MMK trip this year was one of the most exciting and exhilarating trip we have ever had. Healing the sick, restoring sight to the blind, and providing mental health services; was just a few of the services our incredible team of 16 which included 3 teens provided. The team was led by Dr Bhanu Pandiri, a renowned pulmonologist and ICU head doctor who I had been nagging for years to join the trip. As the team leader of the group, Dr Pandiri was responsible for ensuring the team members were in optimal health while keeping tabs on their interests, skills and limitations, as well as being responsible for the proper dispensing of all pharmaceuticals; a job she did incredibly well, hands down. Lexi Davidge NP and Monette Gomez RN were regular frequent fliers to MMK trips and thus provided a lot of team support to the group making my role so much easier.
It was a family affair for some of our team members; Dr Francis Lee brought along his 17 year old son Sangmin, and Dr Cara Gardenswartz brought along her whole family which included her husband David Melnick, David's parents Patty and Mike Melnick, Adela Martinez, as well as their 14 year old son Eli. Dr Pandiri was joined by her daughter Sonaali Pandiri while Sean, my 14 year old son joined us again for his second year volunteering. Along came Nurse Practitioners Michelle Allchurch (London) and Lexy Davidge as well as Registered Nurses Amanda York from Arizona and Jason Jemera from UCLA.
Fron left, David, Mike, Soni, Milli, Adela, Dr Pandiri, Cara, Monette, Dr Lee, Patty, Sangmin & Sean
Left sitting, Lexy, Eli, Amanda, Michelle and Jason
The grassroots efforts started here in LA prior to departure with an inaugural fundraiser held at Cara’s House. As a novice, I didn't even know where or how to start and organize a fundraiser. I reached out to Richelle Parham and Ann Diner who literally held my hands through the process. Cara generously offered to host and even sponsor the event at her own house. My Kenyan friends Alice and Nancy Wamai chipped in, decorated and even helped cook our Kenyan delicacies which our guests savored. We had a great turnout and a supportive crowd of people who were willing to help in anyway they could. We raised a lot of money that enabled us to obtain all the medical supplies and medications that we needed for our trip.
On our trip itinerary was a visit to Kwetu Home of Peace. Kwetu is a Swahili home that literally means "Our Home". It is a rehabilitation Centre for homeless street boys between ages 8-14 years who are rescued from a life of crime and drugs, rehabilitated and reintegrated back in the community as productive citizens. We needed supplies for the Kwetu home especially school supplies and clothes. We reached out to other parents who were happy to donate gently used boys clothes. The response was amazing. The clothes kept coming until I couldn't take anymore. I even got some girls clothes in the process.
Two days before the trip, I was expressing my excitement to my husband during a phone call when he casually inquired if our passports are all up to-date. I assured him that the passports should be current since we had traveled to the Bahamas last summer. I made a mental note to check our passports when I got home from work that day. To my horror, Spencer's passport had just expired the month before our trip. Wow...with all the email reminders I send to the team to ensure their passports were current, somehow I forgot to send the same message to myself. Needless to say, the next day was spent at the Passport processing center where I was able to get a same day passport, the day before we traveled.
Our trip was smooth and customs was even more smoother considering we raised eyebrows with all the tons of luggages that we brought along. We were delayed for an hour in Amsterdam where Jason just shrugged and curled up on the bench and slept like a baby, reminding of a previous volunteer Kevin De Leon who could curl up anywhere and at anytime. During the immigration line as we waited to get our visas, a random guy approached Patty and Dr Pandiri with a story of how he was unaware that the immigration did not process visas via credit cards and he did not have cash. He was convincing enough that Patty loaned the guy $50 for the visa fees. He said his girlfriend was outside with the money and he will refund once outside. Needless to say, the guy disappeared when we got outside. Patty had been scammed. We all had a good laugh about it. After the long flight, the team was tired but somehow still full of energy and excitement on arrival to Nairobi a little after midnight.
