In western Africa, 10 km. down a red dirt road, lies the small, isolated and very lucky town of Lwala. Lucky, because even though it was poor, 30 km. from the nearest hospital, and wracked with AIDS, it was also the home of two very smart, dedicated teachers and their 6 children. Two of those kids, Milton and Fred, were so gifted, they were chosen to attend a prestigious high school in Nairobi, and then Martin was offered a full scholarship to Dartmouth College.
The only problem was, Milton couldn’t afford the $900 airfare to get to Dartmouth – so the Lwala people sold their chicken, goats and cows to buy his one-way ticket to Hanover, NH. Two years later, his younger brother Fred joined him at Dartmouth. As the villagers sent their favored sons off to the impossibly distant Ivy League, they admonished them, “Whatever you do, don’t forget about us.”
Milton graduated from Dartmouth and entered Vanderbilt School of Medicine, but tragically, both Ochieng parents died of AIDS before they could see their sons return to Lwala to fulfill their father’s greatest dream: a clinic that would meet the urgent need for primary care in the community. At the funeral, Milton & Fred vowed to make that happen. Juggling the insane demands of med school with weekends of fundraising, grant writing and personal appearances, Milton & Fred, who followed his brother to Vanderbilt School of Medicine, used any avenue open (and a few that were closed) to raise money to make their father’s dying wish a reality.
Their stories of ill people being carted to the road on bicycles or in wheelbarrows and women dying in childbirth, were so compelling and the need so great, soon a movie was in the works. Senator (and doctor) Bill Frist took the pair under his wing to get the word out, children donated their pennies and nickels, and in 2008 “Sons of Lwala,” directed by Barry Simmons, was released in a dazzling premiere that raised $230,000 for the clinic’s coffers. Slowly but surely, dollar by dollar and timber by timber, the brothers made good on their promise, and the Lwala Clinic came into being.
Today, the Lwala Community Alliance is in full swing, and the clinic serves 1,000 patients a month (55% under the age of 5). Its 2 clinical officers, 2 nurses and pharmacy tend to about 450 people enrolled in HIV care (in a town of 1500) and the walls of a new maternity ward are now “knee high.”
Because the community leadership of Lwala is directing the Alliance’s programs–much like it directed Milton & Fred to come on home & give back–the organization is staffed with 2 Americans in the U.S. and 25 Kenyans working in Lwala. It is focused not simply on the clinic, but on all aspects of a healthy community: education (sending 31 students to middle & high school & university); public health, sanitation and hygiene, and a microfinance women’s sewing group currently making 400 girls’ school uniforms. And the Ochieng brothers, finishing their medical degrees in the United States, remain deeply involved in providing care to their fellow Lwalans.
“Here, you belong to everyone,” Milton says matter-of-factly, leading me to think that what’s missing in Western medicine is exactly that sentiment.
Today, I’m giving my $100 to the Lwala Community Alliance with the full confidence that they’ll know exactly what best to do with it. After all, they are very savvy investors! To join me in helping to support this lucky town that helps itself , click here.