Raising funds for MEAK’s medical missions: A camel walk led by Helen Douglas-Dufresne in the Ndoto mountains by Jane H. FurseHelen Douglas-Dufresne is covered with blood. In addition to preparing for our arrival, she has been giving rabies shots to her dogs, Conman, Sensamon and Ndoto, as well as some local dogs. Apparently one of the locals has objected, and blood is oozing from several puncture wounds in her left arm. In what we are to learn is classic Douglas- Dufresne, she shrugs off the angry looking marks and carries on with making sure we’ve found our tents, the outdoor loo, and of course the tea, beer, cashews and biscuits.
We have arrived at this first campsite after a three-hour walk from a landing strip. Our plane from Nairobi was met by Dee Belliere, who with her husband, Mike, founded Medical Education Aid to Kenya (MEAK) 30 years ago. She has come with Shilpa Mawji, a MEAK volunteer who was born in Kenya but happens to be Dee’s neighbor back in Surrey, UK.
Dee, Shilpa and others are just finishing up the latest of several medical missions done each year by MEAK. With no administrative overhead whatsoever, the charity does approximately a dozen of these a year. The purpose of our trip, a walking safari organized by Isabel Wilcox, is to raise funds and awareness of MEAK’s work.
The four of us traveling with her from the United States—Judi Caron, Isabelle Fay, Jennifer Wright and myself—also have been inspired to join the trip by Isabel’s obvious love for this part of the world. It’s sights, sounds and smells Isabel describes as her own Proustian “madeleine.”
This, along with the promise of the scent of “vibrant flowers, the unbelievable vistas, the track of animals on the dry or wet earth, the sounds of the animals, some wild, some domesticated, and the villagers in the distance” sounded like something I wanted to experience. But in retrospect, I realize it was something I needed to experience, to learn what a gift it is to be taken out of my comfort zone.
At this first campsite, where Dee, Shilpa and other MEAK volunteers have been staying for a week, we meet the eighth member of our party. Nargis Kasmani, lives in Nairobi and has been instrumental in facilitating MEAK projects through her work with the Kenya Lyons Club.
We spend the first night in our tents getting acquainted with the sounds of the birds and animals, as well as how vivid the stars in the sky appear this far away from the ambient light of a city. In the distance, we also hear an extremely rare serenade by the Samburu women. They are moved to give thanks for the tiny bit of rain these last few days.
Normally the area should be verdant and in bloom but there has been virtually no rainy season this year. Helen can count on one hand the number of times she’s heard the women sing in this fashion.
Helen should know. For more than 20 years, she’s been living among the Samburu—in the Ndoto and Matthews mountains of Kenya—working with a team of about 20 tribesmen and 65 camels. It will take all the men and half of the camels to carry our food and gear on the six-day trek.
The plan on the first full day of the safari includes a walk to Latakwen, but the first excitement comes at breakfast when Ndoto, one of Helen’s dogs, chases down a dik dik and almost catches it. The tiny deer is bleating in terror and running from Ndoto, who is followed by Helen shouting at the dog to stop. The fact that the dik dik comes close to getting run down by the dog shows how water-starved the animals are.
The lack of rain has driven many of the people to more remote areas in search of water for themselves and their livestock. The drought also has added to the substantial challenges Dee and the MEAK workers face to bring medical care to the region.
On this mission, Dee, Nargis and Shilpa, along with a team of doctors from Nairobi, have worked together to perform sight-restoring surgery on 144 people. Overall, the mission has been successful. Dee regrets that the weather conditions made it harder to get to more people. I have the feeling that Dee ALWAYS feels more can be done—and my suspicions are confirmed at the end of the trip, when we see some of the work the MEAK heart team is doing.
The Bellieres have organized more than 40 of these missions, bringing in medical teams to perform pediatric, cardiac, orthopedic and other procedures at virtually no cost. It is fair to say that they are national heroes in this part of Kenya. Shilpa later confides that in the UK, the Queen has wanted to acknowledge Dee’s service–an honor Dee has turned down because she is uncomfortable being recognized separate and apart from Mike.
