Myths of motherhood

Two days ago we were in verdant Kisii, where the bright green tea plantations provide a vivid splash of colour even when the clouds are angry and black (which they frequently are!). It is the wettest and most densely populated area of Kenya.

We are now in Turkana. This is the driest and most sparsely populated area of Kenya. The heat today is a punishing 35 degrees, and this is winter. Last year this region witnessed the worst food crisis in east Africa in more than 60 years.

We’re here to find out more about Merlin’s work in maternal and child health. This morning we visited the maternity ward at Lodwar District Hospital. We weren’t due to be there until 11 but at 10.30 Adan from the local Merlin office came rushing into the compound. He’d received a call from the Merlin midwife; three women who had delivered last night were waiting for us but they wanted to leave – you pay per night for your bed here. Twenty minutes later we were there.

I chatted to Margaret, whose daughter Zamu Zamu was just 16 hours old. She told me how with her first baby she had not been to the clinic until she was seven months pregnant. Instead she’d sought advice from other women. Advice included ‘do not be idle, keep working hard’.

We’re not talking about the kind of work most people reading this blog regard as hard.

A few minutes later I met Lokwawi. She was at the hospital with her baby, born at home prematurely and admitted to hospital weighing just 900 grams (around 2lb). James, another member of the Merlin team, explained that two of the most common causes of premature birth here are overworking and exposure to sunlight.

I thought about the advice that Margaret had received.

Meanwhile Lokwawi will have to return to her community for a complex ritual to rid her of the evil that premature birth has brought into her family.

A vital part of Merlin’s work here is community education to debunk myths. Sometimes on these trips you have to hunt out the compelling stories that bring an NGO’s work to life; sometimes they slap you in the face.


Diary from a story gathering trip to Kenya, part one

I am in Kenya with Ben Langdon for Merlin, the UK’s leading international health charity. Over the next two weeks we’ll be gathering stories for use in future fundraising and media campaigns. We’re travelling with Anna from the Merlin media team who is also blogging from this trip at

Our work starts in Kisii, a busy, bustling, densely populated region in the West of Kenya.

Day one

There is excitement, anticipation and slight trepidation on the first day of the trip. As you drive to the programme office you rarely take in the sights and sounds of the busy streets, streets that are not so much coming to life as seeming to be half way through their day – even at 8am! Observing the world go by comes later, right now you’re preoccupied. This is where all the planning will come to life, or not. On day one you’re still getting over the travel and acclimatising so you have to be easy on yourself, but you also need a quick win to help you find your groove and start the process of peeling away the layers of strategy, targets, interventions and jargon to reveal the lives that have been changed and saved. You don’t necessarily need whistles and bells but you definitely want to start feeling the tingle.

So off we went to meet Elizabeth and Charles. An HIV+ couple who with Merlin’s support have three HIV- children. I’m not going to tell the whole stories here – there are bits and pieces on Twitter from @merlinnews, @benlangdonphoto and me but the detail is Merlin’s to share, not mine. But I will tell you that the family were quite whistles and bells! As Elizabeth cocked her head at the camera and gave a confident gesture that apparently means ‘swagging’ (no idea, sorry!) and her kids gave me thumping high fives as we left I thought, “We’re off”.

Next stop John and his wife Alice, both HIV+. His community health worker is also called Alice. I asked him how Alice helped him. I meant his health worker. He told me how she made sure he wore condoms when they were in bed so they didn’t become reinfected. He was talking about his wife. While John and I talked at crossed purposes his mother in law’s cow was doing her best to spray Ben with a deposit which had she been human we’d have slid an Imodium across the table.

But actually John’s story was remarkable and he was remarkable; when he told us that Merlin was so close to him they were like a Dad to him the tingle went all the way to toes.

It was a good day one.

Day two

Our 7.30 breakfast coincided with a moment in history this morning; as we wandered into the dining room the announcement went out that Obama had been re-elected. Understandably the staff were more interested in the TV than in making our coffee (although to be fair they didn’t really show it!). I like to think that the incessant car horns than accompanied our breakfast were sounding out for Obama – after all, his African roots are a mere 2 hours from where we are working – but maybe it was just the regular rush hour traffic!

First stop today was Iyambe District Hospital, just on the outskirts of Kisii town. It is a small facility with just 12 beds and a bustling out patient service. Dickens from Merlin told me how Merlin helped renovate the hospital and laboratory, provides ongoing and training for staff and supplies HIV drugs and other commodities. There used to 300 patients receiving treatment for HIV and TB, now there is 1000.

Day two is when your knowledge begins to layer and it’s a great feeling. You start to understand the bigger picture. On day one Elizabeth and John spoke of the value of support groups and the counselling they received from community health workers (or Community Link Persons as they’re called here). Today I listened as those health workers – all of whom are HIV+ – told me how they inspire people others to live healthily and give them hope. I also met Maureen, a 25 year old nurse clinician, who is one of those inspiring health workers who you want to put in a clever machine, multiple profusely and distribute to health systems across Africa!

This afternoon’s interview? Well that needs to be written up pretty quickly from memory because I’m not going to be relying on my recording. Did I mess up, press the wrong button, forget to turn the mic on? Thankfully, no. The problem is that the torrential rain on the tin makes the recording almost inaudible. A pod cast in the making it isn’t! The subject of the interview was also at the top of a very steep climb up a muddy track, through the maize plantations. Coming down was not elegant!

We spent the evening with colleagues from the local Merlin team. We ate what seemed like a whole goat and had fascinating conversations about everything from  polygamy in Kenya and the cost of family gatherings when you have 60 brothers and sisters to the fact that last time Obama won the election the Kenyan government gave everyone two days off. I really hope that doesn’t happen again. Or at least not in the next two weeks, it will create havoc with the itinerary!