On arrival JKIA Airport Nairobi, from left, Dr Pandiri, Milli, Sonaali, Adela, Sean, Mike, Patty, Amanda & Jason
Our itinerary had us lined up to travel to different outreach locations, Turuturu village in Murang’a, Kimanjo hospital in Laikipia district, and Korogocho slums outside Nairobi city. Sonaali was also volunteering at a women’s clinic for an additional two weeks after MMK outreach. The next day which we usually spend organizing and unpacking our medications and medical supplies was made easy by our London folks (Michelle and Monette), who had arrived a day before us and organized most of our local medical supplies for the different locations.
But first things first...we had a Food & Clothing drive followed by a Basketball workshop at Kwetu home of peace. We learnt that there was no basketball hoop in the boys adopted home. Luckily for us Dr Lee researched before our trip and already knew where to get the hoop complete with the pole.
At the boys' center, we sat around in a circle which reminded me of council. The boys shared stories about their lives before they got rescued from the streets. Most of the boys recounted a life of crime and drugs where they survived from sniffing glue to suppress the inevitable hunger pangs. There were tears all around as we listened and watched the boys bare their internal scars for the team. These boys were young and had lived difficult lives. I felt a deep and hollowing pain at the pit of my stomach and tried hard not to cry as I watched the team tear up But moment later, as we watched the boys play basketball with their faces lit by bright smiles, there was no pain, no care, no sadness-just wheels of laughter and joy as the boys wore their new clothes and played some hoops for the very first time in their lives.
Sonaali, Dr Cara & Dr Pandiri distributing during the clothing drive
The next day, I was woken up by a phone call from a relative letting me know that it was raining heavily. The rain season should have ended way before we got here but hey...global warming is changing all the normal weather patterns. It was almost 5 am in the morning and the sun rise was chasing the last remnants of the night away. I walked to the window and looked up. The skies were ferociously gloomy and moody; almost angry, with dark clouds hovering at the skyline and the rains were falling as if releasing some built up tension that has suddenly risen to the surface threatening to burst. "Oh no, this will mess up our perfectly laid plans", I thought as I stared at the rain. I instantly started rebuking the devil, his son and his mother in law, for this annoying obstacle. Then I instantly felt guilty. In Kenya, rain is a blessing no matter when it pours. It brings a new life, a new day, and a new crop that will feed the locals.
By 7am, the rain had decreased its velocity and was now only drizzling. There was hope. I asked the team to wear rain boots that morning where David Melnick turned to me and said matter of fact; "wait, rain boots were not on the packing list". He was right. I truly didn't expect this.
Veronica Maina, my high school friend who had invited us to Turuturu informed us that there were two routes leading to the clinic. One of the route was deemed impassable due to the rains so we took the other longer route. Unfortunately it wasn't quite good enough. Our bus got caught in the sea of brown mud as the driver navigated a steep hill. We were stuck. And almost instantly, locals crawled out of nowhere with shovels and gravels in attempts to rescue the stuck bus for a few bucks. I chuckled reminiscing growing up in Nairobi. I was always amused when it would suddenly rain and hawkers would instantly start peddling umbrellas out of nowhere. How convenient that these locals were here with the required tools?
They quickly got to work without asking and started pushing and pulling the bus. We could hear the exhausted engine roaring with its tires squealing as the crowd and the team pushed and pulled, ropes twisting, stretched to a breaking point. And the more the driver pushed on the gas pedal, the deeper the tires sunk in the treacherous mud.
Somehow, we got unstuck and the bus plowed forward like a wounded African buffalo mounting a desperate attempt to shake off hungry lions. We were making progress and were almost at the top of the hill. But after a few yards down the road; we got stuck again. And again after every few yards. The crowd didn't give up. They pushed and pulled like a tag of war while gravity pulled the bus side to side with the engine roaring angrily protesting the strenuous activity. The muddy roads were unforgiving and the poor bus swerved back and forth dangerously as the team watched helplessly. After hours of these fruitless efforts, the bus finally took its last breath and the engine completely shut down leaving us stranded in a village.
