Guy Dickinson - Medicine in Kenya
I am a recently retired general practitioner in England. After retirement, I was keen to work in an African medical environment for two to three months. Before Charing Cross Medical School I was at Reading University reading psychology and two friends from that era, who now live in Nairobi, had kindly arranged for me to work in the Lamu Hospital on the Indian Ocean in Kenya and also at a clinic in a village nearby. Unfortunately it didn’t work out.
I had arrived towards the end of October and was booked to return after a week or so in January (2014). I was therefore suddenly faced with a problem. I searched the internet and found Projects Abroad. Within a very short time I was found a placement at Nakuru at the Al-gadhir clinic and fixed up with a host family. My friends understood and I travelled back to Nairobi where I was met by a Projects Abroad staff member.
I was taken to the centre of town where the ‘matatu' minibuses were (about the size of a small campervan). These are 10 seaters (but can be 14!) and I believe the name derives from the original fare of 3 Kenyan shillings (about 2 British pence). There are hundreds of them. It was a long but interesting drive. The staff members Projects Abroad were always very helpful and supportive!
My Medical Project
My medical placement was at a clinic called The Al-gadhir Clinic quite near the centre of Nakuru, which is a town at about the same geographical altitude as Nairobi and therefore has a very pleasant climate. The Al-gadhir clinic is subsidised by a very philanthropic generous group of Muslims as I understand it. In Lamu the great majority of citizens are Muslim whereas in Nakuru most people are Christian. Nevertheless this group has done wonders for the local population.
Medical care in Kenya is relatively expensive; although the prices in this clinic were reduced it was still a lot of money to the patients. Some patients could not afford much at all and sometimes had to actually choose only one of the prescribed investigations. The clinic had two full time doctors. There were also nurses, a pharmacist, radiographer, oculist, physiotherapist, laboratory staff, clerical staff and security men as well as visiting radiologists and other staff.
Medicine in Kenya is completely different from the UK. The main problems are malaria, typhoid, TB (often with AIDS), brucellosis, dysentery as well as some trauma. Any other medical problem can also present there of course. The clinic is very busy. I found that the doctors are extremely good (but very poorly paid compared to what we are used to).
Language was a problem as I do not speak Swahili. This meant another member of staff had to act as interpreter. It took a short while for me to tune into the local medical problems (being so different) but I was soon coping thanks to willingly given help from the others.
My Host Family
The family I stayed with was very friendly and welcoming. Normally one shares a room with another volunteer, but I was lucky enough to have one to myself. The room itself was very basic, unpainted but adequate. The family consisted of a young mother (Sarolyne) and father (Arthur) with a 6 year old girl (Valerie) and a baby (Chasimba Junior or CJ). There was also a very pleasant lady (Ruth) employed by them (as the parents both worked).
I was well fed but one must be warned that the food is very different - shall we say! It is usually the same. Very often there would be ‘ogali’ which Kenyans describe as their ‘staple food’. It looks like a firm version of mashed potato but is actually made of maize boiled up (and has very little taste). Otherwise we frequently eat goat’s meat and they are also very keen on chapati. They drink tea with 100% milk and several sugars - that is what one gets if tea is requested.
My clothes were washed. The house was fairly basic but clean. Not many Kenyans can afford much more. The family took me to the Lake Nakuru National Park game reserve which was excellent. I paid for everyone, but one must remember they are very poor and I think that is expected (as are contributions to petrol expenses). I also went with them to two traditional Kenyan weddings as well as Christmas with relatives in Nyeri.
I was taken to a bar by Arthur to watch a Liverpool match! Also to another to see a Kenyan band. It was a little alarming to start with to be the only white man (or “mzungu” as they call us) around, but there was never a problem. I was invited to other houses to eat as well. Kenyans generally speak Swahili but also their tribal language as well. Kenyans should, I was told, all speak English too as that is taught as a compulsory subject at school, but somehow this isn’t always the case!
Nakuru is a relatively small town (compared with Nairobi at least). Kenya is a poor country with widespread unemployment. The people are generally very friendly, but because of the unemployment there is a high rate of crime. It is not advised to walk alone at night or even in the day anywhere other than main streets and not with anything that looks valuable when alone. It is quite safe if one follows these rules however. Most properties are well protected with high fences and locked gates.
There was a hotel in the centre of town (The Merica) where volunteers were able to spend time and also use the swimming pool (and Wi-Fi). To avoid walking one could use a “Tuc Tuc” which is a 3 wheeled Piaggio - very cheap but excellent. Several other volunteers worked at orphanages and I joined them one day to help paint one of these. The house I stayed in was opposite a church (one of the very many in Kenya). The music wafting across the road was wonderful with great harmonies and rhythms. Some services seemed to go on for hours! But I didn’t mind.
After finishing my time in Nakuru I returned to Nairobi (by matatu of course). I had enough time to visit the Masai Mara for three days, which was a great experience. Incidentally there are excursions arranged by Projects Abroad to places like this at weekends.
Overall my stay in Nakuru and Kenya was very memorable and worthwhile. I learnt a great deal it is never too late for that! The culture is very different from what we are used to and the poverty is extreme. It opens one’s eyes. It is not all a pleasure ride but, as I say, very worthwhile and a great experience.