Cutting the Ribbon: The New Health Center

On a bright, cool day seven years after Straw to Bread teams began coming to the Nyakach Plateau in Kenya, the Bethlehem Home Hospital was officially opened. The festivities began on African time, scheduled at 9:00, beginning at 11:30.  Several hundred people gathered under striped tents usually present for funerals, but that day dressed for celebration instead of mourning.  Dignitaries gathered on the broad front porch of the new brick building sitting adjacent to the first BH structure, the simple blue shed that remains as the site of quick lunches, long prayers, and healing views of Lake Victoria.   Mama Faith was radiant in a red dress, another woman proudly wore the Kenyan flag, and coats and ties stayed on during the day regardless of the heat.  Laughter and singing floated over the fence as the schoolchildren rehearsed their dances.  Their music mingled with the smells of freshly rolled chapati, barbequed goat and bull, and newly harvested pineapple, prepared through the night by gracious, exhausted women.

 Small buses called mutatus arrived, each emptying out an astonishing number of people from far away.  The MP (member of Parliament) arrived and was cheered as the champion of invisible people.  He is a hometown boy who campaigned on an anti-corruption platform and was repaid by the murder of his parents two weeks later.  He had broken ground for the hospital less than a year ago, and he unveiled with a flourish the brass plaque on this new building that was opening its doors less than a year later.  The Governor was unavailable due to national holiday celebrations elsewhere, so the two goats that were to have been his gift continued to graze on familiar grass under the tree by the entrance, oblivious to their narrow escape from becoming dinner.

Speeches were given, painstakingly prepared, their length in direct proportion to the great significance of the occasion.  Our friend Cephas, the BH administrator, told the story.  Pastor Habil told the story.  Mama Lisa told the story.  Cephas reminisced about the community back when orphans and elders were fending for themselves and dying.  Habil, like a bard, told about the birth of Bethlehem Home, a forgotten place named after a forgotten place, both touched by God.  Lisa talked about the children who had been brought up there–not only the orphans, but also the American students who had been spiritually born and raised on the plateau.  They were taught to farm by Charles and to be physicians by patients who offered up their bodies for whatever help and learning could be had.  The elders taught the Americans how to be grateful and how to dance.   The children taught them how to play with true joy in the moment.  Jake preached his first sermon on the shores of Homa Bay.  Audrey would never be on her way to becoming an expert on parasitic infections if she had not born witness to stoic children whose meager meals feed intestinal worms.  Nick served for the first time as a Real Doctor a few months ago in the unfinished Bethlehem Home Hospital.

The next generation is emerging, and they are led in Kenya by Dr. Don Ogola, newly minted M.D. from the University of Nairobi, who is coming home to serve the
people he loves best in the world, thanks to a woman who said, “I have too much” and wanted to share.   Because of years of fundraising dinners in the mountain town of Ouray, Colorado, Erik is a licensed pharmacist among people who took him in when he was an orphan.  The celebration was as it should be–the older people were bursting with pride, and the younger ones were overwhelmed by gratitude.

The schoolboys danced.  The girls danced.  The elders danced.  The MP danced.  And everyone, everyone smiled.  Don received his first stethoscope, Erik his first leather briefcase.  Pictures and speeches, speeches and more pictures.  Moses, the builder of the hospital, beamed at the newest addition to a community otherwise distinguished by its preponderance of mud huts.

The Dimskis, dreamers and doers, brought a multitude of good wishes from all of you who were there only in spirit.  We all gazed at the large container sitting on the edge of the plateau, leveled by the careful placement of boulders, that was soon to find itself serving as the new business office.  That huge box, with its precious cargo of hospital beds, blood pressure cuffs, chairs, incubator, and other riches, had made its long, uncertain journey across land and sea from Baylor Hospital in Dallas to the crest of the Nyakach Plateau.  No mother who anxiously watches the progress of her child could be more diligent than Pam Dimski, who climbed through mountains of international bureaucracy and cost to guide that cherished crate to its new home.  Don Sewell, who daily puts faith into action, provided the contents, many of which were strange to their new owners.  Not all of the supplies will be used at first (the kits for brain surgery were stashed behind the bandages and diabetic strips), but the baby warmer will save lives immediately, and the ECG machine will announce what would have been silent disease.

