Medicine & Healthcare in Kenya by Jonathan Evans
The decision to volunteer
It all started in my final year at school when I was in the process of applying for medicine at university, I decided that I would like to take a gap year and see more of the world, particularly Africa having never been there before. Then the tuition fee situation changed in the UK so that if I were to take a gap year instead of starting university straight away I would have had to pay much increased fees.
Therefore I decided to save money by going straight into university and to have a mini gap year during the summer holidays between my first and second years at university. I also thought that instead of just travelling I would gain more from the experience if I did some volunteering and gain more medical experience. Very soon my month in Kenya was all sorted, the flights were booked and my host family accommodation was organised.
Arriving in Kenya
The day finally came, and as I waved goodbye to my parents I realised that what I was about to do was going to be a huge step in my life and something I would never forget, but that thought was immediately replaced by “what on earth do I do now?!”. Somehow I managed to find the right flight and was on my way. When I arrived in Nairobi, in the early hours of the morning, I very sleepily made my way through passport control and was met by Stan, one of the Projects Abroad staff. He took good care of me and after a short sleep we left for Nakuru in the morning.
We caught a matatu to Nakuru, matatus are minibuses in varying states of disrepair and generally overcrowded, they are a great way of getting around but can be tedious at times. When we arrived in Nakuru I was given a tour of the town and introduced to the other staff and my host mother. As we walked around the town and I was shown how to get to my placement via the matatus, I was thinking, I am never going to be able to do this on my own. The difference between life in Nakuru compared to home was something I could never have prepared for and was initially very daunting but after a few days I got used to it and by the end of my month it seemed entirely normal.
My host accommodation
My host mother was a lovely caring lady whose children had grown up and left Nakuru for work in Nairobi, so my roommate and I became her new children. Along with the Projects Abroad staff she took great care of me during my stay, I always felt I had someone to talk to in times of difficulty. She was also a great cook and I got to sample much of the traditional Kenyan cuisine from chipattis to ugali.
Working at Langa Langa clinic was one of the most interesting and rewarding things I have ever done. The clinic was a bit like your local doctor’s clinic except that they did more HIV/AIDS awareness and antenatal care and had a dedicated part of the building for vaccinating new-born babies. My first week and a bit were spent with the new-borns, helping to take records, organising the vaccines and generally helping in any way I could. The nurses there were lovely and showed me how they worked, when the babies received certain vaccines and taught me some useful Swahili.
One of the nurses there adopted me as my Kenyan mother and named me Kiprop, within a week she was referred to by Kenyan staff and volunteers alike as Mama Kiprop, which showed me how well I had fitted in. I then spent some time with the consultants which was very interesting. My role was mainly just observational, but I did get shown how to take blood pressure etc. and help out with the more basic aspects of the consultations.
I also spent some time in the lab helping to do pregnancy, malaria, HIV and many other tests. The lab was great because I had a lot more to do compared to the other areas. Working at the clinic really opened my eyes to the differences between Africa and home; the Kenyan patients were willing to wait for very long periods of time to be treated, much longer than I would want to wait at home. They also arrived whenever they liked, which meant that some days were incredibly busy and some days we didn’t have a single patient until 10:30.
One of the main, but more superfluous, differences was summed up by one of the consultants one morning; “Because it is winter in Kenya at the moment we are getting a lot of babies with the common cold”. I found this incredibly amusing, having just left the British summer to experience warmer weather in Kenya.
As well as working at the clinic all the medical volunteers went on a weekly outreach trip to local schools where we treated minor injuries and advised the children on hygiene and cleanliness. We also went to local orphanages helping out as best we could with the decorating and organising an afternoon of Olympics themed fun. These were the only times I really got to interact with Kenyan children and always provided me with yet more highlights.
The outreach trips always left me with a sense of having really helped somebody and made a difference. I was always amazed how the children reacted to the treatments, they realised that it was necessary and never cried out or flinched. The visits to the orphanages were great fun and I can only hope that the children enjoyed it as much as I did.
The weekend trips provided yet more highlights of what was rapidly becoming one of the best months of my entire life. I took every opportunity to see as much of Kenya as possible and I wasn’t disappointed, the scenery in the national parks of the Maasai Mara and Hell’s gate was truly breath-taking. I was amazed how close we could get to the wildlife and I never expected to see the sheer number of animals that I did.
I got to visit a Maasai village and was fascinated to see how these people lived, the same way that they have for hundreds of years. I also visited Mombasa which was a very different city to Nakuru and emphasised the diversity of the country, there were a few nice beaches there too. The trips we took at the weekends provided me with some of the most spectacular scenery I have ever seen, some great times with the other volunteers and more confidence to travel around a foreign country and the knowledge of how to react in certain situations.
The experience of a lifetime
My month in Kenya is undoubtedly an experience I will treasure for the rest of my life. I have made some great friends and memories that will last for the rest of my life. I learnt so much that will help me in the future, not just in the medical field but about myself and the diversity of people and cultures in the world.