Most travelers to Africa return with amazing stories of grand vistas, vast wilderness, and teeming wildlife. Volunteers who visit southwest Kenya with Partnering for Progress (P4P), a Spokane, Washington based non-profit, see spectacular sights on a six-hour ride through Kenya’s Great Rift Valley to the rural villages of Kopanga/Giribe. The valley is bordered by massive escarpments, contains a chain of volcanos and is traveled by red-cloaked Maasai tribesman. Many volunteers add a wildlife safari to their itinerary.
Those aren’t the stories, however, that brighten the voices of P4P volunteers like Beth Sheeran, an emergency room nurse at Holy Family Hospital in Spokane, who has traveled to Kenya twice. Their stories are about the wonderful people they helped and befriended — people who live in deep poverty with rampant malnutrition and illness but are warm, resilient and hard-working, and who move the visitors gifting them with a new perspective.
One of Sheeran’s stories is about Mama Quinter. Blinded by the measles as a young girl, Mama Quinter can’t leave her hut without help, and it’s hard to care for her tiny malnourished twins. Mama’s husband has another wife and other children — polygamy is common in traditional Kenyan communities — and the family’s meager resources are stretched thin. Many of the poor farmers in the area support their families on $1.00 a day — less than we might leave in the tip jar at Starbucks after buying a $4.00 latte.
Despite these difficulties, Mama is upbeat and thankful for her family. You can’t help but smile at her joyous nature in a video where she holds her incredibly cute babies, Quinter Tausi and Princess Taiwan and says, “God blessed me with two children.”
While she expresses deep appreciation for the Plumpy’Nut nutritional supplement that P4P volunteers bring her babies, like so many Kenyans that P4P helps, she is looking for a “hand up, not a hand out.” Mama Quinter knows how to operate a knitting machine and dreams of someday knitting school uniform sweaters to help her family.
A Hand Up, Not a Hand Out
Stacey Mainer, a nurse practitioner in Spokane, tells the story of another severely malnourished baby who inspired Stacey and her friend, Sandy Ivers, a retired teacher, to found P4P. “This poor little girl was probably the second most malnourished baby I had seen in my entire life,” remembers Stacey, who had seen many nutrition-deprived babies during her travels as a medical volunteer. “It just broke our hearts.”
In 2007, Mainer, her husband Dr. Michael Mainer, Ivers and Ivers’ son Nick, volunteered at a medical clinic in Kopanga. For two weeks, they assisted Alice Kephas, a Kenyan nurse, at Kephas’s primitive understaffed clinic. The clinic had no running water and no electricity. Medical supplies were in short supply. Women delivered their babies on mats on a dirt floor. A steady stream of patients arrived with malaria, malnutrition, skin conditions, diarrhea and HIV/AIDS.
The baby who so touched their hearts didn’t survive and on the flight home, Ivers and Mainer made a commitment to help. Mainer recalls, “We gathered our friends around our dining room table and decided to start a non-profit.” In 2008, with a grassroots effort they founded Partnering for Progress. “Our fundraising attempts were things like garage sales.” P4P began sending volunteer teams of doctors, nurses, dentists, health educators and nutritionists to Kopanga and helped build a modern clinic there.
Today, P4P volunteer teams visit Giribe — a village near Kopanga — twice a year. With their Kenyan health care counterparts, they provide medical and dental care at the Ogada Health Center, assess community health and exchange medical knowledge.
P4P also attacks the root causes of poor health in the region with life-changing programs that battle malnutrition, award school scholarships, create clean drinking water sources and combat poverty. Rather than a one-time “hand out” of food or aid, these programs give a “hand up” that improves the long-term health — physical and economic — of the community.
The organization also has a year-round presence in Kenya. Seth Okumu, P4P’s Program Manager in Giribe, coordinates P4P’s programs, assisted by another Kenyan, Charles Atha Otieno. Charles weighs babies and runs P4P’s Power of Milk program.
The Power of Milk
Beth Sheeran tells the story of a mother determined to help her tiny sickly baby. “One woman was hiking across the border from Tanzania just to sit in and listen to the lessons. She wanted to know how to feed her child appropriately. The people are hungry for the knowledge of how to care for their children.” Each week, the young mother trekked six miles, toting her baby in a sling, to sit with other caregivers and hear nutrition lessons to help her baby thrive—even though she wasn’t officially enrolled in P4P’s Power of Milk program.
Infant undernutrition causes much of the poor health and poverty in Kenya. “We see kids that are 1 or 2 years old and weigh only 8 or 9 pounds — birth weight for American kids,” Sheerhan says. “They are very vulnerable to any illness that comes along. Their brains can’t form correctly, so they can’t perform in school.”
