Asking ‘Why’ and Keeping Joy: Slemenda Scholar Journeys

Jambo!   It’s been awhile. I won’t lie, this blog post had some beginnings a month ago with updates of what was happening with the Slemenda scholars but it honestly got a little lost in the shuffle. So I am finishing it while back in the states. My next post will reflect more on the conclusion of my time there.

 The maternal child health team at Moi that Maddy and I worked with.

The maternal child health team at Moi that Maddy and I worked with.

The time here has been so great. We are about 6 weeks in and I love every part of it. The gears have shifted slightly as we transition from seeing everything than AMPATH does to focusing in on helping out projects we may be interested in. I don’t have a clue what I want to do as a specialty so choosing was a bit difficult, but I eventually joined up with Dr. Laura Ruhl. She is an amazing pediatric/infectious disease doctor that welcomed me onto her maternal and child health team. She founded a program called Chama cha MamaToto, which sounds fun to say but literally translates to “Group mother child”. 

 A Chama Chama MamaToto group in session.

A Chama Chama MamaToto group in session.

Chamas are peer support groups for pregnant and breastfeeding women with the goal of decreasing barriers to health and maternal stress through social education, medical education, and microfinancing. The program involves women in rural villages coming together twice a month to receive health and social education lessons from a trained community health volunteer. The lessons are on topics such as breast feeding, immunizations, harsh punishment for children, and birth control. They then have a table banking system to provide loans to each other for income generation projects such as buying livestock or seeds. 

Chamas have been going on for over six years in three counties in Kenya and has had some amazing outcomes for maternal and child health as well as women empowerment. The key to the groups is the support and accountability of the other women in their community to pursue the shared health goals. I was able to visit a group earlier on in the summer and loved the idea of it and the practical impact it had.

My involvement was simply to help the teams with some of their random projects. We did a cost analysis, I helped make a poster for a grant presentation, and I helped write an implementation manual for the Chama program so that it could be applied in other counties and countries. The Kenyan team I worked with was phenomenal. They were welcoming, and had so much experience, and loved soccer. I got to play and watch a lot of soccer with them in the evenings during World Cup season (Go France!)

I am learning a lot through involvement with them. In trying to write the manual, I am meeting with team members individually and as a whole to ask them questions about why Chamas does what it does. The team found this process fulfilling. When you have worked on a project or at a job for awhile you can sometimes forget the “why” of some of the things you do. The purpose and intentionality can get lost in the routine. Some members of the team I worked closely with said that having me, as and ignorant outsider, come and try to figure out why Chamas makes the decisions it does really challenged them to think through the program themselves. They had to think through their past failures that led them to do things differently. They had to verbalize their core values that pushed them to certain decisions. They had to explain their thought processes for choosing certain methods over other ones, often bringing old motives back to the fronts of their minds. They valued this process because it took them beyond the routine and brought up the “why” behind what they do. I think this is such a good idea for any group, board, school, hospital, nonprofit, etc. Periodically, a staff/team should question why they do the things they do to keep their values and past lessons in focus.

 July 4th festivities at IU House!

July 4th festivities at IU House!

Another thing I love about working with Chamas is field work. IU House, the place where most of the short and long team AMPATH workers stay, is fantastic. Great food, warm water (mostly), toilet seats, beautiful gardens, and terrific company. But a downside to staying there is that it is a small North American bubble. I have done some volunteer work abroad before and one of my greatest joys on these trips was immersing myself in the foreign culture. You know, being somewhere where you don’t speak the language, things are different, there is local street food, you are more or less alone, “roughing it”. I love that feeling. I know it’s not why everybody travels, but it’s one piece of traveling that I love. Trying to feel Kenyan and less touristy. More accurately I should say I wanted to feel “rural” Kenyan, because Eldoret was a big city and I spent a lot of time with Kenyans that lived there and experienced their culture and lives and hospitality. I was grateful for that but still desired seeing more of the countryside. Through Chamas and a few day weekend trip I was able to see some smaller rural villages. I stayed some nights in small towns and host homes. I ate dinners with Kenyan families that only spoke tribal tongues. And yes, I used squatty potties. I loved it.

Global health, and any health field really, should be fun. There should be aspects you find joy in. Without joy your ability to bring about change and care will decrease. This joy can be in co-workers, exciting cases, research, side projects, teaching, or research trips to rural villages for a weekend. But the joy can’t just come from home. I asked John Humphrey, the pediatrics team leader, about his experience with global health. He said something that caught me off guard. He said, “A big reason I am here is not some savior mentality that I am helping the needy African… One of the main reasons my wife and I came is because it’s fun. We love working abroad. We love the cultures and different challenges and people. We simply enjoy doing it.” I think a heart for service is definitely necessary for Global Health, but equally necessary is enjoyment of what you do.

 Some of our team on a safari.

Some of our team on a safari.

Additionally, Kenya is beautiful. I mean so beautiful. And so diverse. Hills, lakes, volcanoes, grasslands, perfect temperature (for someone used to 95 degree summers), rainforests, mountains. I have been loving my time here and the little random trips we get to do to go on a hike somewhere. I know most American’s can’t grasp the sheer size of Africa, better yet the diversity. I know many of my friends at home think I’m spending my time in a 100 degree desert. There is always more than you think.

Needless to say, I have enjoyed my time here. My heart has been full of joy since day one and I am exciting to see how these last couple weeks end. Asante (Thank you!)