We looked at each other pondering our next move. A cow at a nearby homestead yawned and Cara nodded saying “I know, me too!” and everyone burst out laughing breaking the silence. We went back to the bus and a drunk local guy followed us inside the bus. He had blood shot eyes and the stench of alcohol in his breath was unmistakable. He looked like he hadn't taken a shower for ages or had a decent night's sleep. He was behind Dr Pandiri and started playing with her hair like a kid playing peekaboo. It was hilarious. Sonaali gave him a soda and Dr. Pandiri gave him a protein bar but he asked for a beer. Not important really, except that it makes you ponder the vicious cycle of poverty, depression and alcoholism. Another story....
Dr Francis Lee (Yale University) helps scrape away mud from David's shoes.
Suddenly, 4WD Government Vehicles showed up to ferry the team to the clinic. Veronica and Honorable Sabina Chege somehow instantly organized our rescue. I was the last one to leave with Mike and Patty. When we arrived at the clinic, the waiting crowd clapped and cheered in Kikuyu ululations surprising all of us. Mike who was taking his first trip after retirement was quick to note that no one had ever cheered for him all his life. You would think the crowd would be upset, we were 4 hours late and they had been waiting that long to be seen. Yet they were happy to see the team singing ululations loudly and cheerfully that are especially saved for the joyous occasion of a new birth in the community.
There were hundreds of people waiting in this village. And we were already stressing out about our little road hiccup on the way over. Nevertheless, the team worked tirelessly till around 8pm trying to see everyone. But what happened in this village will stay with me for the rest of my life. It is here that Dr Pandiri met John Gitau, an 11 year old boy suffering from Keratoconus which left him blind on the left eye and partially blind on the right eye. This is a powerful and incredible story of a mother's un-faltering faith and un-relentless prayer that ultimately led to a miracle in a journey full of hopes and despair. The mother had been stuck in a paralysis of despair, shunned from hospital to hospital in search of a miracle. Unfortunately the poverty stricken family could not afford to cough up a $5000 tab for the required corneal transplant. That was 2 years prior to our trip. There is an African saying that goes "When suffering knocks at your door and you say there is no seat for him, he tells you not to worry because he has brought his own stool". There was immense suffering for John and his mother that had found a comfortable spot in their home. This boy had lived a difficult life of physical and emotional abuse under his step father's hands who believed John was destined to be blind and taking him to the hospital was deemed a waste of time. But his mother never gave up hope and prayed without ceasing for a miracle. She risked her own life and marriage when she brought John to our clinic that morning.
Dr Pandiri and Sonaali at John's consultation with Dr Kimani, the corneal transplant surgeon
There are people who truly believe we were destined to come to this village to find John by other forces at work we will never understand. I am one of them. MMK was just a bridge that God used to answer John's mom's prayers. She had fiercely believed that John will be able to see someday. What were the chances that we would go to this remote village and Dr Pandiri would come across John?
After being turned away from the first hospital due to the procedure being too risky, we discovered Dr Kimani who was willing to do the risky procedure providing the family hope after the initial
disappointment. And yes, MMK was able to pay for the corneal transplant and John's sight was restored, his life changed forever. Dr Pandiri went beyond that and adopted John. She pays for his education expenses, uprooting him from a toxic home situation to a safer environment in a private boarding school where John continues to thrive everyday.
When Jesus said that faith can move mountains, he was not kidding. John's mother's story reminds me of that everyday. This was nothing short of a miracle and our team was humbled to be able to help this young boy regain his sight, completely changing his life. John still struggles with organ rejection and had to have a secondary procedure to remove a graft around the corneal.
Jason & Amanda York on their Assessment Intake table
But that night when hurdled for debriefing after dinner to discuss the day and John's circumstances, we were concerned about crowd control and the fact that we couldn't see everyone. We knew the next day the crowd would double up. It was a challenging role for Adela who was in charge of crowd control while people edged closer and closer to an already full triage area, all wanting to be seen with their myriad of medical health concerns. In the morning, as we braced ourselves for another challenging day, Patty walked to the porch where she observed that all our muddy shoes were wiped clean. All the mud was gone. She literally broke down in tears. Patty was the one who just couldn’t get over the mud on the patients feet and clothes at the clinic and her eyes kept getting drawn to the mud like a magnet. And to wake up and find all the shoes cleaned up for the team for free, she couldn't stop crying while hugging Veronica thankful for the hospitality.