P4P’s Power of Milk program brings hope for some of these babies, who otherwise might not survive. Twenty children are enrolled in the program at a time. Mothers and babies gather weekly at the Ogada clinic for nutrition and health lessons that help the moms fight their babies’ undernutrition. Severely malnourished babies go home with Plumpy’Nut, a nutritional supplement provided by the Kenyan government that supports rapid weight gain and can save a starving child from illness or death.
The program is also social. “After the class they get a meal. It’s really fun watching all of these caregivers with their babies. They sit around on the grass eating their meal and talking and engaging with each other,” explains Mainer. “They support each other on a really personal basis. It’s like a support group!” The resourceful and entrepreneurial Kenyan caregivers even organized a “table banking” group to pool their money to buy goats. Matching funds from P4P help the families obtain goats more quickly.
Each week, Charles Atha Otieno weighs the babies. Once a child reaches a normal weight for their age, they remain in the program for another six months and then graduate. When a baby graduates, P4P throws a party and presents the family with two chickens as a graduation present! This life-changing “hand up” means that the family will have eggs — a protein source for a better diet and an income source.
So far, the Power of Milk program has saved the lives of more than 35 babies.
Partners in Education
Beatrice, a young girl determined to get an education, is the main character in one of Stacey Mainer’s stories. Beatrice and other determined kids like her motivated P4P to start a scholarship program for kids who otherwise couldn’t attend secondary school—kids like Rose Anyona, Ephy Adhiambo and Daniel Masaga.
When Mainer and Ivers first met her, Beatrice was helping in the medical clinic in Kopanga as a caregiver for several orphaned babies. She was 16-years-old and already had a child. Beatrice dreamed of going to secondary school, what we call high school, but that seemed out of the question. In Kenya it’s especially hard for girls to go to school. Ivers explains, “Often the girls won’t go to school because the families are large and only so many kids can go to school. Girls are then pressured to move on and get married.”
And it’s expensive. Paying tuition of as much as $600 per year isn’t possible for families surviving on $1.00 a day.
Beatrice’s school dreams wouldn’t die. When tuition assistance was offered by the clinic where she worked, Beatrice arranged for her mother to watch her children — by then she had three. Beatrice enrolled in school and has persevered, even when donor assistance ran out, forcing her to change schools several times.
Now 24-years-old, Beatrice is a senior, about to graduate fourth in her class, and hopes to go to college. Mainer says, “Beatrice’s story shows the strength and resiliency of Kenyan women, and she reminds us why it’s so important to do what we can. She is truly hope.”
Each year, P4P’s scholarship program brings hope to 27 children in Kopanga/Giribe.
Partnering Against Poverty
Poverty is at the root of many of the problems in Kopanga/Giribe. “Improving the economic health of the community should improve everything,” Mainer explains. “If you have more money you improve your health because you can pay to go to the doctor to get medication, pay to have clean water and a latrine, and you can pay for your child to go to high school.”
In 2015, P4P began an economic development project that helps local farmers increase their income by increasing the yield of their corn crop. The pilot project gave 10 local farmers a “hand up” with seed, fertilizer and agriculture education. The farmers saw an average increase in production of 300 percent, and Eunice Adhiambo had the largest increase — her harvest increased from five bags of corn previously to 19 bags. Eunice will use the income from her extra corn to pay school tuition for her children — providing more hope for the next generation.
In return for the seed and fertilizer, each farmer gave P4P a 198-pound bag of corn. The corn was sold to help fund the Power of Milk program and to award an additional school scholarship — a step towards making these programs sustainable.
Tell Your Own Stories
Donations and two yearly fundraisers — an auction and a Spokane Civic Theater benefit — generate much of P4P’s funding. The 9th Annual Into Africa Auction will be held in Spokane Valley on Oct. 1, 2016. Attending this fun event supports P4P’s key initiatives like the Power of Milk. Volunteers are needed at the fundraisers and for P4P’s committees.
If you have dreamed of going to Africa, you can join one of P4P’s service teams on a volunteer trip to Kenya. Doctors, nurses, dentists, optometrists, teachers and engineers are needed to treat patients, teach health and nutrition classes and help with clean water and economic development projects. Even if you don’t have those specific skills, there’s a place for you on the trips — everyone has talents that can help.
The volunteer trips are self-funded but are a great way to see Africa while helping people and seeing a different perspective. “There’s a saying in Kenya that I love. Americans have all the watches, but Kenyans have all the time,” says Linda Hagen-Miller, head of P4P’s Communications Committee. “We are always in such a hurry to get things done. They are a little more laid back. They want to talk to you, get to know you, and learn about your family, children and work.”
Make a donation or volunteer, and give a “hand up” to Kenyans like Mama Quinter, Beatrice, Eunice Adhiambo and the young mother from Tanzania. Once you visit Kenya, you’ll come back with your own stories about the amazing people who do so much with so little.
To learn more, visit P4P’s website at partneringforprogress.org.
Michael McAuliffe is a freelance writer and photographer living in Edmonds, Washington. He can be contacted via his website at www.mcmikephoto.com.