The pale yellow walls and light tile floor of the new building, the huge windows and the views of the mountains and lake–all of it spoke of

calm energy as we toured it for the first time. Bob Dimski wandered through this lovely building that he had dreamed up and then turned into bricks and mortar, and he said very little.  Speechlessness from Bob could only mean one thing that day–he was dazzled.  You can imagine our delight when we turned on the faucets and flushed the toilets inside the hospital with water piped in from deep in the earth.  The well–where could we go to see this magical hole that is now changing lives?  We saw a small concrete pad behind the school with a homemade sheet-metal cover over a two-foot-high pump.  One would never know that this modest structure now pumps life and hope to hundreds of people.  The large tank sitting above the school declares that not just bad things happen to good people.  The nearby plot of land can also drink that water, and food for the orphans will be dependable.

A trip to the Bethlehem Home Academy library (“Lindsay’s Library) meant now sharing the space with 5000 books, most of which were stowaways on board with the medical equipment.  They pack the shelves and are treated as rare museum objects.  The next step is to make space for tables and chairs so that the books can wander among readers.  The schoolteachers are being paid consistently now, unusual in Kenya, where 80% of the GNP goes to the national government and unemployment is at an all-time high.  The excellence of our school, with its sheet-metal buildings and dirt floors, is now drawing students who have parents who want to pay for their children to go where students place first in the district on national exams.  When asked what they currently needed for the school, the teachers did not request computers or science labs.  They asked if windows could be cut into the sheet-metal classrooms to provide some cross-ventilation.  Maybe a hole could be cut into the roof of the small room where women cook lunch over a wood fire every day for the students?  These are the dreams of teachers who are grateful to have a job and who are producing students who not only learn, but who laugh. A meeting about Mothers on the Move was interrupted now and then by chuckles from a baby in attendance whose mother delivered him using MOM’s transportation and who is now enthusiastically serving on the committee.  Everywhere we heard from mothers who had delivered their babies in health facilities because of Mothers on the Move.  Because Jolene’s well-researched project has been wholly embraced by the women on the plateau, it is working.  Due to the diligence of the MP, there are now two new roads crossing and climbing the plateau.  MOM’s leaders believe that it is now time to take the momentous step of hiring a car to transport laboring mothers with their toddlers to the clinic instead of depending on piki-pikis (motorcycles) to carry them–not a hard sell.  With Baylor students telling the story and selling handcrafts made by mothers who were transported by MOM, the funding for the more expensive car rides will be there.

Three days on the plateau.  Countless gifts. We left with a sense that “God is at work in you, both to will and to do his good pleasure.”  Transformation was all around us, and it was born of more than American money and Kenyan hard work.  People can build buildings, harvest crops, find water.  But it is God who leads us into mature empathy and redemptive forgiveness when we stumble.  Thriving young people on both sides of the globe are the promise of things hoped for, the evidence of things unseen.  The Woods, the Allens, the Dimskis, the Hoys, and many others of you who have been touched somehow by this community…have been generous beyond our imagination in your investment of resources, time, and encouragement and in the gift of your children.  You are laborers together with God, who has taken your offerings with joy and has multiplied them into the loaves and fishes needed right now in this place: a hospital and a sustaining relationship between rich and poor, against all odds.

It was indeed a grand celebration last week on the plateau.  The map for the next chapter is sketchy.  But that, too, is a gift.  It is good to be aware that this story has unfolded in the fullness of time and will continue to become clear when it needs to be.  I am certain that there are inevitable barriers ahead, because we live in a broken world and because pain is the companion of life.   In this moment, however, we can enjoy the delight of completion, of blooming, of making all things new.