This was my third trip to the African continent in 6 months. I had spent a scant 30 hours in Cairo and an all too brief 10 days in Cape Town earlier in the year, but those places were not the Africa I had envisioned as a child. Sitting on the front porch of Jane Newman’s home in Karen, a suburb of Nairobi and watching the sunset over the Ngong Hills was certainly the Africa that I had seen in my mind. Jane is the founder and director of the Thorn Tree Project. She lives in Kenya half the year working with the Samburu people of northern Kenya to help them to improve their lives by providing education for their children. When Jane started the program in 2001 only 130 children attended primary school, today more than 1100 children attend primary school and 400 more attend preschools, all funded by the Thorn Tree Project. An additional initiative added in 2006 funds over 100 students to attend secondary school. These programs are making a measurable impact in the quality of life for the people of this very poor and marginalized area of Africa. It is inspirational to see what one person (well, one very smart, resourceful and determined person) can accomplish. Jane is also very generous and insisted we (myself and my husband Chris) stay with her in Karen and also spend a few days being totally pampered at her home on Lamu island. We are forever grateful to Jane for her for her kindness, support and generosity during our time in Kenya.
Driving into downtown Nairobi the next morning I was struck by the rutted paths carved into the red earth along the side of the road from the constant shuffle of foot traffic. We drove past Kibera which is the second largest urban slum in Africa. Most of it’s 2 million residents are extremely poor and lack most basic services including electricity and running water.
We were meeting with Fred Odhiambo of KETCA, the Kenya Tobacco Control Alliance. He gave us a bit of background information about cancer care in Kenya. Cancer awareness and education is minimal here and most people are diagnosed in the later stages of the disease. In Kenya, as in other countries with limited awareness, there is a heavy stigma surrounding cancer. There are very few facilities for diagnosis and treatment and no specialized oncology hospitals. Those with financial means leave the country to receive treatment, but for most a diagnosis of cancer is a death sentence. Fred was kind enough to arrange for us to meet with two women who were undergoing treatment.
When Rosemary Okeyo first learned she had breast cancer she considered it a death sentence and refused all treatment. She was 47, married with 5 daughters and 1 grand daughter. Her sister-in-law convinced her to have a mastectomy and to start chemotherapy. When I met her in Nairobi she had just come from Kenyatta hospital where she had her blood tested before deciding to continue treatment with a third round of chemo. She didn’t think it was worth it, that she was going to die anyway. I told her my story. She didn’t believe that it was possible, everyone she has ever known who has had cancer has died. I was the first cancer survivor she ever met. She also had no idea that mastectomy bras or breast prostheses even existed. I had brought 50 bras and 25 prostheses with me to donate to the Tanzania Breast Cancer Foundation. We had moved into a hotel in downtown Nairobi for a few days, so I brought Rosemary up to our room and helped fit her with 2 bras and a prosthesis. The sad, defeated woman that I had met just a half hour before was gone, replaced by a dancing, singing and smiling Rosemary. A woman with a renewed spirit and a will to fight to survive, because now she knew people do survive cancer. I couldn’t stop smiling for the next 24 hours. I’m not sure which one of us was happier, and it doesn’t really matter. It was a really good day.
We were introduced to Stella at St. Mary’s Mission Hospital which is located on the edge of Kibera. When we met her last January, Stella was 43 years old and had been battling stage 3 breast cancer since 2008. She is the single parent of a 15 year old boy. She has had multiple surgeries, chemotherapy treatments and radiation, but the cancer always returns. She has exhausted whatever money she had, and now relies on donations to pay for her treatments. When we met her she had been in the hospital for 2 weeks receiving chemo and had one more week to go in this round of treatment. Her son was away at boarding school (a relative pays his way). She hid her illness from him until recently when she finally told him the truth because she was not sure how much time she had left.