This is two years late but what is it they say; better late than never? I won’t even try to explain why it took so long. For one, MMK got a new website 2 years ago and I wasn’t that savy with its servers. Or perhaps its because this trip had a lot of mis-steps and blunders that I felt uncomfortable sharing. Anyway, back to the story; MMK team 2016 had an incredibly talented team from across the US. The team was headed by Dr Anjuli Kumar, a Pediatric Gastroentologist from Long Beach who served as the group team leader. Anna Vue from Sacramento and Katarina from LA Children’s hospital also joined the team. From UCLA we got three RN’s, Krishna, Pattra and Pham Thu while the the East coast was represented by Bilal Khan, a physician-scientist student. Bilal doubled up as our tech guy and single handedly designed our new MMK website. Along also came Cory and Donovan (Denver), Nick Shenk and my daughter Sandra Wambui. It was a family affair as my son Sean Mucheru, who was 12 at the time, became the youngest MMK volunteer ever to join the outreach. It was also a first for Nick who had never been outside the country.
The night before we left for our 8am flight through Paris I pulled an all nighter to get all the parking done. Parking for the trip is always a very stressful time for me. I was packing 6 suitcases, balancing the weight limit and ensuring I had everything I needed for my boys as well. I packed and repacked all night long. I would remember an item and look all over the house for it only to find out I had already packed it (note to self, have a check list). It was around 3am when I was finally done so I chose to stay awake and wait for morning convincing myself that I will be able to catch up with sleep over the 10 hour flight to Paris. As it turned out, Spencer had other ideas as he wanted to walk up and down the aisle on the flight and play peekaboo with the folks behind our seats so sleep didn’t happen at all.
We arrived in Nairobi around 11pm. Bilal and I arrived together after meeting up in Paris while some of the other volunteers were landing an hour later. This is where the drama with the customs started. The customs officials opened Bilal’s suitcase which was full of school items like pencils that were donated for the Orphanage. The officials demanded customs duty tax payment for the items. During the scuffle, they also managed to notice a few other suitcases with our medicines and said we needed to pay for them as well. We tried talking them out of it, telling them of our cause but they would not badge and held us hostage as they said they were trying to reach their supervisor. Finally, my friend Ken Njagi, who had come to pick us up had had enough and decided to go and pay for the tax and we were finally free to go. On our journey back to the house in the dark of the night, I pondered through the situation. This is the part of the trip that makes me embarrassed being a Kenyan. Here we are with donations for a good cause which are meant purely to help the locals, and the government imposes taxes on us. Don’t they realize that this will hinder other donors from coming to assist? I had watched another group that had brought reading glasses for donations. When they were asked to pay, they refused and decided to abandon the donations and walked away. Who suffers? And where do the abandoned donations end up?
After ensuring everyone had eaten and was comfortably settled for the night, it was around 2am when I finally went to bed exhausted. The plan was to wake up around 9am and start organizing our medications in preparation for the trip. Instead, the most embarrassing thing happened. I heard a pounding on the door and woke up to my mom’s calling my name asking if I was okay. I looked at my phone beside my bed, it was after 1pm local time and Spencer was still asleep beside me. What just happened? Where were my volunteers? It’s like waking up from a horrible dream. I was mortified and I couldn't believe I had overslept on my very first day, and in front of everybody too. I felt I had let my volunteers down on the very first day. I will be haunted by this up to my dying day.
Before you think I am being totally dramatic, you must realize this team and I don’t really know each other yet. We just met at the airport with some of them enroute to Nairobi. I kept thinking; I am the host and yet I am missing, surely they must think this is the most disorganized trip ever? And who can blame them? I was in panic wondering why no one woke me up. My mom explained everyone was awake and were asking for me. She had overheard the team wondering around if anyone knew what room I spent the night. I quickly went downstairs feeling sheepish and embarrassed explaining I never set my alarm and was sleep deprived. As it turned out, I didn’t have to worry. The team had woken up, had breakfast and lunch, went for a long walk around the neighborhood and led my Dr Anjuli, started organizing the medications completely taking the initiative, opening boxes after boxes of medications without any of my guidance. Dr Anjuli’s expertise, leadership and great organization skills helped the team organize all the medications, taking inventory and dividing them for the two clinics within 5 hours. I was super impressed and very appreciative.
