Tuesday, June 8, 2010

A Turn of Events in Africa

In 2005, I was asked to join a humanitarian trip to Kenya, Africa. Our plan was to build a playground, paint classrooms and dress up as clowns to spread good cheer among orphans at the Caroline Wambui Mungai orphange outside of Nairobi.

I was bringing hundreds of pairs of Crocs shoes with me to give to the orphans and the Masai Mara National Park villagers. Crocs had been kind enough to make the donation and I was able to get them through customs and into the country. The shoes were perfect for Africa: durable, waterproof and fun with bright colors! The first distribution went so well that the Crocs company subsequently donated over half a million pairs of shoes to the organization I was working with. It`s been extremely inspiring to see these shoes being useful all over the world and I feel honored to have been a part of it.

Looking back on the Kenya trip, it`s interesting how my focus was originally to bring Crocs shoes to Africa. What ended up being my mission, in the end, saved a child`s life and taught me some deep lessons in the power of compassion and tenacity.

Whenever I go to an orphanage, I meet all the children to get a feel for their general well-being. When we arrived at the CWMF orphanage, there was one child who was laying in a crib in his own feces and urine. He looked to be about 2-3 years old with these big, somber eyes that were trying to reach out for help. I asked one of the staff what was going on. He explained the 5 year old child was going to die. “Zachariah has HIV and is very sick.” The orphanage had written him off as just another of the millions of HIV/AIDS casualties. We saw a little boy that deserved a chance at life.

Zach was extremely weak and could barely keep his head up. There was not much time before he would pass. We knew Africa had government sponsored HIV medication and if we could get him into a hospital he could have a chance at life. I learned very quickly that Africa is a triage country. The masses of sick people are overwhelming and if you have HIV you are written off. The private hospitals would not take him. It was a frustrating experience. We were finally able to get him into the Kenyatta public hospital of Nairobi. Once a shining proud structure of hope for Nairobi, the hospital was now a decrepit and dark center for disease with an overwhelmed staff.

I clearly remember, walking into the children`s ward and feeling the heaviness in the air. It was as if there wasn`t enough oxygen to sustain all the children in the space. The capacity of the ward was 40, but there were 120 children crammed into that ward. Three bodies to a crib with whole families living underneath them. I had never seen a space that small with so much suffering. Children crying, parents praying, and the smell… I looked over at a side room where there was a dead baby laying on a table. This is the point that you tap to an inner strength to keep your focus and will. It might be easier to shut down and run, but we were there for Zach.

When we found Zach, he was on an IV, but was bleeding out from it. He would have died that night if we hadn`t caught it. I asked the doctor if he could help the child. In an instant, I saw what this man deals with on a day to day basis. He said, “What can I do? I can`t help all these children. Some, if not most will die. I am one doctor with two nurses for 120 children. We are tired and cannot help everyone.” The empathy I had for him hit deep in my gut. Here was a doctor who had to deal in some of the worst conditions I had seen in my life. He is not provided the tools and support to do his job, yet he still comes in day after day to try and make a difference. In my eyes, this man is a true hero of humanity. After promising that we would have our child out within a day this doctor tended to the IV and Zach made it through the night…

The next day, I focused on an administrative solution to get Zach out of the bed he was sharing with two other children and into private/semi-private care. This involved having to run up and down eleven flights of stairs dealing with bureaucracies of third world medical care. Most of the staffers would ask why help this one child. What was the point? As my friend Michelle had said to me, “If I can save one child`s life, I`ve made a difference.” This quote kept on ringing through my head. It became my mantra for the day.

That afternoon, I found myself sitting across the table from a man who was in a position of authority at the hospital. He was in a secluded area with his own office away from the general chaos. I explained to him that we had a child close to death who needed attention. All I wanted was to understand what their process was in order to get the child into specialized care. I wanted to work under their systems and under their protocol. He looked at me, paused and said that he had the power. I knew what was coming next, and sure enough he said, “Do you have $160 US dollars?” I responded, “If I give you $160 US will you guarantee and allow me to escort this child to a private or semi-private room where he can get the attention he needs?” He said, “I will make it happen.”

What went down next was almost surreal. I remember counting out the money from my pocket, sliding it across the desk, leaving the office and being escorted up to a private ward for paperwork. Next thing I knew, I was back in the children`s ward getting Zach and bringing him to a world away from the chaos of the past few days. Zach could hardly move, but I felt that he understood what was happening at that moment in time. There was hope for a future.

It is hard to put into words the feeling of relief when I saw Zach in his own crib with a nurse tending to him. He had not smiled the entire time, but I saw a hint of one when he was getting the attention he deserved. I left the hospital that day proud that Zach was being given a fair chance at life.

Our team had to leave the orphanage and Nairobi. Before we left Africa, we received word that Zach had made it and was diagnosed with a chest infection and dehydration. I was blown away! Things that are so commonly treated at home, would have ended this little boy`s life if left untreated. I am deeply touched to know that Zach received the care he needed and ended up with a chance at life.

In the moment, I did what I had to in order to get Zach needed care. This is but one experience among many that has opened my eyes to how anyone can make a difference in this world. I`ve told people that you don`t have to go to third world countries to make an impact. You can make a difference in your home community. Choose something that speaks to your heart and seek out a fundraiser or some supportive event. Your presence alone will make a difference.

Five years have passed since these events. I received an email from my friend, Korina a few months ago. She was back at the CWMF orphanage and said Zach is thriving as a ten year old boy. He is a complete goofball and still has those big beautiful eyes. His eyes are now filled with hope, rather than the sorrow of five years ago…

Thank You,

I would like to thank all the people that were on the Africa trip. Michelle Campbell and Kelly Lee were the coordinators and my partners in compassion for this child. I met so many great people on the trip and we continue to do humanitarian work together in other countries.


  1. I read this at the perfect moment. I am having a benefit tonight at my house for Relay for Life. The walk is tomorrow and I didn't feel I did enough. So... I am going to be teaching classes 5-9 from my home to raise money ... my girlfriend's daughter has a brain tumor. It would be easier to shut down as a mother of a child the same age it hits home...tonight is for Kathleen.... thank you for the inspitation Yoshi Liz Berry Brancaleone

  2. Helping take care of Zach was one of the most meaningful experiences of my life. My perspective on what is important in life changed quite a bit after holding a dying child in my arms. A little love,time,perseverance and tiny bit of money goes a long long way.
    Thank you Brother Yoshi for posting...

  3. xoxoxox, this is wonderful...
    The Universe is bigger than us all.