This summer, Sam Eley is working for an NGO in Kenya that is fighting the spread of HIV/AIDS in East Africa. The rising junior, who is from Blue Hill, Maine, has a grant from the Preston Public Interest Fund to fund his summer job. He said he was drawn to the opportunity because he wanted to live and interact with people whose lives were “completely different” than his own. He was also inspired by anthropology professor Scott MacEachern’s class Peoples and Cultures of Africa, which he said piqued his interest in the impacts of NGOs, both negative and positive, in sub-Saharan Africa. Finally, Eley, a biochemistry major who plans to attend medical school, said he wanted to learn how such endemic diseases as tuberculosis, malaria and HIV are confronted in a region with limited capital and resources.
“I think the most valuable thing for me so far has been being candidly exposed to the day-to-day operations of an NGO in a very rural part of a developing country,” Eley said. “I’ve received a very realistic view into the challenges of rural healthcare with limited resources and the many approaches — such as income generation, women’s empowerment, water purification, orphan sponsorship, health education or home-based care — that can be taken to address health issues.”
Bowdoin Daily Sun: What does SOTENI do?
Samuel Eley: SOTENI Kenya is a nongovernmental organization whose goal is to empower communities in rural Kenya to fight the spread of HIV/AIDS. To achieve this goal, they have set up four Villages of Hope. Each village has its own elected local management committee, with a village coordinator appointed by SOTENI, who work together to determine how SOTENI funds will be utilized in the village. Thus, only projects that the community members feel they will benefit from are started, which is extremely important for program sustainability.
BDS: What are your duties this summer?
S.E.: One of the major projects SOTENI runs that I am involved in is a sponsorship program for orphaned and vulnerable children. This program links a donor in the United States with an orphan in Kenya whose remaining family does not have enough income to pay for the child’s education. This allows the child to, hopefully, escape the vicious cycle of poverty that exists in rural Kenya by ultimately providing them with a university education.
I check in on each of the 40 sponsored students in SOTENI’s four Villages of Hope. I meet with them in their homes or at school and ask them all about how school is going, how their health has been, how they’re eating, how their family is doing, the challenges they’re facing and their personal goals. These students have lost one or both of their parents to AIDS and are working so hard to get out of poverty. I’ve been overwhelmed, inspired, crushed and overjoyed while meeting with them. I write a two- or three-page report about each student and send it to SOTENI, which sends the report to the student’s sponsor and also uses the data to follow the progress of each student to ensure no student is in a poor living or educational situation.
The second major project I’m involved in is the AIDS Barefoot Doctors (ABD) program. The ABDs are community members that have received training from SOTENI on HIV prevention, general hygiene, malaria and typhoid prevention, nutrition, income generation, purifying water, HIV stigma reduction, behavior change and other topics. Their role is to take this knowledge and teach other community members how to live healthily and curb the spread of disease and HIV in particular.
I’m gathering information on the history of all of the programs the ABDs have developed and implemented in their communities to determine which ones they feel have had the most success in curbing disease. Additionally, I’ve been accompanying the ABDs to HIV support groups they visit monthly. I’ve had the opportunity to ask the patients about the ABD programs that have been most helpful, as well as gather their suggestions for future programs that would be beneficial. It’s been truly incredible being the link between the United States and the individuals so devastatingly affected by HIV in these little communities. It’s also been a learning opportunity to see the challenges individuals face in Kenya, as well as hear about what they feel will help them most achieve health, happiness and hope. They thank me endlessly, but I feel so grateful to them for having opened their homes and their lives up to me. There is a determination and hope in these villages I haven’t witnessed before.
BDS: What’s the most valuable thing you’ve learned so far?
