Straw to Bread

During a 2001 mission trip to Kenya, Lisa Baker (pediatrician) and her husband, Troy Abell (epidemiologist), met a man named Habil Ogola who was a medical technologist volunteering as a translator for a group of doctors on a mission trip in Kenya. After leaving Kenya, they learned that in order to feed his family while he was volunteering, Habil would set up jobs to dig wells and ditches so that he could make enough money to feed his family and volunteer. Habil would wake up at 3am each morning and would work until 7am digging ditches, have the money couriered to his faimly to buy food, and would volunteer to translate at 8am that same morning.

In Kenya, AIDS has wiped out much of the middle generation, so Pastor Habil created Bethlehem Home to take care of 35 orphans and 25 elders who were either too young or too old to care for themselves. They were chosen because they were literally starving to death and would not survive without immediate help.

Bethlehem Home is not an orphanage, but a combination of services provided to the orphans and elders who continue to live in their own homes.  If they move away, they lose their land, which is the only thing of any value that they have.

In January of 2006 an already desperate situation became fatal.  A drought in the horn of Africa left 11 million people on the verge of starvation.  Among them were Pastor Ogola, his family, and the people he cares for—the poorest of the poor.  Three of the orphans died of starvation before the word reached us.

As soon as friends in the U.S. heard about this crisis, they responded.  Help came from all over the United States, because friends told friends about the need.  Money was sent for enough food to keep those 60 people alive until some scattered rains came, providing a meager harvest in August. Last year the drought began to alternate with devastating floods, and the Kenyans were again unable to grow food, so the crisis continued.  At the end of 2006, three months of violence erupted after the national elections, and resources became even scarcer.

Kenya: Children Playing

Even during these immediate and critical needs, the Americans joined Pastor Ogola’s efforts to develop long-term sustainability for this ministry to his community of destitute but willing workers.  The planning has encompassed 5 areas:  water, food and agriculture, education for the orphans, job training and business development, and healthcare.  The meaningful progress is primarily due to two things:  1) The Americans are helping to implement the Africans’ vision, not their own; and 2) Pastor Ogola is an incredibly talented leader with boundless hope that is deeply grounded in his faith.  He was trained as a medical technologist and as a pastor, but his professional training is only a small part of his expertise.  He has unusual administrative gifts which have resulted in a community that has survived because of his practical wisdom.

With a Kenyan leadership team of four other local people working with Pastor Ogola, the project has grown far beyond the accomplishment of providing food and clothing for these people.

  • A large number of people in the very small community of Ouray, Colorado (led by St. John’s Episcopal Church and Ouray Baptist Church) has provided money everysingle month for several years.  These funds are used to buy food and allow for other fundraising to go beyond the immediate crisis toward sustainability.  This Colorado community has given in countless ways since the project’s inception, including sending several people to join the team that goes annually to carry out the work.
  • “Fair trade” baskets made by Pastor Ogola’s community have been marketed in several places in the U.S.
  • Several orphans have finished tailoring school and pharmacy training.
  • Pastor Ogola’s son, Don, began medical school at the University of Nairobi in 2008 and will return to practice medicine in his home community.  A Colorado woman heard that Don had been accepted but lacked the money to pay tuition.  She said, “I have too much.  I understand that the presence of a physician in this part of Kenya could make a difference for generations to come.  I always wanted to go to medical school, but I could not.  I want to pay Don’s way.”  The goal is for friends to go to Don’s graduation and then escort him across the country to open up his new clinic on the Nyakach Plateau.  Recently, a leader at Baylor Hospital in Dallas gave money to buy land for the clinic.
  • A school was started in October, 2010 in a temporary, sheet metal building set up near the large cistern.  It started with 156 children ages three to five who would otherwise not have received an education.  A small amount of tuition is charged so that the main expenses can be paid.  Other grades were added in January, 2011, and the school is now flourishing.  After being open only 8 months, the students placed second on the national exams in their district of 17 schools.
  • Our hope is also to build a community center on family land donated by Pastor Ogola’s oldest son, Robert.   We would also like to build a conference center with lodging that would, among other things, provide a place for the American team to stay nearby instead of commuting for two hours each day.
  • These plans involve not only the construction of the buildings, but also the organization, staffing, and sustainability of the school, the community center, the guest house/conference center, and the clinic.  There has been significant conversation across our two continents about strategy, timing, and accountability.  Obviously, these endeavors reach far beyond these sixty orphans and elders to the wider community in that part of western Kenya.

While this long-term planning has been going on, the elders’ and orphans’ gardens are being improved, the orphans are receiving education and job training, and a reliable water source is being sought.  The ultimate goal for water access may be to dig a well, but the land is on a high and rocky, and it will require professional (and expensive) consultation and drilling.  The best short-term (and perhaps long-term) alternative is to supply water tanks or cisterns to collect rain water.  In 2009, a 20,000 liter tank was built on the Bethlehem Home land.  In 2010 smaller tanks were purchased and installed at twenty-five of the orphans’ and elders’ homes (thatched-roof mud huts).  Thatched roofs with metal ones that would not leak and gutters were installed, forming a system for “rainwater harvesting”.  Now twenty-five water ceramic water filters have been paid for and delivered to take the water purification process to the next level.  In 2011 more tanks and filters were installed, and local people were trained to maintain them.

There are far simpler needs as well—many of the elders and orphans used to sleep on the dirt floors of their homes, and the heavy rains meant that they slept in mud and standing water, a breeding ground for malaria-carrying mosquitoes.  Building some wooden beds was a relatively quick and inexpensive project that an American mission team accomplished with help from locals during the 2009 trip.

The closest clinic is still too far, too crowded, and too costly for the orphans and elders without financial resources.  For the last two years when our team has visited the plateau, we have set up a temporary clinic and have seen between 700 and 850 patients each time.  We use medicines that were donated by Baylor Health Care System in Dallas and supplies purchased with donations, and we have been able to treat malaria, parasites, pneumonia, asthma and allergies, hypertension, skin disease, gastrointestinal illness, urinary tract infections, the chronic pain of arthritis, and the acute pain of injury.