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globetrotting with a conscience

Backward Glance

Mobile Menders

This article appeared in salt magazine, a Sunshine Coast lifestyle publication. 

words & photos kate johns

The screaming child clings protectively to his mother’s back, wrapped in a dirty patterned shuka. The child’s hair is dreaded together with ochre-coloured mud. He wears no clothes except for a red beaded necklace below his belly button and one shoe; his skin is covered in dirt. His mother is a young Maasai woman with sad, almond-shaped eyes; her breathing is shallow and she’s painfully thin. Reluctantly, she hands over her child to the driver as the nurse discretely slides a cold stethoscope under her shuka.

The treatment room is on a remote, deteriorated dirt road in the East Laikipia district in Kenya where the nearest town is a six-hour walk and water, a three-hour walk. The medical supply cupboard is the back of a Land Rover.

The long-limbed woman takes the bottle of green liquid medicine accompanied with a packet of pills and listens to the instructions from the nurse. She opens a knot on the corner of her shuka, hands over a fifty shilling note and reaches to take her screaming child back.

The nurse has diagnosed the woman with upper respiratory tract infection, which can be fatal when coupled with AIDS. This is one of the most common illnesses found amongst the rural communities of Kenya due to their traditional living conditions.

I’ve been living and working at Borana Lodge for six months helping guide guests on horse riding safaris into the wilds of the Kenyan bush. Borana Lodge is a 35,000-acre property owned by the Dyer family and Nicky Dyer established and manages the Borana mobile health clinic, which treats communities in the East Laikipia district of Kenya.

In remote areas throughout Kenya there is a lack of government and non-governmental health care support for rural communities. More than 60 per cent of Africans reside in rural areas and there is a severe shortage of hospitals, clinics, doctors and nurses to fight illnesses.

Fortunately, a handful of philanthropists have donated their time, money and hearts into establishing and running mobile health clinics to treat and more importantly educate rural communities.

I accompany Pauline Kawap, a trained nurse with a perfect smile and driver Jackson, a shiny, moon-faced counsellor on their once-a-fortnight visit to a Maasai community in Tassia. The community is forty kilometres from Borana, with a crumbling road in between. We creep patiently over huge rocks, sink into dry, sandy riverbeds, swerve fallen trees and stop on the side of the road to treat patients. One African mama shyly runs out from her manyatta, shushing her children away, when she hears the noise of the vehicle. Pauline secretly meets her behind the vehicle to inject her with a three-month contraceptive drug.

We arrive at our destination after travelling the forty kilometres in three hours. It’s early in the day and the sun is Tabasco hot: not even the vocal African birdlife is singing. Jackson and Pauline select the shade of a scrappy, olive tree and swiftly set up the make-shift treatment area. After a short time, the solitary, desert landscape with its salmon pink sand transforms into a colourful melting pot of people, donkeys, dogs and children.

The Maasai women squeeze together under the shade of the tree and the sounds of laughter, crying babies and the quick Maasai tongue echo across the land. The women are beautifully adorned. 

I ask Jackson how the people remember clinic day with no calendars or diaries.

“A lot of them will count down from fourteen days since last time we were here. And we know a mzee (means old man in Kiswahili) who is respected in the community that often sends messages to this community to remind them,” says Jackson.

The first job for the morning is immunising the babies and children. An adolescent girl with a shy, downward gaze nurses her babe while her toddler bear hugs her leg and an older woman with a worn, tired face holds her tiny baby in a tattered cloth to her drooping breast.

A set of scales with a basket is set up on the ground to weigh the newborns and enter their details in Pauline’s register. Jackson takes a week-old squealing baby girl and carefully balances her in the basket.

As the sun shifts we move the table and chairs to follow the shade. Pauline and Jackson work tirelessly into the afternoon as the steady flow of people continue to line up.

A middle-aged woman with a baby on her hip starts speaking loudly at me in Maasai. Jackson translates for me.

“She says that they need mosquito nets here, the malaria is very bad. She said a western woman once promised to send mosquito nets but she never kept her promise.”

I promise the woman that I’ll bring the community mosquito nets even though I’m leaving the country in less than a week. 

Throughout the day, Pauline and Jackson treat a variety of illnesses including eye infections amongst the children, malaria, upper respiratory tract infections and worms.

The last patient is treated as the sunsets behind the acacia trees and an amber glow haloes the sky. In total more than a hundred people were treated in the day – a remarkable effort considering the facilities and that there was only one nurse available.

A promise kept

Seven months after my initial visit to the mobile clinic I returned to the same Maasai community in Tassia and delivered over 200 treated mosquito nets. 

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