MMK team at Veronica's who hosted the team.
The incredible team worked so well together despite the challenges. While Adela was controlling the crowd,
David and Mike controlled the lines ensuring the patients knew where to go. The providers were Dr Pandiri, Dr Lee, Dr Alfred (Kenya), NPs Lexy and Michelle, and the local clinicians. Dr Cara provided mental health services. We were also joined by medical students who were recruited by Maggie from Pokea Afya, another local organization that joined hands with our team. The medical students were a great help to our team providing care paired with our providers or just simply translating for our team.
Monette, Jason and Amanda did the assessment and history while Patty, Sonaali and I worked the pharmacy. Jason taught the teenage boys, Sangmin, Eli and Sean on how to obtain basic vital signs, which they did incredibly well.
Monette Gomez RN
Hurdling before the clinic
July is the coldest month in Kenya (winter), with temperatures dropping to low 50's. There were alot of patients who came with upper respiratory infections wheezing a storm and congested like crazy. Thankfully, our pulmonologist Dr Pandiri was prepared with portable nebulizer machines and we offered breathing treatments at the spot which was very therapeutic to most of our patients. We donated the machines to the clinics after our visit. There was a light moment when Jason asked where the toilets were. He walked to the bathroom and found a big rectangular hole on the concrete and was confused. He came right back and asked; "just for confirmation, am I supposed to pee inside the hole?"
Sangmin, Eli and Sean performing basic vital signs at the triage table
The second day at the clinic our patients literally doubled. There were people everywhere waiting to be seen including children who had taken off from school to come to our clinic. I knew there was no way we are going to see everyone. Despite the large crowds, there was an announcer who kept telling the crowd that everyone will be seen no matter what. I repeatedly went to him cautioning him to be wary of promises he can not meet. He didn't seem to care and continued to announce the same platitudes. Careful not to burn out my team, I had promised we will be out of there by 7pm. But then Hon Sabina, the women's parliamentary health representative arrived and the locals started begging her to intervene so that they can all be seen. She called for me, requesting for my team to see the children at least. It was almost 5pm. I resisted and said no, it was impossible. But the local clinicians said yes so eventually I reluctantly gave in. The team again worked pretty hard providing vitamins to pregnant women and tooth brushes to the kids.
Monette (left), Hon Sabina, Veronica and myself during the press conference
During the inevitable press conference, reporters were throwing questions unrelated to our medical mission which was infuriating because I wanted the focus to be on the needs of the community and the inadequate health care. And then I just started feeling really like an alien. There were questions regarding what I later learnt was a claim of contaminated sugar being sold to unsuspecting buyers and my head is going like, "what?" I am so clueless and everyone is nodding their heads knowingly. My brain was trying to reach out to King Solomon for wisdom but the old wise man must have been taking a nap because my head was quite simply blank and I had no idea what they were talking about. Still, I was happy to bring attention to the health needs of these vulnerable communities.
That night during our debriefing, we discussed serious challenges that all volunteer providers undoubtedly encounter. The team was exhausted after two days of working dawn to dusk with multitudes of people flocking in wanting to be accommodated. Ultimately, we all felt the pressure as we rushed and tried to see as many people as we possibly could. Question is, how do we strike a healthy balance on value and efficiency in health care delivery and maybe, just maybe, some quality time between provider and patient with such limited time frame without risking volunteer burn-out? How can a community, as populated as this area, not have a functioning hospital staffed with a doctor? Dr Alfred, our Kenyan MMK provider bravely raised this concern with Hon Sabina requesting that the government consider building a hospital in the area and have an MD on staff to be available for the locals. Currently, the thousands of the locals only get to see a nurse for their health care needs since there are no available doctors at the clinic. Think about it, Dr Alfred is right. While MMK and other NGO's tries their best to provide health care services, the real solution lies in a community in which MMK's charity will have become unnecessary.
