this visit to Kisii, we stayed at his home in the country). Dr. Onguti was once one of those children, facing a life of poverty in Kisii – but after he was able to attend school, the course of his life changed completely. Now, he is a successful doctor living in Nairobi, devoting extra time to perform corrective surgeries for free.

The mission in Kisii
Our mission in Kisii for the next two days was twofold: to visit a family HEART helped in the past (by building them a house and enrolling two girls in the Kids For School program), and to help build a home for another family in need.

Building the house is simple: the entire community comes together, and so the work can be done in one day. The frame is built from wood (sticks and branches), and then thick mud is packed into the frame to form the walls. Windows, doors, and a corrugated tin roof are installed to provide protection from the rain. When it hardens, the mud is almost like clay – strong and solid.

So is HEART really needed to build these homes? Yes: HEART funds purchase the furnishings for the house and materials for the doors, windows, and roof; HEART also funds the skilled labor for the installing the latter. To form solidarity with the people of Kisii, HEART also sends volunteers (such as myself and my team) to help with the basic manual labor.

“We do this to show that it’s not just about money,” said Isaac Mzee, HEART’s Field Coordinator. “And also to pose a challenge to the community – to say look, we are doing this; you can do this.”

Before building the house, we visited one of HEART’s success stories: a family in which three girls were enrolled in the Kids For School Program (as well as the “Freedom For Girls” program, which provides sanitary towels so girls don’t have to miss school during their monthly cycle). From the original gift of uniforms, a goat, and a house has sprung success and economic stability: baby goats born were later traded for a cow, which now provides milk for the family. The eldest girl is now in high school, hoping to become a doctor.


After this uplifting experience, we headed to the house to unload our bags and consume a massive Kenyan-style meal of rice and beans, vegetables of all kinds, chicken, stew, ugali, cabbage, fruit salad, and all kinds of things I can’t even name. While waiting for dinner, I played with the crowd of kids lingering outside, hoping for some attention from the strange blonde mzungu… and they got it! (Piggyback rides, clapping games, photos, letting them touch my hair.) Long day – but a longer one to come.

A day of mud
The next day was house-building time. After a breakfast of boiled eggs, tea, bread, fresh honey and mandaazi (little donut-like pastries, deep fried, usually triangular shaped), we threw on our scruffiest clothes and boots and headed to the determined spot.

The community had already gathered there in preparation for us, filling a pit with mud for the walls. They showed us around, introducing us to the family who would receive the house and furniture: a young mother and her two sons; the father had passed away. The family had been sleeping in a run-down house the size of a closet, with one bed (the boys slept on the floor).  Now, the boys would get their own bed – and a whole new house.

“The boy is happy because his bed is so big,” Bernard told me, gesturing at the shyly grinning teenager. We found out the boy is already dedicated to school: he placed tenth in a class of over 80 students and wants to be an accountant.

The original house - the only bed (for the mother)

The family with the furniture they received from HEART

The two boys who will no longer have to sleep on the ground

After introductions, we got down to it: tearing down the old decaying house, digging new holes for the posts, packing them with dirt, building the wooden frame out of sticks, and forming a human chain to pass mud balls hand-to-hand until they are packed into the walls. (As we did this, the skilled laborers worked on the roof.)

With dozens of community members to help us, the work passed in a blur of sun, sweat, rain, singing, and spontaneous celebration dances. I got to talking with a local woman named Teresia, who could speak some English. Later, during a break in the work, she showed me her house – and sent a random local boy up a tree to pick me some avocados!

Finally, after hours of work, a sudden rain downpour, a lunch break for rice and beans and chai tea, and more work, the house was finished. Dancing and celebrating in the middle of the newly erected home with all the women, I couldn’t keep the grin off my face. At that moment, cultural differences didn’t matter: we had built this house together. You don’t have to speak the same language to dance – and laughter is universal!

The mud pit
Peeking inside the newly built home

Fighting the Curse of the Cleft Lip

You try to eat, but food dribbles out; you go for a smile, but it emerges as a grimace. You attempt to speak clearly, but the slice across your mouth twists and blurs the words.

These are the daily struggles facing those born with a cleft lip (a small gap or an indentation in the lip, which may continue into the nose) or cleft palate (when the two plates that form the roof the mouth are not completely joined).

In the Western world, corrective surgery is relatively easy to access, and these kids often go on to live healthy, normal lives.

But in many developing countries, the scene is sharply different: millions of children suffer from unrepaired clefts and facial deformities, attempting to live out their lives without the corrective surgery they cannot afford or access. These children face stigmatization and isolation; they are often considered a curse to their families. Sometimes they are abandoned or killed at birth.

In Kenya, an estimated 30,000 children with facial deformities await surgery – especially in rural areas. International nonprofit organizations such as Smile Train periodically arrive and provide free surgeries and training for doctors, but these visits are few and far between.

Now, a small team of doctors based in Nairobi is taking action to change this reality.

During my work with HEART here in Kenya, I met a wonderful man named Dr. Meshach Onguti, who specializes in reconstructive surgery and works at a clinic in Nairobi. He and his family are good friends with HEART’s founder and director, so a few of us from HEART joined his family for dinner last week.

In the course of our conversation, Dr. Onguti revealed that he spends much of his time doing surgeries for free. Digging deeper, I learned that he and several other medical professionals have recently formed a team called “Help A Child Face Tomorrow,” traveling to rural hospitals across Kenya to perform free surgeries on clefts and facial deformities.

Since they are based in Kenya, the team is able to follow up on every child they treat – something that bigger international nonprofits are unable to do. They also conduct regular training of local doctors and surgeons in rural areas and attempt to reduce cultural stigma against cleft lips.

The traveling team consists of about 10 individuals: 2-3 surgeons (including Dr. Onguti), 2 anesthesiologists, 2-3 nurses, and several others. They transport all their equipment with them everywhere they go. They receive no compensation for this work, volunteering their time and paying for travel costs out of their own pockets.

Describing how dramatically children’s lives can change post-surgery, Dr. Onguti’s passion for his work was obvious. It beamed from his face. They need more medical supplies and money – if you want to donate, visit www.helpachildfacetomorrow.org (they are still building this site, so it’s in beginning stages) – but it’s clear that the group is making a big impact. Check out one of their before-and-after photos:

At times, Help A Child Face Tomorrow also treats cleft lip and palate in adults. “For adults, the transformation is even more spectacular,” Dr. Onguti told me. “They have been dealing with this for their whole lives.”

This week, I plan to assist in photography and publicity at one of the team’s clinic days in Mombasa, if it works out. Whether in adults or children, clefts are a devastating condition, and surgery can give these people a chance at a normal life. No quirk of fate should have the power to take that away.

Sources: www.smiletrain.org, www.helpachildfacetomorrow.org