The following day, we headed out to Kimanjo hospital in Laikipia district, an 8 hour drive from Nairobi, where we were met by Dr Alfred Saigero; our Kenyan MMK doctor. It’s always fun to see the excitement of the team as we came along zebras and giraffes alongside the road. Finally, we made it to Alfred and were warmly welcomed by a local village where we sat on old tree logs at the center of the compound surrounded by the Manyattas (huts). The team was served tea and offered the local alcoholic drink which they declined. The locals danced for us, excited to have strangers at their homes, showed us around their manyattas, wouldn't let us leave without having some tea and even let us try on their hand made jewelry.
I sat with my kids, sipping the tea, lost in the moment and watching the sunset as I reflected on the scene around me. I watched the Maasai women with genuine warmth in their smiles. They walk for miles to fetch water and firewood. They have so little, living in abject poverty and relying on their animals for food in this dry and arid desert area. And here we are, unannounced visitors, and they are providing us with everything they have. They are so enduring, so captivating and authentic; with unfounded hospitality. I felt weak in their strong presence. I looked around me; everyone was quiet and thoughtful, probably pondering the same thoughts, enjoying the magical moments.
Then we made our way to our hotel in a nearby
Lewasho village before dark. It is hard to describe the drive to our hotel to anyone who has never been to this kind of the world. There are no roads, just lots and lots of acacia trees surrounded by thick bushes as our vehicles tried circled the bushes in search of our hotel. We were very aware that it was getting dark and we were in animal territory so everyone was silent in the van, uncomfortable from full bladders and a little apprehensive. At one time, the drivers realized they were going the wrong way and had to stop and turn around. It seemed like we were lost in an area full of predator animals and darkness was falling fast, too fast. I looked at the team and nodded silently trying to reassure them we are almost at our destination. And just like that, there was a gate to the hotel right among the bushes and we had arrived. We were all relieved and excitedly unloaded our vans.
Lewasho cottage hotel is built in the middle of nowhere amongst the most spectacular and breath taking views and offering total privacy and total seclusion. The rooms are surrounded by pristine African wilderness and pure serenity, an un-deniable exceptional experience. During our last trip here, one of our volunteers, Miss Agnes Tan, swore she is coming back here for her honeymoon. Yes; it is that beautiful boasting total privacy and exclusivity. Here even bathrooms have open roofs enjoying nature’s natural lighting and at night, the hyenas’ laughter puts you to sleep and you wake up to see the elephants heading out to the waterhole. The stairs in the lobby leads to an elevated wooden deck which boasts spectacular and breathtaking panorama views in every direction. There is literally nothing out there but nature and the animals that roamed these grounds. The air is pure and fresh, devoid of pollution and many volunteers have reported a change in their health; eradication of environmental allergies and sinusitis without medications as well as improved vision after staying here for a day.
A few local morans (Maasai warriors), who I assumed worked for the hotel met us at the lobby. The place was pitch dark and only had a few lamps. Then I heard the morans go up the stairs to the deck and frantically start making phone calls. Having stayed in the hotel before, I know there is no cell service in the whole area and in order to make a phone call, you have to go up the stairs and hopefully you can get a bar or two of 3g network service. They sounded alarmed, almost desperate shouting “hello” over and over again. Something was obviously wrong. No one was showing us our rooms, we were just in the lobby sitting down with our bags. What is going on? I asked in Swahili. Finally, one moran explained to me that they were not expecting us until the following week. I was frozen; another embarrassment. This trip was not going well at all. How can that be? I have paid for the hotel’s deposit and made arrangements with the dates through Alfred. As it turned out, somehow the owner had missed up the dates and was not expecting us at all for a week. What that meant to us was there was no fuel for the generator lighting and most importantly there was no food waiting for us. We were disappointed. I turned red and wanted to just disappear. I could feel everyone eyes on me, probably more imaginary than reality. I felt all fingers pointed at me accusingly. I tried to reach Alfred who had already been contacted by the owner. He was already enroute to the hotel. Our drivers drove the morans to the shopping center to look for fuel for the generator. I didn’t say a word, just stayed there silently and in great turmoil, wondering how things could have gone so wrong.
