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David's Field Blog: Wajir District Hospital

By David Morley
President and CEO, UNICEF Canada

October 13 - It rained for hours last night – pounding rain on the rooftops that left the ground saturated and the roads in Wajir flooded and muddy.  I suspect the dusty track we drove on for hours yesterday may be well-nigh impassable today. The parking lot at the Wajir District Hospital has turned from a dry dirt field into a lagoon – and in the middle of the festering water is the Hospital’s main well.

People are happy it’s raining, but in this land of extremes the standing water will cause a spike in malaria and cholera, and wet, weak animals can die from pneumonia and the carcasses risk further contamination of the groundwater, too.

This corner of Kenya has been overlooked and lacked investment over the years.  The hospital is a bustling series of cement block bungalows (built, the cornerstone tells us, during the British colonial period in 1944 by “native labourers and Italian Prisoners of War”) with 118 beds, and one doctor. The Head Nurse meets us and explains.  “This is a hardship posting for doctors.” He laughs, ruefully.  “I’m from Wajir, but there aren’t enough incentives for a doctor from Nairobi to come and stay here.  We need to train more local people – the only remedy is a local solution.”

That being said, the hospital struck me as every bit as active as other rural district hospitals I’ve been to in Kenya.  The main infirmities are malaria, pneumonia, TB (there are 60 little TB isolation cabins dotted on the field next to the hospital) and, of course, given the drought, malnutrition.

“We have good nurses and nutritionists here, but without the support of UNICEF we could not function.”  I suspect that is an overstatement – clearly the staff here are dedicated and work hard in difficult circumstances, but the help we give in medical supplies – especially for the malnourished children, clearly makes a huge difference.

With the rain drumming on the tin roofs we walk along sidewalks between the standing water over to the paediatric ward.  I like nutrition centres – they are one of my favourite places.  Even though the malnourished children who come here are in such dire straits, we know how to nurse them back to health.  It is straightforward, simple, effective and cheap.  And as the children get better, they get noisier and start playing – always a happy sound.

But sometimes it isn’t that easy.  Not just because of the logistics and the politics, but because of local culture.  One mother brought her dying baby into the ward, but then, faced with the prospect of her child having to get a tube in his nose – a village elder told her not to – refused treatment.  Safora, from our team, cajoled pleased and bullied.  “Don’t tell me it is God’s will your baby must die.  If that is so, why did you come here?  Didn’t God make these, too?” She points to the oral rehydration solution in the IV bag waiting to be given to the child.

The mother shakes her head.

“What will your husband say?  This is his first child, too.”  The child’s father is a herder, somewhere out in the desert.

“You can make your baby better”, Safora pleads.  “Just give it a try.”

Finally, the mother agrees, and within minutes little Mohammed has the drip in, and he is even trying to breastfeed, too.  Mother and child lie back on the bed, and she is smiling.

It is hard for us to imagine what it means to be in the midst of a drought when so much is dying around us.  It must be so hard to hope, to hope against hope that this hospital can make a child well, can indeed heal the sick.  I don’t know if I would dare hope in this situation.  I don’t know if I would have the courage to come to this hospital – overcrowded and not clean by Canadian standards, but the best hope I had.  So that is another reason why I like Nutrition Centres so much – not only are they wonderful places for children to get well, they are places filled with courage and hope.

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