Ireland’s economic difficulties paled into insignificance as members of the Westport/Aror (Kenya ) Partnership travelled through the Mukuru slum of Nairobi recently. The team from Westport (Michael O’Donnell, Gertie Foley, Margaret Joyce and Barbara Rabbett ) were on their way to visit a dispensary, run by the Medical Missionaries of Mary, to see how funds sent from Westport had been put to use by the Sisters. As they made their way slowly through the slum towards the dispensary, they were overwhelmed by the sights and putrid smells of poverty, misery, and filth that surrounded them. It was hard to endure, even for a short time. And yet, these are the living conditions of almost two million people in Nairobi.
Thankfully, the squalor of the environment is no impediment to the Medical Missionaries of Mary who are committed to bringing health care to the people of the slum. Day in, day out, they work tirelessly, with their co-workers, to help the people of Mukuru whose life expectancy and opportunities are so limited by abject poverty.
The visit to the dispensary proved well worth the journey, however, when the team saw all the work that was being done in the TB unit and other clinics. It was ante-natal clinic day and the place was full of expectant mothers and mothers with young children. A new mother and child unit had recently been built (funded by a family from Ballina ) and funds from Westport had furnished the unit. The place was pristine and obviously well cared for. Sr Bridie Canavan, a native of Oughterard, Co Galway, who jointly manages the dispensary with Sr Colette Ryan, proudly showed the team around the facility. “This was paid for by Westport!” she seemed to say endlessly as she showed us various items of equipment for the clinic. She clearly demonstrated that very little money goes a long way in Kenya.
But Mukuru was not the main focus of the team’s visit to Kenya. It was only a stopping-off point on the long journey to Aror, in the Great North Rift region of Kenya. This is the place to which Westport sends most of its funds. It is the place with which Westport has built a growing relationship over many years.
Aror is a small settlement, situated in a very isolated part of Kenya. Its inhabitants form part of the 18,000 strong population of the Kerio Valley who are mostly from the Marakwet and Pokot tribes. Their way of life is tribal and rural, with most inhabitants living off the land and grazing a few goats, in temperatures always in excess of 35 degrees. Their daily life is totally dependent on the weather and, as with other African countries, a drought can completely destroy their crops, causing famine and misery.
A poor family in Aror lives off 400 Ksh (€4 ) a week. This will have been earned by selling a few vegetables or some of their precious goat meat. They have almost no possessions, living for the most part in traditional round huts made of sticks and mud. Most homes have no furniture, the family sleeping on cowhides laid out on the hard beaten earth floor at night. The face of poverty in Aror is very different from the urban poverty of Nairobi.
The health centre in Aror provides the best medical help available to the people in this isolated valley. There, the people can be treated in a safe and clean environment for all the illnesses to which they are most susceptible – malaria, diarrhoea, TB, and other chest infections. They can also be tested and treated for AIDS which is a growing scourge in the valley. Immunisation against childhood diseases is carried out by staff at outreach clinics in the valley and in the local primary schools. The health centre is a place where mothers can deliver their babies in safety and many women are happy to do just that. When travelling to Aror, members of the team from Westport pack their suitcases with baby and toddler clothes, lovingly gathered together by Mary Angela Kelly, for the new mothers. These are received with delight and, in fact, provide an added inducement to mothers to deliver their babies at the health centre.
Since the recession has hit Ireland and other European countries, many major charities have seen a downturn in donations. This has impacted greatly on the number of projects they are able to fund in Africa and other developing countries. The health centre in Aror has experienced the withdrawal of two such funding agencies in the past year and has had financial difficulties as a result. Westport was the sole outside agency to donate funds to the health centre last year. In spite of the decreased income, staff still had to be paid; medicines still had to be bought; maintenance still had to be carried out on the facility. It was a difficult year for the health centre in Aror and credit is due to its administrator Sr Jacinta Njeru for her prudence and care.
Funding a cause of concern
Funding of the health centre was a major cause of concern for the people of Aror and the team from Westport was questioned about the partnership’s intentions and commitment to the health centre. The Westport team had meetings not only with the administrator of the health centre, but also with the former Chief of Aror and member of the health centre management board. They were also invited to address the congregation at Sunday Mass. At the diocesan offices in Eldoret, talks were held with Bishop Cornelius Korir of Eldoret in whose diocese Aror is situated and with other officials including the diocesan health coordinator, Mrs Anne Amata. All were keen to know and eager to ensure that Westport’s commitment to their community remained as strong as it had always been through the 29 years of partnership.
Speaking on behalf of the team, Michael O’Donnell, chairman of the Westport/ Aror (Kenya ) Partnership, assured all concerned that Westport’s commitment to them was unchanged and enduring. This was thanks to the continuing and unerring support received by the partnership committee at home in Westport down through the years. His words were greeted warmly and with much relief. There is no doubt that the people of the Westport area have much to be proud of in their support of this small, isolated community in Kenya. Without funding from Westport the health centre would close and the health and lives of many people would be put in jeopardy.
The team returned home exhausted but satisfied and proud that essential work was being done in Aror and would continue into the future. Every cent donated to the partnership in Westport is put to excellent, life-saving, use. A big thank you is due to all concerned. The partnership will celebrate its 30th anniversary in 2012.