Luckily, I always ask the team to bring tons of protein bars and everyone had plenty to eat for dinner as we waited for our rooms to be ready. It was dark, scary pitch black night as we gazed at the stars above the skyline, enjoying the stillness of the night, and listening to the animal sounds around us. They call Africa the dark continent for a reason. We quickly armed ourselves with our head flash lights until finally the generator came to life. Alfred brought along a live goat for dinner which the morans slaughtered and prepared on a bonfire outside but the team had no appetite for goat meat, and retired for the night. I remember one of my team members questioning me, rightly so, regarding the encounter. Why didn’t you call to confirm and reconfirm our arrival? She wondered. I looked at her thinking to myself; how can I explain to her the barriers of communication in this part of the world? That there is no network service in the area so I can not call the hotel directly and Alfred has had to literally drive to the hotel each time during the bookings? How can I explain to her that the hotel is not online, and there is no email address for an alternative communication? How do I explain the bookings had been confirmed and reconfirmed and yet this happened?
The hotel owner profusely apologized for the mix up owning to the mistake. He made up for the mishap during our visit organizing great meals and impromptu moran dances which made everyone forget about our initial arrival encounter.
The clinic days were busy and we served over 200 clients a day. Unbeknown to us, Dr Alfred had organized the local press to be there. They were interested to know what MMK was about and what were our challenges. We talked about the illnesses we encountered in the villages; most of them water-borne diseases and somehow related to the lack of clean water. I was happy to share my experiences with the press hoping to make a difference. As it turned out, once the story came out, I inadvertently embarrassed the government by criticizing them and airing their dirt to the world. Another note to self, don’t embarrass the government. Ultimately, Alfred got in trouble getting calls from the highest powers in the ministry of health.
But they couldn’t deny the benefits to the communities. During the Kimanjo clinic, we donated around 7 rechargeable battery-operated pulse oximeters to the hospital. Pulse oximeters are non invasive medical devices that indirectly monitors the oxygen saturation of a patient's blood. It is here that Krishna discovered the water an 8 month pregnant woman who had walked for over 60 miles (two days) to come to our clinic, was drinking. She had fetched that water from the river in preparation for the long journey. At first, Krishna couldn’t believe it. She thought it was some illicit alcoholic drink or something weird. But it was just plain water. Krishna gave the lady tons of bottled water to drink on her way home and also taught the community about boiling the water before consumption.
During the second day, we met a local Maasai woman that Alfred had somehow adopted. She was HIV positive and had had been thrown out by her husband and shunned by the community due to the infection. She had no-where to stay and nothing to eat. Alfred took her in and provided shelter and food. She started anti-virals and started making a living by creating the most beautiful hand made jewelry I have ever seen. Lets not even get started on how this woman could have contracted HIV. This is a communitywhere women are subjected to sex with their husband's age-mates and the men are openly polygamous. Dr Anjuli was the first one to buy a beautiful Kenyan flag bracelet from her and the rest of the crew followed. We ended up buying all her wares to support her financially reminding her that there is still hope at the end of a tunnel. On our way back to the hotel, we ran into a local wedding festival and the women again welcomed us and danced for us encouraging us to join the celebrations.
On our last night at Lewasho, we enjoyed local dances and sat around a bonfire outside listening to the locals share their stories with the wildlife. There is no park around here, no boundaries. The animals have learnt to co-exist and share the same eco-system with the local communities. Don’t worry about our safety; we were closely guarded by the Maasai morans who stayed virgil all night long incase an animal decided to wander into our hotel. But it wasn’t always like this. We heard the stories of the animal-human conflicts, where the elephants have burgeoned the local women on their way to the water hole. The community response? The morans stalked and killed a baby elephant in revenge which prompted the elephants to mourn openly for their dead and then walk to the village and pulled a woman out of the compound killing her in revenge a few days later. Such stories are very common in Maasai land. Luckly, the locals here have learnt to adjust their schedules to avoid more conflicts. They set out of their compounds before the elephants head out and goes home early avoiding the elephant paths.
