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Life Arts    H3'ed 2/18/09

Building A Promise

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Everyone loves stories.  I know I do.  I particularly like Dick Gordon’s The Story, on NPR.  He chooses really interesting guests, is laid-back, and knows how to listen, all stellar qualities in an interviewer. I’ve written about his programs before and again, I couldn’t resist.

I don’t usually catch The Story in real time.  But, having an IPod has freed me of that constraint. This past weekend, I listened while I walked at the track. It made the time fly and, once again, I learned something along the way.

The program was Building A Promise, Milton Ochieng’s story. I am happy to give you the broad outline. But, to do it justice, I highly recommend that you let him speak for himself.

Milton grew up in Lwala, a small village in rural Kenya, where his parents were both educators.  When Milton was a teenager, the mother of his friend Ben went into labor and needed emergency medical treatment.  The nearest facility was many kilometers  away.  Ten young men were recruited to alternate pushing her in a wheelbarrow along the unpaved roads.  Their attempt to reach help in time proved futile;  Ben’s mother and her unborn baby died along the way.  The bedraggled and dispirited group returned to the village the next morning, her body still in the wheelbarrow.

This sight haunted Milton, who was angered by the basic unfairness of a medical system literally out of reach.  What had happened prompted many heartfelt conversations with his mom and dad. Understanding and sharing his pain, his parents encouraged his desire to become a doctor and build a clinic so that his village would have access to medical care.

Milton was later accepted to Dartmouth, with a full scholarship. But, he lacked the $900 to buy a plane ticket to get there, throwing the whole enterprise into question.  His father immediately sent out an appeal to his clan. In Lwala, kinship bonds are still very strong.  Children belong to the community, and in turn, feel a responsibility to the community that has nurtured them.  They responded whole-heartedly, selling corn from their fields, even their chickens, cows and goats, in order to make Milton’s further education possible. Their only request was that he not forget them, when he got to America. Milton was determined to realize his potential, first as an undergraduate, and later, at Vanderbilt medical school.  

In the meantime, the dream of a health center for his village never dimmed.  On top of the rigorous course load, Milton made plans and raised money for the project.  Several years passed. After he finished his second year of medical school, the clinic finally opened.  People often lined up outside by 6 A.M.  By 2:30 one afternoon, Milton and the rest of the team were exhausted and hadn’t yet had a chance to grab breakfast.  They went outside to notify those still waiting to be seen. The villagers pointed to a very pregnant woman, clearly in need of help.  “Just see her and then close for the day!” they requested.

Breakfast postponed a little longer, they escorted the woman inside.  She was already in labor.  This was daunting! Milton had never done a breech delivery before.  In a stroke of incredible luck, an American volunteer whipped out her cell phone and called her mother, an obstetrician, who walked Milton through the birth.  Thankfully, all went well.  In perfect symmetry, this healthy newborn was the child of Milton’s friend, Ben, whose mother had died in that wheelbarrow, all those years ago.  Her death had propelled Milton toward the building of the clinic, his medical training, and this moment.

This facility has changed the lives and fortunes of Lwala and the surrounding villages.  Currently, it provides care for 1,500 patients each month.  60% of them are children under the age of five.  Most of the rest are pregnant women and the elderly.  They and the children, as well as patients with TB and HIV/AIDS, are all treated without charge. Milton’s parents sickened and died before the clinic was opened.  It has been named the Ochieng Memorial Lwala Community Health Center in their honor.

The health center “helps to empower the people of Lwala – to provide jobs, training, education, and improved health that will make the future brighter for all of Lwala.”

Thomas Edison once said, “If we all did the things we are capable of doing, we would literally astound ourselves.” This story is a glorious illustration of this philosophy.


A documentary, Sons of Lwala, was made about Milton and the building of the clinic.  
Learn more here.

Read more about the Ochieng Memorial Lwala Community Health Center. Tax-deductible donations are most welcome.

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Joan Brunwasser is a co-founder of Citizens for Election Reform (CER) which since 2005 existed for the sole purpose of raising the public awareness of the critical need for election reform. Our goal: to restore fair, accurate, transparent, secure elections where votes are cast in private and counted in public. Because the problems with electronic (computerized) voting systems include a lack of (more...)

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