Elizabeth Arnstein shared this story from a recent mission trip to Mutomo, Kenya, with 10 students and four other chaperones from Convent of the Visitation School in Mendota Heights, where she is a teacher. The group worked at a rural hospital for a week in June, assisting the Sisters of Mercy at Mutomo Hospital, located in a drought-plagued rural area six hours east of Nairobi. Mutomo is in the Catholic Diocese of Kitui, Kenya, which has a partnership with the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis through Catholic Relief Services’ Global Solidarity Partnership program.
“Our school motto is Non Scholae, Sed Vitae — ‘Not for school, but for life,’” Arnstein wrote. “Every day, I saw our students live out this motto in the way they opened their minds and hearts to what was, in many ways, a challenging experience. Yet our students never complained about the harshness of the conditions, the quality of the food, the shortage of water, or the squalor that surrounded them in various locations. Rather, the students and chaperones embraced their time in Mutomo and were very disappointed to see it come to an end.”
The hospital was founded in the 1960s to offer medical care for lepers and tubercular patients, but the sisters and their staff now treat all types of medical crises — from traumatic burns and snakebites to malaria and, perhaps the most critical illnesses, HIV and AIDS.
Unfortunately, the HIV/AIDS problem is compounded by the drought in Mutomo. Women and children must walk several hours a day along hot, dusty roads to fetch water that is often contaminated. Because there hasn’t been a heavy rain in three years, crops can’t grow, which means there is little food to eat in this subsistence-based economy — and even less to sell at local markets. As a result, people either miss taking their AIDS medications or have no food to eat with it.
“According to a pharmacist I met in Mutomo, the drugs will save lives, but only if you take them exactly as prescribed,” said Kathleen Ferraro, a 2011 alumna of Visitation who went on the trip. “Unfortunately, the people in this part of Kenya usually cannot take the drugs as prescribed because they have more pressing matters to deal with, like getting food or water for the day. These survival tasks distract patients from the strict schedules they must follow while taking their prescriptions; therefore, the drugs don’t always work as well as they should.”
Visitation senior Mackenzie Grutzner, heard similar problems during her work with an AIDS clinician: “People are supposed to take [their AIDS medications] with food; however, many of them do not have regular meals, so the drugs are not as effective. That is why many of the people are getting sicker even though they are taking the drugs.”
Every day, the students and chaperones divided into sub-groups and rotated assignments throughout the week — allowing everyone in the group to see firsthand the work that was being conducted both in the hospital and in rural clinics (some as far as two hours into the bush).
Some groups helped during clinic appointments, while others visited and played with terminally ill children in Mutomo Hospital. Several group members attended behavior change programs, presented at schools throughout the region to teach students about the prevention of HIV and AIDS, and some students aided endodontist Eric Grutzner, a chaperone on the trip, while he met with patients in the hospital’s dental clinic and conducted dental screenings at a local school. Others explored the pressing water issues at various catchment sites around Mutomo, while another group whitewashed a new community center in Athi and outfitted it with a new volleyball court, swing-set and soccer balls. Students also spent many hours organizing the hospital’s collection of medical records.
In spite of the squalid conditions and heart-wrenching poverty, the people of Mutomo welcomed the students and chaperones with warmth and laughter.
“It is very eye-opening to see how little they have compared to us,” said Mackenzie Grutzner. “They are so much more grateful for everything they have, and twice as friendly. Everywhere you looked, you would see children and parents walking in the street. We would wave and say, ‘Jambo,’ and it was wonderful to see how happy they got.”
Ferraro added, “Being back home is nice, but I really miss Kenya. I miss all the people and all the experiences; you can’t find anything like that here in Minnesota. And now that I’ve had this life-changing experience, I want to tell others about it so they can start looking at their lives in a much more thankful way.”