Written By: Mane Williams
This summer, Mane Williams, a junior double majoring in biology (with a concentration in computational biology) and computer science and a member of GlobeMed at the University of Pennsylvania, spent four weeks in Lwala, along with fellow student Hannah Peifer. This GlobeMed chapter has partnered with Lwala Community Alliance since 2013 to fundraise and educate students about global health issues. They also provide interns, like Mane, to support our work in the field and to gain valuable experience for future work in development.
In the final days of my stay at Lwala, I was carefully considering the one question I would inevitably be asked upon my return home: “How was your trip?” Describing it as “amazing” seemed too bland, “awesome” sounded more fit for describing a theme park, and “cool” could not hope to do it justice. Everything seemed either too pretentious or too plain. But ultimately I settled on the answer: Incredible. I gained a whole host of experience far removed from the tracks of my normal life and was provided significant perspective because of that. The people I met were both wonderful and warmhearted and an absolute joy to interact with. One staff member even welcomed me into his home for a weekend, and shared with me the gold mines near his house and the church service he regularly attends. When a torrential thunderstorm appeared on our way back from climbing Mount Gordñino, a women kindly let us into her home so that we could settle down and wait off the heavy rain.
But the word “incredible” also describes Lwala Community Alliance itself. The organization’s efforts are extremely comprehensive, as they seek to improve life conditions in the neighboring area in a multitude of vital ways. My project allowed me to interact with the hospital, as well as the Economic Development, Education, and Public Health teams. So while one team of Lwala was working to improve educational outcomes in local schools through a new e-reader program, another was aiding in the treatment and prevention of HIV with support groups and public outreach. This multifaceted approach appears to me to be the most effective way to improve life outcomes in the area, as one cannot adhere to a single story and must consider the many different aspects of life that can be improved upon. And they are all related, too. Without the public health team’s efforts in HIV and malnutrition prevention, the hospital would likely see many more patients. Without the efforts by the education team to assist nearby schools, the economic development team would face greater difficulty in creating new financial opportunities or helping community members obtain job skills.
The project I completed during my stay was two-fold. First, I was to aid each department in developing three success stories, which included teaching best practices when writing these stories and then helping edit the stories once written. This project not only allowed me to work with each of the departments to see their various ongoing efforts but also enabled me to meet some of the people whose lives were most impacted by the amazing work Lwala is doing.
Take, for example, Lillian Akoth Ochieng. She became pregnant in Grade 6, forcing her to drop out of school and marry by age 16. With little education and no stable income, she was forced to do casual labor for her neighbors. But then Lillian was recruited by a Community Health Worker into one of Lwala’s mentoring programs. In this program, she learned tailoring, enabling her to make and sell clothes by the end of the program. With these newfound skills, she was able to obtain a greater and more stable income to support her family. This is just one of many examples of a life Lwala has touched, and it was absolutely inspiring to have met so many people just like Lillian.
The second part of my project was to interview relevant staff members to understand the founding and subsequent development of one of the Lwala’s most successful programs: the Community Health Worker program. Through this program, Lwala trains local community members (starting with the local traditional birth attendants) in order to increase awareness and education about health and nutrition while also collecting important data like birth rates and HIV prevalence. Through this, Lwala has been able to expand its influence as community members now have people they know and trust visiting their homes to explain the dangers of malaria, malnutrition, HIV, etc. and how each of these could be best guarded against.
Apart from the work we conducted at Lwala, on the weekends we had the wonderful opportunity to explore Kenya. We climbed Mount Gordñiño, visited the Kisii marketplace, watched a soccer game in Kisumu, saw baboons during a boat ride in Homa Bay, went off-road in Kanan to climb around volcanic hot springs, stayed at a lakeside bonga in Naivasha (where we also had a boat ride and saw hippos), traveled on a car safari in Crater Lake and finally had a bike safari in Hell’s Gate National Park. Overall, my stay at Lwala was an eye-opening adventure, and I am greatly thankful to the many people who made it possible. It was the most memorable month of my life.
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