The team joined by Veronica's family before we left the village
The following day, we were headed to Dr Alfred's Maasai community at Kimanjo hospital. Hon Sabina arranged for us to meet the area governor on our way to Kimanjo which was about 7 hours North. We were late leaving Veronica's house and missed our appointment with the governor but we stopped by their offices and paid homage to his deputy. But don't feel sorry for us, no one keeps time in this side of town. Our driver was late almost everyday. In her book "Becoming", Michelle Obama shares her frustration of former President Obama not making it home for dinner even though he would reassure her he was on the way home. My dear Michelle, give him some slack. It's the Kenyan genes imbedded in Obama.
Maasai land is very different from the Muranga area we just came from. This place is dry although there were visible signs of recent rains that made our team edgy every time we had to pass a pothole filled with muddy water. We were traumatized from the first bus breaking down and was hoping this will be a smoother ride. In these communities, wild animals roamed freely and people have learnt to live amongst the animals so it was nice to sight giraffes, zebras, dik dik antelopes, African buffalos, elephants, hyenas and other wild animals. There is something exciting about seeing wild animals roaming around. This is different from seeing these animals in the park, like Maasai Mara. You expect to see these animals at Mara, but seeing these animals here is always an unexpected nice treat to the team.
But right after we left Nanyuki the last town before we go under the grid, we came across 3 Maasai Morans (warriors), who were on their way to a wedding ceremony. Nice!!! We stopped and the team posed for pictures with the trio who still had to walk some 90 miles to the wedding ceremony. They were going to deliver the cow and goats which would be slaughtered for the occasion. The Maasai people are well known for their unique culture and tribal dress (shuka) and hand made jewelry. They are an indigenous ethnic group of semi-nomadic pastoralists who are dependent on their cattle as the primary source of food. They are fierce traditionalists and have resisted and refused to adopt a more modern lifestyle comfortable and fully contented in their rich traditional lifestyle wearing cow-hide sandals and just wrapped with the bright shukas and donned with intricate jewelry.
We proceeded to our cottages at Lewaso village. The place was inaccessible by road. You basically drive around the bushes where every turn and vegetation looks similar until we finally arrived just before dark to a pleasant welcome from the Maasai Morans who were eagerly waiting for us. The Morans here treat the team like their own and they are disarmingly friendly making you feel comfortable on arrival. It felt like coming back home.
Of all the places i have been in Kenya, this is undeniably my favorite place to stay. Not only because it is so remote and far away from everything, it is the serenity, the disengaging hospitality of the locals, and the crisp clear and unpolluted air-the stillness of the night interrupted by the occasional animal sounds. There was nothing out here; just nothingness and vastness of nature and more nature of indescribable beauty. From our dining area, we can see huge elephants tearing the trees away one by one as they trekked to the nearby water hole. And at night, we all hanged around the bonfire and listened to Paul (the owner) play the make shift guitar and sing local songs as well as listen to their beautiful stories. Here you are immersed in the Maasai culture, learn to appreciate their traditions and hierarchy and truly appreciate their sense of togetherness and community. As they shared their traditional stories growing up in a marginalized community, we were drawn into their unfamiliar territory and had a deeper understanding of their cultures and traditions while absorbing the unexplainable beauty.
Paul (Lewaso owner), pointing out the animals to David and Mike Melnick
We watched these elephants everyday just walk outside of our cottage.
The team watching the elephants and other animals atop Lewaso cottages
Since the locals tend to take care of their animals first, the clinic starts late in contrast to our first clinic. By 4.30pm all our patients are gone since they have to walk long distances to get home before the animals start hunting. So we had time to hang out and visit the village where one evening we joined a coming of age ceremony from Moranship to eldership where the graduating Morans live for 3 months getting counseled to be elders.
Maasai women at the waiting room
Dr Pandiri Left Lexy Davidge NP (right)
Maasai society is firmly patriarchal in nature and follows a strict code of rules that are followed by everyone. The Morans had just completed an age group elections and chosen their leader who was going to be king for the next 10 years. They literally have their own system of government. We had the pleasure to meet their new leader who even though he is illiterate was chosen by his age-mates due to his fearlessness and bravely. He had apparently killed 11 lions as a Moran and was considered a fearless leader in a society where courage means everything. We paid homage through an interpreter. I watched the man, he didn't smile, just stared intently like he was trying to read my mind which made me a little uncomfortable. I had heard the stories. If you broke the rules all he has to do is say the word to the warriors and they will hunt you and break your leg. And no one would dare question his orders. But I was assured he was a fair leader who was slow to anger and would never order such an extreme punishment without due diligence.