Before we headed back to Nairobi, Alfred invited us to his own village where as a doctor, he is clearly considered rich and has a flock of goats and cows as expected. It was a typical Maasai village compound except there was a brick house, probably the only modern house in this area. The outside of the village is surrounded by barbed branches to keep the predator animals away. Behind the compound, perched on the flanks of a wooded bush was a hilltop with huge natural stone where a cheetah resides. Alfred reported that this cheetah has cost him and the community hundreds of goats. It sits high and tall in the hill looking down at the communities planning its next attack. They had tried to kill it with no luck and at one time, Alfred shared going to the hilltop with other herders trying to kill the cheetah but it ran away. Wait… say what? Yup…these guys are fearless. They tried to take on a cheetah with no guns.
We got back to Nairobi tired but still energized and ready for our next clinic. Some of our group members were staying in a condo my family owns near the city. I had released the drivers after our arrival. After dinner, I asked Kevin (my nephew) to drive the team staying at the condo. I was holding Spencer who I had not seen for some days. While saying goodbye, I noticed Kevin was stumbling on his feet. I confronted him and asked him if he was drunk of which he said he had a few Tuskers (local Kenyan beer). Apparently, the other van full of youngsters was drinking on the trip back. I was angry and got in the car and asked him for the keys. I was not going to let him drive the team. We took off and everything was going smoothly except I couldn’t find my way. Nairobi is still developing and there were new roads built since the last time and new constructions everywhere. I was confused and couldn’t find the way. Mind you I am trying my very best to keep on the left side of the road. I drove around and I couldn’t find the condo, I looked at the tank and I was almost out of gas and had left the house with no money, and Kevin was dozing on and off and was completely unhelpful. I stopped twice to ask some local motorbike taxis for directions. Asking Nairobians for directions is a comedy by itself. The guys first look at you and laugh, explaining how lost you are. I already knew that, thank you very much. They go, "you are so lost, so far away. I am not sure you can find your way back, you are too far" and instead of giving you directions, they talk to their colleague; "can you give her directions?" The colleague does the same lines and ask his other colleague. And back and forth they go. They were clearly having fun in this. Probably because I had the mzungus (white people), in the car. Finally, Bilal used the google maps and we finally made it to the condo and back to the house.
Finally, we arrived at our last hotel near the Maasai Mara national park. For two days, we worked at the local clinic where a baby was delivered and we saw a boy (herder) who had broke his leg when he fell into a ditch while running from a predator animal in the wild, (I forget whether it was a lion or an angry buffalo). The team ditched the van and walked the kids back to their manyattas. I wanted to buy a maasai dancer’s belt and somehow ended up in the village with my 12 year old son Sean. The clouds turned dark and everyone had left. We started running to the hotel which was only less than a mile away but was warned the rain will pour within 5 minutes. I hesitated, then decided to run towards the hotel. I kid you not, within 5 minutes, the heavy downpour started. Who needs a weather forecast when you can just look at the skies? We turned back and took refuge in a Maasai hut. It was getting dark. The hut housed the mom and around 6-8 kids inside. I could see a fire place at the middle of the hut but did not want to go inside. I have heard the black mambas stories, how the deadly snake wiggle inside a manyatta and kill everyone inside. I stayed right at the doorway watching the rain. I tried to call Kevin to come pick us up but there was no cell service. Besides, he did not know where I was. Then I heard someone speak English with an American accent inside the hut and I curiously turned my head towards the overcrowded room. Even in the darkened room, there was no mistaking the white (mzungu) couple sitting around the fireplace. Apparently, they were also visiting the village when the rains started and they too, took refuge as well. I was mesmerized and a little ashamed. Here I am, reluctant to go inside the hut and I am a Kenyan, and two strangers to the country are comfortably enjoying the warmth of the fire. I smiled. No translator needed here, love and compassion knows no language. Finally, the rain ceased and we walked back to the hotel with our new American friends escorted by the Maasai Morans.
