Why Missionaries’ Health, Education Apostolate is an Oasis for a Kenyan Marginalized Tribe

Nasaltuko Dispensary.
Credit: ACI Africa.

Br. Sebastian Oteng’ele, a nurse at Tangulbei Divisional Medical Programme (TDMP), remembers several instances seven years ago when he was presented with very sick patients, some on the verge of death, at the Clinic that members of the Congregation of the Holy Spirit (Spiritans) oversee within Kenya’s Diocese of Nakuru.

The Kenyan-born member of the Brothers of St. Joseph (BSJ) had just joined the clinic where he encountered the Pokot, a nomadic tribe in Kenya, which only believed in traditional medicine.

Br. Sebastian told ACI Africa that patients were only brought to the medical facility after all traditional ways of treatment failed.

“There were times that people brought in patients with blood smeared all over their bodies. Sometimes, a pregnant woman who had trouble giving birth would be brought to the Clinic with fresh animal intestines wrapped on her neck and wrists. The people performed their rituals before deciding to bring any of their patients to the hospital,” Br. Sebastian said.

Br. Sebastian in black

Most of the time, patients were delayed at home during the traditional medical interventions and when they were eventually brought to the clinic, it would be too late. Many of them died before they were treated.

Over the years that Br. Sebastian has worked on the medical program, which serves over 14,000 people drawn from the vast settlement area, he has seen the Pokot become increasingly open to treatment at the hospital. Some, with ailments as simple as a headache caused by stress, walk for miles to seek treatment at the clinic.

Started in 1995 as a simple program, TDMP has grown into a well-equipped health center that now employs professional staff. Today, the health facility has 14 professional and subordinate staff who work around the clock to deliver services to patients.

The health centre offers outpatient services, mobile outreaches, ambulance services and laboratory testing. It also provides maternity as well as maternal child care services.

Patients wait outside Nasaltuko Dispensary

Patients check into the health facility with various ailments including malaria, respiratory diseases, urinary tract infections, diarrhea, and skin infections, among other health challenges.

“Malaria is the most prevalent disease in Tangulbei,” Br. Sebastian told ACI Africa January 14, explaining that the disease is transmitted by the mosquitoes found in water dams that surround the settlement.

As for respiratory complications, the BSJ member explains that Tangulbei residents become sick because they spend nights out in the cold.

“Here, not everyone spends the night in the house. Young boys and men spend the night out in the cold in the mountains while the little huts are reserved for children and women. For people born in a hot climate, any slight change in climate affects their health badly,” he says.

Owing to the lack of clean water, the Pokot who walk as far as 50 kilometers in search of the valuable commodity also suffer from diarrhea and other poor hygiene complications. The extreme heat is responsible for the skin infections they come with at the clinic.

Recently, Br. Sebastian and his team led by Fr. Maxwell Atugba who is the Priest in charge of St. Luke, Tangulbei mission, established a Nasaltuko Dispensary, about 20 kilometers from the mission headquarters to improve accessibility to the mission health services.

Fr. Maxwell

Located in a valley that is surrounded by Kaako, Koroloi, Butoro and Kamel mountains, Nasaltuko Dispensary has relieved Jacob Lotiboi, a resident of Kaako village, the burden of walking for miles in search of medication.

“Just the other day, I was walking down the mountain and I found a woman who was bleeding out after she was stabbed by bandits. Thankfully, the dispensary was near and when I carried her there, she was treated quickly and discharged,” Mr.  Lotiboi tells ACI Africa.

The 61-year-old father of 20 says the dispensary is a blessing to residents of all the four villages surrounding it.

“Before the dispensary was constructed, our women and children walked for over 50 kilometers in search of government hospitals. Sometimes we walked for over 20 kilometers to the mission centre run by the Fathers where we are treated. Today, the doctors have come close to us and we are really thankful,” he says.

All the achievements notwithstanding, the mission health facility is grappling with a variety of challenges, key among them retrogressive culture where some residents are yet to fully trust hospitals.

Language barrier is also an issue for the hospital staff who find it difficult communicating with patients who can only express themselves in their local language.

Additionally, some patients have their misconstrued ideas of medication, Br. Sebastian says, adding that such patients find it difficult to believe what their medical doctors tell them.