To celebrate, all the king's age-mates and their families danced and bonded while listening to the elders counsel the younger generations. They ate roasted goat meat and drank their traditional liquor.
Lexy with the new King of the elders
From Left, Adela with the camera, David, Cara, Mike, Amanda & Patty Melnick
Cara & Amanda York (left) Sonaali Pandiri (Right)
You have to admire the comradeship of this community. The Maasai are predominantly happy people who co-exist with brotherly love with tenacious inclusivity where the community means everything. They grow up grazing together in the forests, gets circumcised together and then spend years on Moranship at the forest again as warriors. When they graduate to eldership, they know each other in and out. And this is purposeful and designed to create a harmonious environment. Chinua Achebe said; "When we gather together in the moonlit village ground it is not because of the moon. Every man can see it in his own compound. We come together because it is good for kinsmen to do so" explaining that unlike animals that rubs against the bark of a tree to relieve its itching flank, a man can ask his kinsman to scratch him. These people survive because they have learnt to rely on each other. There are no banks here to give loans. No credit cards. If a family is in dire need, they will borrow a cow from their neighbor which will provide the milk and blood that they need to survive until they are back on their feet. Oh yeah, that's not a typo; the Maasai community do drain cow's blood for consumption. Here there is great pride of community and a sense of belonging. The love of community, of togetherness is the beat of the community's heart. It is powerful and it’s incredible and it’s admirable. Even enviable. And it is tangible too, with every beat of the drum, every move, every jump; coming together as one as the dust rose to the darkening skies. The team watched amazed at how high the the spear wielding ochre soaked Morans could jump.
The Maasai Morans jumping dance
Dr Cara Gardenswatz (Left) Michelle Allchurch NP (right)
Back in the clinic, the team tended to the many sick children often with upper respiratory, eye and skin infections. There was a toddler who had pneumonia and a woman with TB that we started on treatments right away. Monette would later recount how the children were rubbing over her feet believing the color of her skin was a paint.
Dr Lee tending to a toddler riddled with 2nd degree burns from a kitchen accident.
As an orthopedic surgeon, Dr Lee pretty much took care of all our musculoskeletal pains and injuries including wound care and all broken bones. We were so happy to have him.
With lack of space, Dr Cara holds a therapy session inside a van with a translator
Naturally, our pulmonologist Dr Pandiri embraced all the patients who came in with upper respiratory infections including pneumonia and Tuberculosis, and they were plenty due to the bitter cold season. The colder weather had weakened the locals who came in congested and dyspneic. Lucky for us, we had nebulizer treatments ready for the clogged up airways. Michelle, Dr Alfred and Lexy pretty much saw anyone in between. Dr Cara, a psychologist, provided therapy in individual, family and sometimes group therapy. With her kind and empathetic approach, she was able to break barriers and gain trust in these fiercely private communities tending to patients who were suffering from mental illnesses including Tactile Hallucinations and others who suffered from domestic abuse which is rampant here. Cara witnessed the most complex cases and sometimes simple cases with simple fixes like stopping oral contraceptives to get pregnant. Cara
encountered a depressed woman on the verge of loosing her husband because she could not bear him children. As Cara dug deeper into her medical history, she discovered that the poor woman was on oral contraceptives which she religiously took every day. Ofcourse she wasn't going to get pregnant. And the fact that she did not know the purpose of the pills she was taking everyday left Cara shaken.
A typical evening at Lewaso village
We also took time to visit Dr Alfred's homestead where the team got to enter a Manyatta (hut). Its a quick jolt for the people who were here for the first time to fathom a family of 6 sleeping on one small room and all of them sharing a tiny bed with no mattress. And when you start to feel sorry for them, you are taken aback by their sense of inner contentment, resilience and positive attitude.
A family of 6 outside their Manyatta (notice the mom is carrying a child on her back)
On our last night at this magical place, the Morans surprised Adela with a cake for her birthday accompanied by beautiful dances and great food. We sat around the fireplace listening to their mesmerizing music.
