Research News

It takes a (global) village

When the residents of Lwala, Kenya, raised $900 for a one-way ticket to send Milton Ochieng’ to college in the United States nearly a decade ago, they could not have envisioned that he would return to build a medical clinic in the heart of their rural village near the shores of Lake Victoria.

But that’s exactly what he and his brothers — Fred and Omondi — did. Fred followed in his brother’s footsteps to pursue a medical degree in the U.S. while the oldest Ochieng’, Omondi, remained in Kenya. With pluck, imagination and the help of many friends from other countries the Ochieng’ brothers — whose last name is apostrophized in their native language — built and opened the village’s first clinic in 2007.

“This is your generation’s challenge,” Jeffrey Sachs, director of the Earth Institute, urged Vanderbilt students in 2006. “If you want to end this kind of suffering and poverty, you need to take the lead in this.” Some of them accepted the challenge and traveled to Lwala to establish outreach programs and sources of clean water.

Under Omondi’s oversight, with the labor of community residents and students from Vanderbilt and Dartmouth universities, the Lwala residents raised the first wing of the clinic from blueprint to an operational facility in less than a year.

The Ochieng’s ambitious goal of providing sustainable and affordable health care to Lwala and the surrounding area was tempered with the knowledge that ongoing funding would be needed to build and sustain a clinic.

Thanks to their continuous money-raising efforts and the help of volunteers from Vanderbilt, other schools, and an independent filmmaker, their work has paid off. What’s more, their original mission has since expanded into a number of other programs – micro-financing, public health outreach, water sanitation and education.

“If you build it, they will come” may be a line from a movie, but it has become a reality for this rural Kenyan population. Since opening its doors, the clinic has provided care to more than 60,000 people (about 1,200 patients a month). More than half are children under the age of 5.

A high incidence of HIV/AIDS, malaria, and other diseases contributes to significant mortality rates for infants, children and adults. Nationally, 7 percent of Kenyans have HIV/AIDS, but the HIV infection rate for the Nyanza Province where Lwala is located is closer to 30 percent. The infant mortality rate in Kenya is about 120 deaths per 1,000 children – 15 times the average rate in the United States.

Building a clinic was just step one of the Ochieng’ brothers’ plan: disease prevention comes next. To that end, the brothers founded the Lwala Community Alliance to bring “physical health, educational opportunity, economic freedom, cultural vitality and spiritual growth” to the people of Lwala.

“In terms of collaboration, we have had many students and faculty members come here to work with the community in developing public health ventures, water and sanitation in the schools as well as research and income generating activities,” says Fred Ochieng’.”Our alliance works with the communities in determining the various needs and engages the people in the process of creating the solutions.”

For example, through a partnership with Got Your Back, a non-profit organization based in Franklin, Tennessee, the Alliance provides free school uniforms to girls who remain in class through the 8th grade. The girls also receive packs of reusable menstrual pads so they don’t have to miss school when they are having their periods. Both the uniforms and pads are made by a local sewing co-op.

The Alliance also has partnered with Blood:Water Mission, a non-profit organization founded by the band Jars of Clay to conduct hygiene and sanitation training, build “green” latrines, and provide access to clean water at 13 area primary schools during the next three years.

These partnerships and another Alliance project to train people in Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) techniques are examples of small but significant ways people can be empowered to prevent disease, improve their overall health, and become self-sufficient.

This experiment in global health illustrates how the health and wellbeing of a population can be improved dramatically, even under extreme conditions. Their accomplishments to date attest to the power of an idea. A few years ago Omondi had to walk seven miles to the nearest town with electricity to charge his cell phone batteries so he could discuss clinic-related issues with Milton in the U.S. Now, for the first time in its history, Lwala has access to electricity.

A number of challenges remain. One immediate hurdle is the need to replace the clinic’s aging ambulance, an 18-year old vehicle that has fallen victim to the treacherous rural roads surrounding the clinic. The Lwala Alliance has a goal of raising $45,000 to purchase a reliable replacement.

In the decade since a village in Kenya sent Milton Ochieng’ to college in the United States, a global village has grown around the Lwala Clinic, demonstrating how a persuasive and persistent idea can overcome formidable challenges and change a little corner of the world for the better.