Bringing Kenya Home

That first night, all I knew was I was a long way from home and if I wanted to accomplish anything the next day, I had to get some sleep. But who can sleep with a mind swept with the excitement of travel and a malaria medication known to cause colorful dreams?

Street scene from Zabinski's learning experience in Kenya.

Street scene from Zabinski's learning experience in Kenya. Photo: Courtesy of Jeffrey Zabinski

The project had seemed simple enough two years ago when our team of four assembled rather unexpectedly. We were bright-eyed undergraduates with idealistic, meandering thoughts about international health, HIV and AIDS. We wanted to make a difference. We knew that voluntary counseling and testing (VCT) centers had proved effective in the fight against HIV and AIDS, and we knew of a spot in Kenya’s rural Western Province that could benefit from such a program.

We applied for an Experiential Learning Fellowship through the College of Arts and Sciences. Much to my surprise and delight, our proposal was accepted. By the summer of 2008, I was Kenya bound. We had spent hours planning, poring over detailed documents that spelled out what we would do. Our objectives—to set up a successful and sustainable VCT center—were straightforward.

Kenya, I found, was anything but.

In June, I moved onto Reuben and Betty Lubanga’s family farm in Kabula in the Bungoma District of the Western Province. The couple have been hosting volunteers at their home for about a decade. Betty is the founder of a school, and Reuben has started a clinic and a mobile care program. Staying with this incredible family offered a snapshot of the country’s many ethnic groups and languages: The Lubangas are Luhya; their cook is Luo; our translator is Kalenjin. Mwai Kibaki, the country’s president, is Kikuyu.

For all its diversity, Kenya does have common threads. For instance, Kenyans have a distinctly relaxed sense of time. Take Tom Kingoro. He is a church pastor and a tailoring teacher. He is also the VCT center’s carpenter. Over the course of the summer, he installed the ceiling, a new wall and several doors. He painted everything and built lockable cabinetry for records. One day he might say he’d be in at 8 in the morning and then, perhaps, not arrive until the weekend.

Such relaxed scheduling was at times maddening. I got over it. I had to.

In my downtime, I became friends with Pauline Lubanga, one of the children in the Lubanga family. Pauline is in grade six and is child No. 6 in a relatively normal-sized family of eight. I taught her math class once or twice a week at the school where her mother is the principal. Many of the children were orphans; many lived on a diet composed primarily of sugar cane. Yet there they were, every day, studying and learning with well-used pencils and scraps of paper.

Children like Pauline and her classmates, as well as others, motivated our team. With so many people contributing to the effort, we had to make progress—or risk letting someone down.

One of the people crucial to the project is Elizabeth Ouma, a Kenyan from Bungoma who had experience at a VCT center and was hired as the manager. She is professional and experienced beyond what we had hoped for in a manager. Though money for Elizabeth’s salary is a lingering concern, the project is going forward. My goal had been to be there for the center’s final district health inspection. That happened a week after I left. The center passed the test.

It was a successful trip, partly because of the tangibles we were able to leave behind and partly because of the intangibles we took with us. In my mind, I carry with me the many faces of Kenya. Some of them are heartbreaking, like those of the HIV-positive people who approached me almost daily to ask when the center would open. Others are beautiful, like those of the Lubanga family, which is making a difference and building a community. These are faces that shape a truly rich culture, and that culture has, in turn, helped shape me.— Jefrey Zabinski

Jeffrey Zabinski is a senior biomedical engineering major from Dayton, Ohio. He plans to return to Kenya in the next few years to continue and expand the VCT center and hopes to attend medical school.