Volunteering in Kenya—a unique and life changing experience - Part 1
I have recently returned from a second volunteer trip to Kenya where the major focus of our volunteer work was with AIDs orphans and with women of poverty. Much of the work that we did was within the different facilities of Nyumbani (meaning “home” in Swahili, www.nyumbani.org) which provides services to over 4000 AIDS orphans in 3 different sites: Nyumbani Children’s Home which houses over 100 AIDS orphans who also have HIV, Nyumbani Village in rural Kenya which is home to more than 900 AIDS orphans who are being raised by grandparents who have lost their own children to AIDs, and the Lea Toto Clinics in the slums surrounding Nairobi which provide home based care to children with HIV. The volunteer activities within these sites are extremely varied and include many non-medical activities as well as those which are medical or in the case of what I have done, psychiatric. Each of the volunteers gathered donations (clothing, medical supplies, monetary donations) before we left for Kenya so sorting and distributing them as well as figuring out how best to use monetary donations was one of our initial goals. However spending time with the children, whether it was doing an enrichment activity, holding a child in the respite program, giving them time and attention, or hearing them sing was truly heartwarming. When I first set out on this venture I had the mindset that I would need to be volunteering in the role of a psychiatrist or doing something professional every moment in order to make a difference. However I have learned that it is possible to truly make a difference with the desire to connect, an open heart and seemingly small interventions.
In addition to working with AIDs orphans we have been working with groups of very poor marginalized women, some of whom are raising AIDS orphans, have children with HIV or are simply living in the slums and struggling every day to obtain the basic necessities of life. Developing relationships with these women has enabled us to connect on a profound level as women and mothers and to join together in empowering them to use their skills to gain more income to help maintain their families. We have partnered with a number of women groups who are organized around making crafts to form a nonprofit organization which we have named Tuko Pamoja ( “we are together” in Swahili) which will market their goods in the U.S. and help them to have a more sustainable income. And although our goal is focused on helping them, it is difficult to say who derives the most benefit since we feel so fortunate to work with these women who are some of the most resilient, hard working and gracious women we have ever met.
In Nyumbani Village where there are over 900 AIDs orphans being raised by almost 100 grandparents, there is a primary school and a secondary school, a medical clinic, a counseling center, a polytechnic program that makes everything for the village and a phenomenal sustainability program. Life in this rustic village is filled with traditional Kamba culture, singing and dancing, no modern amenities and a simplicity that often brings the word magical to mind. There is however only one counselor for the entire village as well as for people from the community who come for HIV testing and treatment; and there is no access to a psychiatrist. This is only one of the sites where the possibility to work in the role as a psychiatrist exists and is the place where I have done so on both of my volunteer trips. I would describe my role as one of a mentor and consultant. I have worked with the counselor there to interview her clients for whom she has felt that a consultation was needed. Most often the language has not been a barrier as only once have I needed to interview someone who did not speak English. The situations have been quite varied, but have included a couple of adolescents who have psychotic disorders or true depression, village staff members who had difficult psychosocial problems and needed someone with a little more distance with whom to speak, and others. Since I cannot prescribe in Kenya and medication are a little different there, the process of obtaining medication for someone was a bit complicated but something that we have made happen by coordinating care with the medical clinic. On a follow-up phone call with the counselor, it was tremendously rewarding to know that an adolescent from the community who was actively psychotic and unable to go to school is now much improved on medication and will be returning to school. I have learned through talking with many of the counselor’s clients that there is a culture of silence around the trauma and loss that most everyone has experienced—no one talks to each other about their losses which have been profound. This has led us to a discussion as to how to deal with this in a way that might be helpful to this community as a whole.
There is much that can be said about doing this kind of volunteer work. This is an opportunity to have a profoundly moving experience that will touch your heart in a way that you can’t imagine in advance. It’s an opportunity to experience the world and your place in the world in a very different way and to truly experience the resiliency of the human spirit by knowing people who thrive despite enormous hardship. You can use your psychiatric expertise to offer collegial support to a counselor who works in isolation or to potentially change the course of someone’s life by giving them access to care when it would otherwise never be available. I feel very lucky to have come upon this work in Kenya that allows me to make a difference for people who are in need and yet to still feel like I am the one to whom something is being given. I will be returning to Kenya annually, and posting more about my time there here in future. To learn more about the work and the experiences in Kenya please also visit my blog at www.plopsymd.com.
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