There is a fundamental if somewhat less headline-grabbing element to improving healthcare for Africa’s rural poor that isn’t much talked about: tolerance and social equality. Growing up in a family situated squarely at the bottom of the village social-economic
ladder, I have known the trials due to not only the lack of available healthcare, but from a lack of tolerance, systems, and accountability; things that lead beyond the physical symptoms of pain and suffering and death, but which are no less devastating.
Deeply embedded in the complexity of the rural village are stories of people most of us will never meet, let alone know to champion for. I’d like to introduce two of them.
Auma and Atieno are six and eight years old. Their delicate pink-ivory skin is covered head-to-toe in scars and scabs in various stages of sepsis (the complication from a bacterial infection) or healing. They are two of eight children, and have loving, devoted
parents, and they are albino. As such, most of their family lives a country away from Kenya in Tanzania. The girls cannot live with their family because in Tanzania they are hunted for their body parts. Albinos are a hot market “commodity” where they come
from. They come from a land where witch doctors have convinced the black market that albino arms and legs, and heads and tongues, are worth serious money. They are sold as magical talismans because people believe they will make them rich and prosperous.
Auma and Atieno live in Muhuru Bay, just down the road from my flagship clinic,
Mama Maria—the first clinic I founded in the region of Kenya where I grew up. A couple of years ago, under the cover of a black African night, their father sneaked them over the border to stay with an aunt
and her family. Now, each parent takes walks to Kenya every other week, while the remaining parent stays with the other children at the family’s homestead.
It’s emotionally brutal to watch these quiet little girls suffer from the effects of their condition. Not just socially, though that’s hard enough. To be so markedly different and misunderstood in an area where such things define your status in life makes
them live in near isolation. They don’t play with other children, or go to the market – let alone school – to avoid ridicule and because they are so often ill.
Worse, though, are the physical effects of the African sun beating down on their completely unpigmented skin, causing blisters, then open wounds, then sepsis, and then, if left untreated, gangrene; over and over and over again. Before seeking care at Mama
Maria Clinics, they literally had no protection from the sun – certainly not proper clothing or hats, let alone sunscreen.
When the girls arrive at our clinic for the first time, they are covered in gangrene. They are shy and extremely introverted, and their mother is exhausted. Their hair is missing in patches, their eyes swollen, they are clearly in tons of pain – but they
seem totally accustomed to this state.
We treat their wounds though this will only do so much, as every time they are exposed to the sun (which, living on the equator, is pretty much every day), they will blister again and again. And each time a blister breaks, in an area as rife with germs and
infection as this part of the world, they nearly instantly get infected. If they’re lucky, the blisters scab. But then they itch. And the kids scratch. Either way, without treatment, infection inevitably worsens until the wound is gangrenous. What’s worse,
skin cancer is the nearly inevitable future for girls like these.
In addition to antibiotics and regular treatment, then, Mama Maria provides sunscreen and UV protective clothing for the girls. Atieno and Auma are amazing, alert, sweet and gentle little girls. They and their family are doing a miraculous job at overcoming
And they are in every way the unsung heroes of Mama Maria Clinics. They are the reason we operate, and among the humble lives we are blessed to touch, and hopefully, change.
There are countless stories of brilliant, silent, suffering people – the “marginalized among the marginalized” – whose lives are set at unfathomable odds most of us will never even know to champion for. Their stories and the hope of what their lives
can be are what drive me to do what I do, and I am grateful for any opportunity to bring their existence to light.