Grace threw back her head and laughed when I asked her if she knew where President Obama’s grandmother lives. We were driving out of Kisumu, an energetic city in western Kenya where local engineers are working at a rapid pace to transition the sleepy airport into an international hub. I’m sure the fact that Barack Obama’s roots lie in this picturesque region of Africa is a major reason the world’s attention is now focused here.
That day, I was clinging onto the backseat of a rugged Toyota Land Cruiser accompanied by employees from the Kenyan Ministry of Health as well as International Medical Corps Kenya’s HIV/AIDS Program Officer, Grace Muthumbi. She was taking me to our at-home HIV/AIDS counseling and testing (HBCT) program in the small town of Muhuru Bay. The remote fishing village has a high rate of the infection and very few accessible options for testing services or medical care. Muhuru Bay is situated on the edge of Lake Victoria – the largest lake in Africa, bordering Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania. Many in Muhuru Bay as well as most towns on the edges of the lake make their living through fishing. Due to the transient nature of these so-called fisher folk, as well as a lack of education on HIV/AIDS, this community is considered a most-at-risk population (MARP).
Since 2010, International Medical Corps mobilizers and counselors – all Kenyan nationals hired by the organization to strengthen local capacity – have been going door-to-door in this community, providing at-home testing services and sex education including the promotion of condom use. During my trip with Grace, I was able to see first-hand the positive impact International Medical Corps’ teams are having in this underserved area. During the very bumpy two-hour drive on dirt roads, local children greeted us as our vehicle passed by. Little boys literally jumped up and down with their hands in the air and shouted to make sure their friends got a look. A nice scene, until Grace pointed out that most of these children should be in school. There were countless children on our route in the fields around their modest homes playing, working, carrying bundles of sticks on their heads or just staring out at the road. We later learned from speaking with some school-aged children that government-run public schools in the area presently do not have any teachers available and private school fees are out of the question for most local families.
Grace also explained that health services in Muhuru Bay and most of the surrounding villages are a luxury. Most women give birth at home, children do not have access to vaccinations and villagers must travel hours to the nearest health clinics for emergency services. What’s more, the inaccessibility of health care and medicines as well as a lack of education on prevention of infectious diseases has led to TB and HIV/AIDS rates that are fueling a national crisis. I couldn’t help but wonder if President Obama would have had the hope or opportunity for a brighter future had he grown up anywhere near here. The statistics are staggering and the government is struggling to address local needs.
“Kenyans, we have hope despite it all,” said Grace. “It’s really something. And the people in towns like Muhuru Bay are why I do what I do. We have the power to help.”
As the International Medical Corps team approached numerous households on Lake Victoria, some that seemed almost literally to be at the ends of the earth, local villagers’ eyes lit up with recognition. They had either been counseled by International Medical Corps in the past for HIV/AIDS or had heard about the services through their neighbors. At each home they would invite our blue-shirted workers inside without hesitation to talk about a very sensitive subject.
During a recent commencement address, President Obama’s wife, Michelle, spoke about International Medical Corps’ lifesaving work around the world: “They are responding to emergencies, helping local residents become self-reliant. All told, they’ve directed more than a billion dollars in assistance and training worldwide. They’ve touched millions of lives from Somalia to the Balkans to Haiti and Japan.”
It’s true – we have touched many lives here in Kenya and worked to train locals so that our programs will be sustainable long after we leave.