It’s no secret that the modern United States is lacking in its sense of community. Gone are the days of block parties, neighbors visiting on the front porch, and families helping to raise one another’s children. We’ve replaced this with the isolated new mother getting a handle on things alone in her home with only Google to help her and with neighbors hiding out, curtains drawn, preferring virtual community to flesh and blood.
We live in isolation. And we venerate the independent. It’s almost a cliché at this point.
Or so I thought.
I’m going to be honest here. I have a lot of pride. I like to be in control, I’m a loner, socially awkward, and an introvert. In short, I don’t ask for help.
But then, in July of 2014, I didn’t have a choice. I was 27 weeks pregnant with my twins when I went into preterm labor and was sentenced to strict bed rest until their birth. I had a two-year-old daughter to care for, a house to clean, meals to prepare, a life to live! How was I going to accomplish this? How could I do this on my own?
All the doctors began asking, “Do you have a support system? Do you have a community of people who can help?” I wondered what that would even look like.
Two Men and Their Community
Milton and Fred Ochieng have understood the importance of community from the beginning, having grown up in Lwala, Kenya, where “you really don’t belong to your parents, you belong to everybody.” Lwala is a village whose people lived in huts with no electricity, no running water, and little to no access to health care. Tragically, the brothers lost their parents to HIV/AIDS, a disease that, in 2015, claimed the lives of 36,000 Kenyans. There was no diagnosis and no treatment, and so the brothers felt compelled to never let such a tragedy befall their community again.
When the Ochieng brothers shared their vision with the Lwala community, the village came together, gathering enough funds to send the men to college. Milton and Fred both obtained medical degrees from Vanderbilt University and made it their mission to return home and help those who had helped them. Together, they founded the Lwala Community Alliance (LCA) and established the Lwala Community Hospital.
Flash forward to 2016; the hospital boasts some impressive results:
• 98% of exposed infants are testing HIV negative at 18 months.
• 94% percent of pregnant women are delivering at a health facility with a skilled nurse, up from 26% before their commitment.
• There has been a 30% decrease in deaths of children under 5 from 2014.
• There has been a 50% decrease in infant mortality compared to the county’s averages.
But perhaps what is even more impressive, is that none of this would have happened without the community of Lwala coming together to influence the design, implementation, and evaluation of the programs. LCA calls this “Bottom-Up Innovation.” It is “health designed by us for us,” says Leah Oyugi, Mentor Community Health Worker.
Friends Helping Friends, Helping Friends
The brothers’ community widened when Real Medicine Foundation and LCA formed their partnership. RMF has been an essential partner from the inception of LCA, supplying both financial and intellectual support through guidance and mentorship. RMF and LCA are bound by a common goal: to provide holistic services to the community in order to build the capacity of individuals through health, education, and economic sustainability.
LCA uses an integrated (or holistic) approach to address the complex needs that arise in Lwala. Community Programs Director, Mercy Owuor, gives this example to explain the need for such an approach: “When a woman cannot provide proper nutrition to her children, and she is not even educated enough to know the importance of proper nutrition, we will always end up with sick children no matter how much medicine we give them.”
That’s why, in addition to medical care, LCA provides opportunities for education and economic sustainability.
By now you know the Ochieng brothers, but let me tell you about their sister, Grace. Grace Ochieng began the New Vision Women’s Sewing Cooperative in Lwala. The cooperative, which employs 10 local women, makes cloth bags that are sold in Whole Foods stores in the U.S. and also produces school uniforms as well as reusable cloth menstrual pads for local schoolgirls. Access to menstrual pads means that these girls can stay in school, which increases their economic stability and decreases their likelihood of getting pregnant before they are ready, which means a greater chance of having healthy children when/if they are ready.
Everything is Connected
Information leads to nutrition, which leads to health. Education and training lead to economic stability, which leads to health. Health leads to decreased barriers to information, education, and economic stability. Everything is connected. Everyone plays a part.
The people of Lwala, without electricity or clean water, made a financial sacrifice to send the Ochieng brothers to college with only a hope that they could accomplish their goals. This community changed their own lives by investing in the lives of others. Now, they are reaping the rewards of their investment in these men and the community-driven Lwala Community Alliance.
Look what can be accomplished when we allow ourselves to help and be helped by others!
So, how did I do it alone?
The answer, of course, is that I didn’t.
My husband made all the calls. And then my community stepped up. Family, friends, fellow church members, acquaintances, and even complete strangers (at least to me) brought us food, cleaned our home, did our laundry, and cared for my two-year-old. I was astonished. I was embarrassed. I was grateful. This is what community looks like, and it is beautiful.
I owe the health of my babies to my community, just as the community of Lwala owes the health and success of their village to one another. Everyone plays a part. Whether you do something small like drop off a casserole or something huge like empower a hurting and dying village towards health and stability, you did not turn your back; instead, you chose to act. We all have a stake in our communities, local and global. What will you do?
To learn more about how Real Medicine Foundation supports our friends in Lwala, click HERE.