By the time we arrive at Latakwen, most of the patients have left the village, except for a beautiful 16 year-old Samburu girl who has stayed behind with her mother and brother. Yesterday, the girl, born with congenital cataracts, was able to see for the first time in her life. As the bandages were removed, Shilpa handed her a mirror. The girl, seeing her beaming reflection in the mirror, began to arrange the beads around her neck. Later, she waved to her brother as his bandages were removed, and he saw his sister for the first time.
So many people—including Helen, Shilpa, Nargis and the medical practitioners who give their time to this mission–come together to make moments like this possible. There are also local team members like Daniel, a Samburu warrior, about age 19, who has spent the last five months riding by camel from village to village, convincing patients to come in. Rita, another local, has been trained as a nurse and now has a year-round position thanks to Isabel’s sponsorship. Today and throughout the mission, Rita is on hand to help with screening and other local health concerns. Often families are reluctant to seek medical help, and it is crucial to have local people like Daniel and Rita make the case that MEAK can be trusted.
As the procession of 30 camels passes by with our gear, we say our goodbyes to Rita, Daniel and the rest of the team. Our trek to the next campsite covers fairly flat, open and dry territory. The terrain has the classic acacia trees and low-growing shrubs. The hornbills circling above, remind me of “Zazu” from “The Lion King.” Social weaver nests hang like ornaments from the branches of several trees.
Lead by Helen’s right-hand man, Lemongas, the Samburu team set up camp as we arrive at a site next to the Milgis lugga, a shallow river that should be swollen by the rains but instead has only a few feeble puddles. The men dig into the sandy bed, producing enough well water for the makeshift shower, the canvas bag raised on a branch within a carefully selected stand of trees.
As they prepare the campsite, we rest on mats in the shade in what becomes our afternoon routine. That first day, I spot two drongos overhead, chasing after a hawk who has veered too close to their nest. The two little birds are scolding the potential predator, who is beating a hasty retreat. Strike one for the little guys.
In the late afternoon before tea, we usually take a short hike. I love to go birding with Helen, and thanks to her I learn to recognize not only the little drongos, but the franklins, white crested shrikes, guinea fowl, and numerous weavers, warblers and starlings.
We’ve also spotted troops of baboons, hyrax– little badger-like creatures who live in the rocks—and several kind of monkeys including an extremely rare De Brazza’s monkey, which reportedly does not exist in this part of Kenya. Helen is over the moon as she records him, barking at us from his tree.
To avoid the heat, the day starts early, around 6 or 7 a.m.. We awaken to the smell of delicious Kenyan coffee and along the route we have a serious breakfast of eggs, bacon and granola.
Each morning we see signs of nocturnal visitors, including leopard prints and porcupines, which Helen’s night camera has caught on tape, mating. The footage answers our scientific interest in the details of the porcupine’s love life. At night we hear other visitors, including monkeys chattering in the trees over head and hyenas growling in the distance—though Helen’s three dogs can hear the hyenas long before we do and set off warning barks. Nothing gets past Ndoto, Sensamon and Conman.
Nothing gets past Helen, either, when it comes to identifying the other living creatures in this part of the world. She can spot at a glance every animal track and tree on the ground, and every bird and constellation in the sky.
You don’t have to be an expert, however, to recognize an elephant trail. The uprooted trees and terrain that look as if they’ve been hit by a locomotive gives us some idea of just how huge they are. Although we don’t actually spot an elephant until the last day’s trek, their obvious presence shows that the “ellies” are starting to feel safe enough to return to this area after years of poaching.
Helen has a trunk full of books about birds, animals and stars, and I have been reading a book of Samburu proverbs. Some concepts seem pretty universal and would fit perfectly well back home. For example, the Samburus hold that “words are no use unless followed by action.” They demonstrate a stunning connection to our surroundings, an understanding that shatters my western-urban-dwelling assumptions about our ability to communicate with animals in nature; in the hierarchy of this world away from “civilization,” humans, birds and animals are on a far closer plain.
One day, as I walk behind Lemongas, a tribal elder and our lead guide, he stops for an exchange of whistles with a honey catcher perched so close to us that I could have touched him. As I watch in total confusion and amazement, Lemongas and the honey catcher whistle back-and-forth. Then the bird flies away. Lemongas turns and resumes walking. Helen, no doubt sees my confusion and explains that the honeycatcher has found a hive and wants Lemongas to retrieve the honey in the hive to share.