S.E.: I think the most valuable thing for me so far has been being candidly exposed to the day-to-day operations of an NGO in a very rural part of a developing country. I’ve received a realistic view into the challenges of rural healthcare with limited resources and the many approaches — such as income generation, women’s empowerment, water purification, orphan sponsorship, health education, or home-based care — that can be taken to address health issues. I’ve seen the challenges that arise with language barriers and cultural differences. I’ve participated in writing budget proposals for projects and then rewriting them when resources aren’t available. It’s been a great learning process to see how aid works on the ground, with the people who do it every day. I’ve also witnessed astounding selflessness, perseverance, hope and compassion in people who face a lot of adversity.
BDS: What have been the best moment and most challenging moments for you?
S.E.: My most valuable moment came while I was visiting a sponsored student. Her family lives illegally in a mud hut on government land; her father passed away from HIV; and her mother has no source of income. She is in high school and we were talking about her goals. She wants to become a doctor. I want to become a doctor, too. We talked about medicine and how becoming a doctor gives you the opportunity to help so many other people. Afterward, I thought about our two different roads to becoming a physician. While mine is long and difficult, hers will be, and already has been, so so much more difficult. It made me appreciate the opportunities I’ve had.
I haven’t had a most challenging “moment,” but I’ve had difficulty knowing that in a month I’ll be returning to my healthy family, my home that doesn’t lack food or income and an excellent education. I think I’ve been struggling with the wish that everyone working so hard here could have the same opportunities as I do. I realize there’s very little I can do about that, but it has made me work that much harder while I’m here and already think about when I can return to these people who’ve been so generous and welcoming to me.
BDS: What has surprised you most about your summer so far?
S.E.: I thought I would be a lot more uncomfortable living in a poor, developing country. On the contrary, I’ve been really happy here. The food is different but so good and the people I’ve met are all so happy and genuine and friendly. Driving on the roads is a little scary most of the time and the temperature is scorchingly hot sometimes, but there is so much to love about this place. I can see why people fall in love with East Africa.
BDS: How do you think you’ve been affected by the experience personally?
S.E.: I think if anything, I’ll come away from Africa with a lot more hope than I thought I would. The people I’ve worked with are determined and hardworking, and they have a dream for better health in their families and communities. I think that’s a great combination and the future is bright in these communities. Health awareness is rising, HIV stigma is dropping, babies are being born free of HIV, and disease is being prevented. There’s a lot of work ahead, but it’s not beyond the Kenyans.
BDS: How does this internship fit into your broader goals?
S.E.: I want to become a doctor. I’ve seen how hospitals and surgery and healthcare work in the United States, but I think it’s been valuable for me to get a different, realistic view of the exact same work in a developing country. And I’ve seen that even though the facilities, the equipment and the procedures are different, the same values shape medicine and patient care here as they do in the United States. Medicine is still medicine regardless of the location. There is a massive deficiency in trained physicians in rural western Kenya and I can see that even occasional visits from a physician could be extremely beneficial to the communities here. I would love to return to Africa as a physician, perhaps with Doctors Without Borders, or even make routine trips to assist the nurses and physicians manning the overflowing hospitals and to provide services otherwise only available in distant city hospitals. It would give me a chance to bring a little bit of the opportunity I have available to me in the U.S. back to Africa. I can’t think of a better way to make the most of my good fortune as an American student.
BDS: What past experiences, at Bowdoin or elsewhere, have prepared you for your work at SOTENI?
S.E.: It’s really hard to be totally prepared for work like this in such a different part of the world. I won’t say I was, or am, prepared. To a certain extent, I think my outdoor experience has helped me prepare for the living conditions in rural Africa. I’ve spent a lot of time in the wilderness with the Bowdoin Outing Club and with NOLS (National Outdoor Leadership School). That certainly helped me feel more at home in Kenya, where drinking water is unsafe, electricity is unreliable and running water is rare. Similarly, through my semester of leadership training for the BOC, I learned so much about communication, facing adversity and flexibility, which has been helpful for me in navigating life in a developing country. And I think Bowdoin in general has helped open my mind to new ideas and experiences, which is so important here.