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From Poverty to Public Health: "Sambaza Wema"

July 16, 2012

Kenyan native, Peter Kithene, is an intern in the communications department here at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Join him here every week as he shares his experiences at the foundation and as the founder of Mama Maria Clinics – an innovative, sustainable healthcare solution for Kenya’s rural poor. In 2007, Peter was named, out of a pool of more than 7,000 applicants from 93 countries, as CNN’s Global Heroes “Medical Marvel” honoree for his work in developing rural healthcare in Africa.

When I was 14, in 1996, I left my rural Kenyan home for a once-in-a-million scholarship opportunity to study at Nairobi’s premiere high school, Starehe Boys Centre. The immensity of the privilege, the importance of that opportunity, and the bone yard of suffering I left behind in my home village pressed on me each day I was there. Every evening we gathered in the assembly hall as a student body to be inspired by our school’s founder about the importance of service above self. Walking into that hall we passed under a wooden plaque that reminded us of the biblical quote, “From those to whom much has been given, much shall be required.”

These words profoundly resonated within me, for the very fact that I was alive, let alone attending this magnificent high school, were truly gifts –and I was overwhelmed with gratitude. I could do anything with my life and this dictum gave shape to my existence.

Years later, while discovering about the Gates Foundation, I learned of this quote’s importance to Mary Gates, and how she shared it with her son Bill. I think what strikes me most about Bill and Melinda Gates is how they have lived this concept more than anyone I have ever heard of. They have committed their very lives to it. I have the greatest admiration and respect for the Foundation and its unrelenting pursuit to make our world a better place for all, especially the world’s most vulnerable.

I am the villager, I am the marginalized, I am the rural poor. I have lived the life of the orphaned child. I watched my parents struggle to raise 10 children against impossible odds.

In 2005, I finally acted on my own mission to rethink how the lives of the poor ought to be – and reshape them in any small way I could. While my journey began long before then, a few months before my 23rd birthday, I started providing affordable, sustainable healthcare to impoverished communities like my own when I created the first Mama Maria Clinic in my home village.

This mission has taken me on a wild ride; one that has somehow brought me here.

It’s my third week as a summer intern here at the Gates foundation. I’m embedded within the communications department, and every single day has been amazing. I’m having a hard time processing the incredible programs, the multiplicity of efforts, and the outstanding people all focused on tackling the same problems I have been obsessed with: extreme poverty and healthcare for the underserved.

It has been life-changing, and more than a little intimidating.

I’ll be honest. I’ve never written a blog. It wasn’t until I got here and I became part of a people and institution that truly understand and want to help people like me, or the boy I was, that I ever considered it. In my short time here I have found a place where my story and my voice not only have value, but mean something in a way they never really have before. And for the first time I can actually see a concrete benefit to sharing my story and point of view in a format like this.

I’ve always known with absolute clarity that because of the opportunities I have been given, it is my duty to be the voice for the people I left behind; those who do not have one. And I must do everything possible to represent them with the dignity, strength, honesty, sincerity, and raw reality that they deserve.

I am the villager, I am the marginalized, I am the rural poor. I have lived the life of the orphaned child. I watched my parents struggle to raise 10 children against impossible odds; watched as undiagnosed disease stole six of their precious children’s lives – my brothers and my sisters – before taking my parents and robbing them of that chance. I am the one left behind to raise three younger siblings, who had to fight to go to grammar school, was told to stop dreaming about silly fantasies and drop out, fish for money, and support his family as duty dictated. I am one who should not be here. Who made it through, above, and then beyond. I am the statistic.

And I am one who cannot stop looking back.

“Every person deserves the chance to live a healthy, productive life.”

These words speak to many people, but possibly no one more than me. Everybody does deserve a chance at life. In my family, four out of ten of us got that chance. I could name each one of those sweet lives – each one who might well be a substantive metric in a report somewhere – who did not. And, not only did I get to live but somehow, through miracles of chance, or God, or a whimsy of nature that I’ll never understand — I’ve ended up here. With the chance, at least for a season, to speak for my siblings, my parents, my countrymen, and people like me all over the world.

I guess in a way this blog is their voice. And my chance to give shape to the hope that I feel is out there for people currently living as I began.

We have a phrase in Swahili, sambaza wema, meaning basically “to spread goodwill … and hope.” The work we do here at the foundation is that hope and, as I continue to learn about it, I look forward to more opportunities to share how this hope intersects with people on a journey that I, especially, understand.

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