Transforming Lives

During a two-week trip to Kenya this year, Wheeling physician Dr. John Holloway saw limited medical facilities and observed the life-transforming work of an educational program with roots in West Virginia.

Holloway visited the Rev. Zachary Drennen, an Episcopal Church missionary and priest from West Virginia, who is the founder and director of the Elewana Education Project in western Kenya. Holloway is a vestry member of St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church, Wheeling, which contributes financial support and other resources to Elewana.

Discussing his visit to Africa, Holloway was quick to point out, “I did nothing heroic. The hero is the Rev. Zach Drennen for what he does for the Elewana Education Project.” The nonprofit organization provides scholarships to deserving students to attend secondary school in western Kenya and works with six schools to furnish computers and Internet connectivity.

Kenyan children can attend elementary school for free. However, tuition for the secondary boarding schools is $500 a year, in a land where the average family’s annual income is only $1,200.

By providing scholarships, primarily to girls, the Elewana Education Project gives impoverished youth an education, which leads to opportunities for college and jobs.

“This is why Zach (Drennen) is the hero,” Holloway commented. “It’s the Elewana Education Project that provides scholarships so these kids can go to school who wouldn’t otherwise go.

“The students were clearly good and appreciative of their scholarships,” he said. “Zach’s so passionate about what he does. It’s obviously a very good, worthwhile cause.”

Noting the region’s overwhelming poverty, Holloway said, “To educate a child to get out of that situation is a great investment.”

To see first-hand the impact of a scholarship on a young person, Holloway asked to spend a day at the home of an Elewana-sponsored student. The girl, who has eight siblings, walks to school every day, a distance of about two miles, from her family’s home, which is a series of three grass huts without electric service or running water. In the kitchen area, the family cooks over a wood fire built on rocks. One hut serves as the parents’ bedroom, while the children sleep in another hut.

Painted on the side of one of the buildings is the phrase, “Remember God first.” The visitor observed, “They have a great deal of faith.”

The student’s father, emaciated and with “terribly swollen legs,” is unable to work. The mother supports the family by making bricks, sold for 10 shillings (about 12 cents) apiece. The scholarship covers the girl’s tuition, but her family has to pay for books and a uniform.

Without the Elewana scholarship, “this kid would not be in school. If there’s no school, they’re not doing much,” Holloway related. “He (Drennen) gives these kids a chance to move beyond where they are.”

The Rev. Mark E. Seitz, St. Matthew’s rector and Elewana board member, agreed, saying, “The way to change this world is to get these kids an education.”

Currently, Elewana gives scholarships to 150 students who have to show aptitude and maintain at least a “B” average.

“If you get enough people educated, you change the world,” Seitz commented. An educated person in western Kenya can continue schooling to get an associate degree and learn a skill for jobs other than subsistence farming, the dominant occupation in that region.

“When you get women educated, you change the world,” Seitz added. “An educated woman has two children, instead of seven.”

The nearest town to the Elewana headquarters is Amagoro, located about five miles from the Ugandan border. The main road from Kenya to Uganda passes through Amagoro, with overloaded trucks traveling on six inches of substandard asphalt pavement. Traffic backs up for five miles, and motorists face a 24-hour wait to get into Uganda. During the long waits, truck drivers leave their vehicles and “go off and spread HIV,” the doctor said.

In the countryside, Holloway said, “The poverty was terrific. It was almost as bad to see how the land has been raped.” He added that the air was acrid from people burning trees and objects constantly for heating and cooking purposes. “Trees were going down every day. It struck me how badly the land was being treated,” he said.

The area is “overwhelmingly impoverished,” with no running water, no sewerage systems, limited electricity and “terribly substandard dwellings,” he said.

Yet, the doctor said, “I was overwhelmed with how friendly everyone was.”

On most mornings, Holloway traveled two miles from the mission house to visit the Teso District Hospital, which had one doctor. “She did everything – surgery, orthopedics, pediatrics. I could not come close to do what she did,” he remarked.

The doctor was the only staff member with a stethoscope, and it was not uncommon to have two patients sharing a bed. “They were so limited by lacking the ability to do any testing. They were very limited in a lack of medicines,” he said.

About 100 patients are hospitalized. “There is an ongoing crowd of people to be seen as outpatients,” he said, noting that the district hospital serves people within a radius of 20 miles.

“I had a great admiration for the doctor and the people who work in the hospital and the clinics. They do a tremendous amount with limited resources,” Holloway commented. “They do as well as they can do under the circumstances. Again, the limitations are overwhelming.”

During his stay, Holloway said, “I spent a lot of time going to dispensaries,” visiting eight to 10 clinics in remote villages. As a physician, he said, “There was not much for me to do. Their resources are so limited. There are so few medicines available. They do not have the ability to do lab work.”

He found that medication shelves in the dispensaries were “practically barren.” Typically at a clinic, a shelf for oral antibiotics was empty, although supplies of anti-malarial drugs were pretty good. “They did have a good supply of vaccines from the United Nations,” he said, for diseases such as diphtheria, tetanus, tuberculosis, polio, mumps, measles and rubella.

“There’s no lab work and there’s no medicine – that’s why I couldn’t do much as a doctor,” he said.

Holloway was able to help the medical facilities by distributing stock bottles of antibiotics, blood pressure cuffs and test strips for glucose monitoring that he obtained in the United States.

Amid the poverty, health care workers didn’t wear gloves when treating patients, but that lack wasn’t as dire as it would be in the developed world. “One of the ironies is they don’t have to deal with resistant infections because they don’t have antibiotics that cause resistance,” Holloway commented. “It’s one of the ironies of not having resources.”

Despite the generally limited medical resources of Kenya, he said, “One thing they can treat reasonably well is HIV. There is a partnership between the United States and Kenya. They’re aggressively trying to diagnose HIV.

“HIV incidence is very high over there,” he said. “Treatment is not as sophisticated as ours, but it’s fairly adequate. They can treat it better than other conditions.” Circumcision is being promoted to prevent the spread of HIV, he added.

“Management of HIV patients was pretty good,” he said. Partnerships exist to provide care and management of HIV cases. “They have a pretty good ability to see how people are responding (to treatment). That is good, especially when HIV is such a huge problem over there,” he remarked.

While in Kenya, Holloway spoke to five classes at schools where he was asked to talk about HIV. His last class visit was in front of 1,000 boys.

The Kenyan students knew about HIV transmission and knew the ABCs of HIV prevention: A – Abstinence; B – Be faithful; C – Condoms. “They understood it all and were very comfortable with it,” he said of the subject matter.

The day before his first presentation, he visited an HIV clinic where the last patient of the day was a mother of five children. She and her two youngest children tested positive for HIV; her husband, the children’s father, tested negative.

“She is going to live with HIV … That perspective really resonated with the students,” he said. “Because she got it, her children have to live with it the rest of their lives.

“This woman was a great focal source for the kids,” Holloway related. “She was not faithful – that’s how she got HIV. That was such a tragedy. That was one time when I felt I connected with the kids.”

He acknowledged that the woman might have been raped. “She might not have had a choice. I don’t know,” he said.

Reflecting on his two-week visit to Kenya, Holloway said, “It was a great experience, and I’d like to go back. From a medical perspective, I have a better idea of what to bring and who to contact.”