The next day we didn’t get to see as many patients as we expected. The Mara river was overflowing due to the downpour the night before and most villages were unable to cross the river from Tanzania to come to our clinic which was at the Kenyan side. But we saw over 400 patients in the 2 days we were this location. It was during our last day that I saw Sean edged up in a tree away from the clinic. I was like, what is he doing on a tree? I went to see if he was okay. He explained to me that he was hungry and wanted to eat a granola bar he had in his pocket. However, he realized there were hundreds of hungry kids around us as well. He couldn’t bring himself to eat in front of the hungry crowds so he was hiding in the tree to eat. I felt the tears fall down my cheeks and we both hugged and cried together sharing that moment. My kids are fortunate to grow in a world where they have everything they need. And as a parent, I want them to stay grounded and desire to share and give back to those not as fortunate. So when Sean shared his dilemma with me, I knew he got it. He understood the poverty surrounding us. At the end of the day, the team shared the rest of the granola bars with the kids and walked them home again.
Then it was the safari. We negotiated the park fees with the local leaders and the team only had to pay the $20 resident fees at the Maasai Mara park instead of the hefty $80 per person tourist fee. The team was happy to save some money for the souvenirs. We had a successful safari and was quickly able to see the famous Big five (elephant, rhino, lion, leopard and the buffalo), plus many more animals. Dr Anjuli was surprised that the giraffe was not among the big 5 animals. I have been in this park countless times, ever since I was a little girl. But it really never gets old. Being around the wild animals holds an excitement and intimate look at the wild animals that can only be experienced. We watched an African buffalo give birth to a new little baby buffalo that got off his feet within a few minutes, as the mom licked it all over to get rid of the new born smell. We watched the lions, walking majestically with a purposeful and steady pace, watching us intently shaking the beautiful mane and waving its tale as if saying hello. We were not a threat, they quickly turned their attention to more important issues; like what’s for dinner.
Personally I was excited to see the rhinos which I had not seen in a while. Rhinos are very rare to see in Maasai Mara, as there are only 52 total in the park, and are now monitored by GPS by the park rangers due to poaching. We saw a Lion couple mating and lion cubs playing together and chasing each other. We also went to the Mara river to see the famous wildebeests migration where we saw the hippos and the deadly nile crocodiles basking under the hot African sun. If you do not know about the wildebeests migration, please look it up. It is a spectacular event, by far the largest movement of land mammals on earth and only happens here in this park. Millions of wildebeests and zebras cross the crocodiles infested mara river from Serengeti to Kenya following the rainy season. It is now considered the 7th wonder of the world. I remember explaining the dangers of the migration to my neighbor who thoughtfully asked; “isn’t there a safer way? Like why can’t we build a bridge to ensure they cross the river safely?”. Well, the crocs got to eat too....
(Notice the deadly Nile crocodile at the bank of the Mara river above)
Some of us went on a hot air balloon and ended up having an early luxury breakfast in the mara grasslands. Dr Anjuli suggested that it was a perfect place for yoga and guese what? The team set up and started yoga exercises with the wildebeests less than a 100 feet away. This was a team of crazy and daredevil Americans!
On our way back, we drove through the vast savanna Mara grasslands then one of the jeeps broke down. What could go wrong? Sandra and Kat Santiago climbed on top of the jeep roof to take pictures and some people decided to answer nature’s call in the wilderness. Thank God there were no black mambas lurking behind the bushes.
Back to Nairobi, we did our last event deworming the kids at the Orphanage in Kibera slums, one of the largest slums in Africa. Here Bilal donated his taxed pencil and school supplies. We also donated tooth brushes and food items. It was a joyful experience, a Christmas for a day for the poor kids who are attending school in the poorest conditions ever. Spencer came along for this event and Dr Anjuli encouraged him to hand over toothbrushes to the eager kids.
We spent the evening at my cousin’s Luciyer’s house who graciously prepared a delicious dinner to honor the incredible team. I am extremely thankful to all my volunteers and especially to the expertise brought by Dr Anjuli. She has the best organizational skills matched by her wit and efficiency despite limited resources and shared great ideas with me for future trips. I'm also thankful to God for a successful mission and I seek his guidance as we plan the next trip in a few months. Thank you to everyone who supported us through prayers and donations.