“Well what did Lemongas say?” I want to know.
“That he’s busy now,” Helen tells me, “but he promised the bird he would come back later.”
Each day brings a new discovery—as well as local news. One day we come across an all-male “beauty parlor” consisting of young warriors braiding their long hair. Cosimo, a Samburu warrior and a key member of Helen’s team, normally ties back his braids but lets them down one day so we can have a better look.
At a particularly beautiful campsite on a rock slab with pools of water fed by a small stream, we have more company. Samburu women pass nearby to water their animals. For the rest of the day, we can hear them singing in the distance, praying for more rain. They are very beautiful people, extremely slim with closely cropped hair and long necks. They wear colorful garments and large necklaces of brightly colored beads that reminds me of something Yves St. Laurent would have designed in the seventies.
Thanks to Helen’s radio, we get news from the village that Rita, the local nurse, has successfully performed her first cataract procedure—a development that brings the hope that in the future more people can get this surgery without having to wait for the next eye mission.
Our Samburu team picks up the most dramatic local report on the trail: a six year old boy has the gift of prophecy. The child has received visitations—visions—of an old warrior with clouds around his head, who tells the boy things he otherwise could not have known. The child then has confronted an elder and accused him of eating an entire goat when he was warrior age—something no well-meaning member of this tribal culture would ever do. The elder, terrified, admits the boy is right—though the incident happened long before the boy was born.
Each day we witness the growing excitement as Helen translates from Swahili the latest updates about the boy. Whether or not the tales about him are real, it’s exciting to see the Samburu filled with the energy and hope of this prodigy. One night, after supper, the eight of us are sitting around the campfire, watching the stars come out as usual. But on this particular night, on the Saiyer lugga, the Samburu sing in what I call the “call-and-response style,” showing they are aware of their fellows. Yet they seem to be losing themselves in the song, and though I don’t think they care whether we are there or not, I feel very privileged to witness this.
We spend a last, glorious night under the stars at Helen’s open air house atop a hill with a panoramic view of the Ndoto mountains. After a bittersweet farewell breakfast, we return to the airstrip to rejoin our trusty pilots, Hamish and Charlie. They are taking us to Sirikoi, a magnificent tented lodge in Lewa, a game preserve south of here.
We are also traveling with Mariya, a six-year old heart patient and his very tense mother. Dee swings into action, showing Hamish and Charlie the little boys clubbed fingers (a sign of heart disease) and ordering the pilots to stay at very low altitude. Too much change in air pressure could be fatal, and after her stern warning, they fly so low I think I can hear tree branches brushing the bottom on the plane back.
The next few days are spent luxuriating at Sirikoi. The lodge is owned by Sue and Willie Roberts, who show their appreciation for MEAK by opening their beautiful lodge for us before the season starts. It sits on a magnificent game preserve populated with zebras, lions, giraffes, elephants, black and white rhinos—as well as Sheba, an orphaned cheetah so tame she wanders around the lodge like an overgrown house cat.
As we return to Nairobi, we are privileged to see more of MEAK’s work at Kenyatta Hospital, including an open-heart surgery performed by the medical team from Bristol, UK, which Dee and Mike have organized. The patient, a tiny 12-year-old girl who looks more like age six. It is deeply moving to see first-hand how professional and respectful the team is, how the surgeon pauses for long enough to look every individual member of the surgical team in the eye before they begin. They acknowledge by this sacred moment the life they now have in their hands—and the challenge they face. An overhead lamp has gone out, and the oscillating saw they would normally use to open the child’s chest has broken, forcing the surgeon to use more primitive tools. In the end, the surgery takes seven hours.
Meanwhile, we have the chance to see the smiling faces of Mariya, the little boy who came with us on the plane, and his mother. His operation has gone extremely well, and they are set to return back to their village in a few days. The gratitude is written on their faces. It’s a familiar expression I see on so many of the patients MEAK has helped, and I feel grateful as well, to have had the chance to bear witness to this work.
There is a Jewish saying that to save one life means to save the world, and as I look at the face of that little boy’s mother, I have no doubt she would agree.