Patty Melnick at Lewaso village
Breakfast at Lewaso
As we left Lewaso, we were graced again by elephants, zebras, super tall giraffes and even a humongous rhino that paused from feeding to watch our bus in amusement when we stopped to admire the almost extinct animal. After a few seconds, it decided we were not interesting enough and continued grazing away. What a sight! When it made eye contact, for a moment I thought it was going to charge at David who was standing outside our bus.
David Melnick comforting a little boy
Back in Nairobi, we braced ourselves for Korogocho, a slum on the outskirts of Nairobi city. Korogocho is one of the largest slum and home to 150,000 to 200,000 people pressed into1.5 square kilometers, northeast of the city centre. Here we tended to over a thousand people in one day. Led by local clinicians Dr Edith and Dr Waweru, we teamed up with Dermatologists, Optometrists and other specialty clinicians providing multi-disciplinary care as well as free reading glasses to those in need. The diverse and bigger group of clinicians ensured a smooth flow of patients. It also helped that we still had plenty of medications and supplies.
Amanda with a patient as Hilda watched.....
Finally, it was time for us. Time for an African Safari at the renowned predator plagued Maasai Mara. Here we enjoyed watching the most dangerous African predators hunting their prey in a game of survival for the very very fittest and clever. We encountered elephants & lions mating and cheetahs jumping from trees and watched the deadly Nile crocodiles waiting for the Wildebeest to cross the Mara river.
This is our favorite part of the trip and we all enjoyed the big 5 and hanged all over the Mara plains and even crossed the border to the Serengeti park in Tanzania. It was a cat and mouse story everywhere we looked. We watched a pride of lions hanging out on top of rocks clearing enjoying the reign as the undisputed king with supreme reign of other predators. We watched cheetahs ferociously stake out a wildebeest kill and fail three times. At one time, the hunters became the hunted as the angry wildebeests ganged up and chased the 3 cheetahs away. This was an exciting time to be at the Mara. It was the wildebeest migration season, the greatest mass movement of mammals on earth, where millions of wildebeests and zebras cross the deadly crocodile infested Mara river from Serengeti to Kenya's eco-system. It is undeniably the Greatest animal Show on Earth where every year over a million wildebeest, zebra and antelope migrate clockwise around the Serengeti-Masai Mara ecosystem, taking in two different countries and making time for birthing, courting and mating on the way. The wildebeests migration is also referred to as the Seven New Wonders of the World.
Lucky for us, we crossed the border to Serengeti and had a preshow of the migration where we watched the massive galloping caravans cross the border heading to the the sand river and onwards to the deadly Mara river. If you have never watched the wildebeests migration, it is a spectacular event. These animals will gather around the Mara river; sometimes for days or weeks. And then one brave wildebeest will jump into the waiting crocodiles and in a mad frenzy, the rest of the animals jump across the river. Needless to say, about 250,000 do not make it across the river. Its almost like mass suicide but it is just part of survival for the wildebeests; part of their DNA.
The wildebeests migration
One thing this trip taught me is Spencer, my 6 year old has an amazing grasp of predator knowledge that surprised me. He loves loves the safaris and can't wait to go back to Kenya. Safaris excite him more than Disney. He was pointing out all the different animals with sheer joy. When a Goliath elephant came very close to our van, we all fell backwards screaming; ALL except Spencer who was still standing up staring at the humongous mammal. Dr Pandiri had to quickly grab him as we all cowered on the floor shaken. With the cold season, a lot of animals were laying on top of rocks or on the tarmac which was warmer than the tall grass making it easy for us to see them. Team work is everything here. There were families of hyenas on the road and a lion's family on top of rocks on the hill side while the cheetahs played the field hunting. There were tons of vehicles circling the hunting cheetahs as they got ready to hunt. Naturally, Dr Pandiri being the pulmonologist that she is started worrying about the long term effects of the vehicles exhaust fumes from all the cars surrounding these animals all day long.
