Vanderbilt IEPM student spends summer in Lwala

Wholeness of life in Lwala and Beyond

Vanderbilt IEPM student spends summer in Lwala

Written by: Caroline Martin

This summer, Caroline Martin, an M.Ed. in International Education Policy and Management (IEPM) student at Vanderbilt University, spent nine weeks in Lwala. During this time, her work included conducting research – in conjunction with Lwala’s education team – to investigate the level and levers of effectiveness of e-readers in 13 public primary schools, facilitating a teacher training for class 6 teachers on effective use of e-readers in the classroom, and creating M&E tools to help the education team continue to monitor e-reader usage.

Vanderbilt students Maheen (l) and Caroline (r)

Vanderbilt students Maheen (l) and Caroline (r)

My summer in Kenya has certainly been an adventure. I have grown accustomed to early morning runs past chickens, cows, goats, and the sun rising over beautiful fields of maize and sugarcane and the incredibly hard working Kenyans who farm them. I get around the community on the back of pikis (rickshaw motorcycles). My food staples are skuma wiki (cooked kale), Ugali (a doughlike food made from maize powder and water), rice and beans, and the freshest eggs you’ve ever tasted (You know they’re fresh when the shells still have dirt on them, and we get them from the chickens who live next door!). We have tea time everyday at 11:30; it is a time to pause from work, take a deep breath, drink the most delicious chai (tea) and mandazi (fried dough), catch up with coworkers/friends and take in the beauty of the Kenyan countryside. Walks through the community are never without squealing children bounding from their houses to the edge of the road calling “Muzungu! Muzungu! (White person! White person!) How are youuuuu!” – I stand out like a sore thumb here, as you can imagine.


I have learned and continue to learn so incredibly much from Lwala Community Alliance, and the community that gave birth to it and continues to sustain it. Lwala is all about the multi-dimensional approach to health and the integration and collaboration of their various programs in order to rise above the many obstacles to well-being that exist here. Mercy Owuor, Community Programs Director, and my friend here in Lwala whom I have come to greatly look up to, sums up the work beautifully. She told me in a meeting once, “It feels so good to see lives changed in this community. You get to see people are more happy and healthy, and it gives you motivation to continue …you realize there is not a single solution to a problem. Working here, you are solving for health, but then you realize that if kids are not going to school or they are getting pregnant, they will still end up at the hospital. There are so many social determinants of health. If you only focus on one, you will just be going in circles.”

This organization is focused on the whole person. And change is happening.

What makes this change possible is that the organization is rooted in, and strengthened by, the community itself. In fact, I’d say the most significant way I have been impacted by this place so far is by what I have learned from Kenyans about community.

The other day, I looked up the etymology of community and learned that it is a late Middle English word that comes from the Old French, comunete, meaning reinforced by its source. I can’t tell you how much Kenyans, and specifically those in Lwala, embody this historical definition. Lwala is a place where 1/5 people are infected by HIV/AIDS, the infant mortality rate is 25%, and about 20% of teenage girls become pregnant, and often drop out of school. Primary school children start their day at 5 in the morning, digging and weeding their family’s crops before they get to school by 7, only to come home at 6 for evening chores. There is so much that makes my heart hurt about how hard people have to fight for their basic needs, the provision of which I so often take for granted back in the States.  They fight against disease, malnutrition, the pressure to get married as a teenager (if you’re a girl), fees that keep them from staying in school past 8th grade (or earlier) and the social constraints that tell women they shouldn’t have control over their bodies.


But at the same time, I’ve never been so inspired by how committed people are to supporting each other and doing everything they can to come up with solutions to build each other up when facing these challenges. So many Kenyans have committed their lives to helping provide wholeness of life to their neighbors. It’s so beautiful. Community Health Workers spend hours each day visiting families in their homes to ensure their health needs are being met, that mothers come to the clinic to give birth with a skilled birth attendant, that children are getting their vaccines and prevention measures are taken to protect against malaria. HIV positive men and women in the community gather each month to practice table-banking and empower each other financially, but also to share their stories of struggle with the virus that has attacked their bodies and the stigma attached to it. They encourage each other to live lives of hope and joy and to come out of denial to seek the medical care they need. Mothers and teachers who work tirelessly all day long to provide for their families additionally serve as mentors to both girls at risk of dropping out of school and young mothers who already have.

Despite the many odds that seem to be stacked against these people, they are STRONG because they have weaved their lives so beautifully with each other. Their commitment to each other also makes them keenly aware of what exactly the community’s issues are, and therefore incredibly equipped to creatively work to solve them. Kenyans have provided me with an example of community on a level that I have never experienced before. True sacrificial community. Community with the person standing right in front of you. Community that hurts together and heals together. Community that is reinforced by its source.

And I have been extremely blessed to be welcomed into this web of giving and community building. I can’t even count on my toes and fingers how many times this community has wrapped its loving arms around me. I’ll provide you with just a few examples.


During my first week, we went on a hike with my friend Becky (who works on the education team) and her family. On the way back from our hike, it started POURING cats and dogs (it’s the rainy season here). Without hesitation, the elderly woman who lived in the hut on the side of the road waved us in to wait out the storm for the next hour. We all stayed dry, and had instantly gained a friend.

Secondly, I have never been invited to share a meal with someone as many times in a 5-week span as I have in Kenya.  I spent my second weekend with Grace’s family. Grace is one of the head cooks at Lwala. This mother, who struggles to provide for five kids, served me feasts every night (including fish, which is a delicacy here).  She even sent her youngest son to get me extra mandazi when, trying to express my appreciation for Kenyan foods, I mentioned that I liked it. I was deeply moved by her hospitality and how her entire family went out of their way to provide for me.

At church on that Saturday (the second church service of the day) I witnessed a Harambee, which is a Kenyan version of a fundraiser. Grace’s church joined a church in Rongo (a town about 30 minutes from Lwala) to help them raise funds for a permanent building, since they are currently meeting in a mud hut. For over an hour, members of both churches brought the money they had (and then some more) to the front of the church until they had enough to build the new establishment. I felt like I was experiencing a present day loaves and fishes story. And this was not a one-time deal; Kenyans do this all the time to help people in the community who are in need.

I could go on for pages about this place and the ways I have seen God so alive in the hearts of my friends here, amidst immense hardship. I will admit, there have been times when I have asked God “Why?” Why do you let such physical and emotional pain exist? I know I’m not the first person to ask this, and its not the first time I’ve asked it myself.  Being here puts a magnifying glass on human suffering and brings this question into sharp focus. However, witnessing love shared so openly between neighbors, and seeing how the strength, hope, and joy that abound here have overcome so much fear and pain, keeps my faith alive as well.


If you’ve made it this far, I’m truly impressed, and your reward is a pretty killer quote by Jena Lee Nardella, the author of One Thousand Wells and co-founder of Blood-Water Mission, one of Lwala’s first supporters (DEFINITELY read the book if you haven’t already!)

She says, “I don’t believe in as much as I used to. I don’t believe in ending global poverty. I don’t believe that people will always make choices based on the good of others. And I don’t believe the world is mine to save. But what I do believe in, I believe in more. I believe that to love well, we must choose love everyday. I believe that the point of life is community: letting others transform us. I believe that our grief over wrongs can become a passion to make things right. And I believe that God is good.”


My time here has reminded me how thankful I am for the community of friends and family I have. I feel very blessed that it has grown to include people from many corners of this big world. Collectively, they are where I get strength. I pray I can learn to love half as well as my friends here in Kenya and that we all can continue to be transformed by one another.

Kuona baadaye, marafiki
See you soon, friends