This elephant came dangerously close to our van and we had to back away
Dr Pandiri and Sonaali (top) and Spencer (bottom), at the Maasai Mara
At the Serengeti park, there were thousands of wildebeests and zebras slowly grazing their way across the border to Kenya. Judging by their pace and the length of the grass, we thought it would be another week at least before they started migrating. We were disappointed. It is hard to get the timing right; and I had been praying for the group to be braced by the migration that only happens in this hood. Oh well!
Unfortunately, on the way back to Kenya, our van got stuck- we couldn't shake this car trouble away- with the elephants just a hundred yards away. But a random tourists' van stopped to assist and a quick push got us moving again. At the border, the Tanzania Guards accused us of going off the road and threatened our 3 vans with park tickets, yes...they have traffic tickets at the park.... which we really hadn't. Izzo, our very brave driver was fuming and he completely confronted them. They claimed they somehow zoomed through their cameras and saw us go off road and held us back at the gate. In reality, they just wanted “Kitu kidogo”... which means "something small" to make the whole off-road ticket go away. Izzo not only refused to budge, he actually dared them to write the ticket and he will complain to their supervisor for the bribe solicitation. It was impressive to see our young generation standing up to corruption.
And that one inconvenient delay changed everything. Right as we were about to head back, we saw the hundreds of wildebeests galloping away in crazy speeds leaving a trail of dust rising behind them headed to the sand river and then to the deadly Mara river. We couldn't believe how lucky we were. It was spectacular and we were on top of the vans gazing in amazement. Wow..there are people who stake these parks for months just to get a glimpse of this and we had just been to the park for two days and here is the migration. We were blown away as we soaked at the migration excitement.
One of our vans with our amazing driver Izzo
There was not a dull moment here. Jason showed up every evening with a bottle of wine, portable music and great dance moves. He was the life of a party and always had a bright smile and a great laugh. And for the life of me, I never did get to know where he collected all that liquor.
Back in Nairobi, we headed for our last dinner together as a team at the famous carnivore restaurant. I looked around the cheerful table at this amazing group of selfless individuals who had given their time, money, skills but most important, their hearts- and braved through 2 weeks of unfamiliar territories spent with total strangers speaking languages they did not understand. I became very emotional as I watched Lexy proudly award the team with MMK certificates of achievements. They were all smiling, happy to be together and thankful for the culture immersion as they narrated their experiences. Monette with her great sense of humor recounted what each member meant to the group and how she enjoyed getting to know everyone. As we devoured the exotic meats, I felt incredibly and immensely blessed. I was surrounded by love, by incredible people who cared enough to fly all the way to Kenya to provide the much needed health care to these vulnerable communities. They were a part of MMK forever; like family, bonded by our experiences together, forever my friends.
Dinner at the Carnivore, Nairobi
Some of the team members took an optional detour to the beautiful Indian Ocean where we enjoyed the Diani white sands beaches, walking through the beautiful island and riding the Tuk Tuk, a 3 wheeled doorless triangular taxi. Even though our trip was quickly coming to an end, I enjoyed watching Kenya through the team's eyes. Exploring Kenya with MMK is literally going through Kenya through the back door. We live in the communities with the locals enjoying the authenticity and real culture based on mutual trust and respect. We are not tourists, we are not strangers, we are there to help their communities. They open up to us and share their most deepest secrets. It can’t get better than this and the connections created are priceless and lasts forever.
As the year ends and I reflect on the gratitude overflowing from my little joyful heart, I am thanking God for connecting me with these amazing volunteers. I am equally thankful to everyone who supported us through prayers and/or donated to our trip. Through your support, so many lives were touched for the better. I ask that we continue to pray for John and his family as he struggles with organ rejection. I believe in my heart that only good will prevail. I wish all of you a very merry Christmas full of God's love and grace.
Reflected by Millicent Mucheru
Support MMK when you shop on Amazon.
Founded in May 2011, Medical Missions Kenya (MMK), is a registered nonprofit organization with 501c(3) status and is recognized as a public charity by the IRS. MMK mobilizes medical volunteers to lend their services during two-week medical missions to Kenya. MMK was founded to help the people of Kenya by combating hunger, improving health, and promoting health education, one village at a time.