“We have patients who only believe in injections. When we prescribe other medications such as tablets or inhalers, they turn them down and go to other hospitals,” the native of Kenya’s Kakamega Diocese says.

But the biggest challenge, Br. Sebastian says, is maternity, noting that delays in attending to pregnant mothers is resulting in many preventable maternal deaths.

“People here are so used to home deliveries that they sometimes come to us when it is too late. But they are not entirely to blame since many of them stay in interior parts of this region where there are limited means of transport,” the Religious Brother says.

Among the best qualities that Br. Sebastian has learnt about the Pokot, is how they value life.

“The Pokot do everything in their power to take care of a sick person. But they have no business with the dead person. This is unlike people in other communities who abandon their sick and needy but only spend a lot of money when the person dies,” he says.

The health facility is just one in a variety of activities that the Spiritans, also known as the Holy Ghost Fathers, who have been ministering in Tangulbei since 1990 oversee.

The Priests have beaten all odds including harsh climate, rough terrain and sometimes, hostility from residents to work towards alleviating poverty and illiteracy in one of the most marginalized regions in Kenya. 

The Spiritans also run St. Luke’s Primary School, one of the best schools in East Pokot which offers boarding and day facilities to some 220 learners.  There are some 51 girls and 21 boys who share one boarding facility at the school that does not have a boys’ dormitory.

Started in 2006 with pupils who attended classes under a tree in an open field, the school now has 12 qualified staff and five members of the subordinate staff and still admits vulnerable children who are sponsored by the Spiritans, the Catholic Diocese of Nakuru as well as individual well-wishers.

Fr. Maxwell notes that the biggest challenge is keeping the learners in school, especially female students, saying, “We always admit more girls than boys in junior classes. However, not many girls complete school as many are married off.”

The Spiritans also oversee a nursery school whose enrollment has grown from 45 in 2016 when Fr. Maxwell took up the leadership of the mission to the current 82.

Additionally, the number of Christians participating actively in the Church and those receiving Holy Communion has increased in an area where the Spiritans are carrying out primary evangelization.

At the close of the Spiritans’ second Provincial Chapter Friday, January 15, the outgoing Spiritan Provincial Superior for Kenya and South Sudan, Fr. John Mbinda affirmed that Tangulbei residents are friendly people who are yearning for evangelization.

“Despite their challenges, the Pokot are very good people who want to move on in terms of development just like the other peoples of this country. They want to know about the loving God. They can be instructed in faith. It is just us who have not been there for them,” said Fr. Mbinda.

Recounting his experience at the helm of the Spiritan Congregation in Kenya and South Sudan, Fr. Mbinda said Tangulbei was inaccessible when he toured the mission years ago.

“There were no roads to reach our people. Many times, I had to make a road between thickets when I wanted to visit a Christian,” the Kenyan-born Cleric said, adding that the mission cars were worn out fast owing to the rocky ground that characterizes the Tangulbei terrain.

The outgoing leadership of the Spiritans in Kenya and South Sudan handed the incoming Provincial Superior, Fr Dominic Gathurithu, a brand-new Toyota Hilux to equip him for the mission ahead.

Other activities that marked the closure of the Spiritans’ Chapter meeting included a funds drive for the construction of a theatre facility at the clinic and the commissioning of the Blessed Daniel Brottier Conference Hall and Accommodation facility at the mission centre.

The facility, Fr. Maxwell explained, would provide reliable accommodation to people who come from far to work in Tangulbei.

“After the launch, we expect all our staff to stay and not run away because of inadequate accommodation facilities. For our clinic staff, we expect their around-the-clock presence and response to the patients whenever they are needed,” said Fr. Maxwell.

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ACI Africa was officially inaugurated on August 17, 2019 as a continental Catholic news agency at the service of the Church in Africa. Headquartered in Kenya’s capital, Nairobi, this media apostolate will strive to facilitate the telling of Africa’s story by providing media coverage of Catholic events on the African continent, giving visibility to the activities of the Church across Africa where statistics show significant growth in numbers and the continent gradually becoming the axis of Catholicism. This is expected to contribute to an awareness of and appreciation for the significant role of the Church in Africa and over time, the realization of a realistic image of Africa that often receives negative media framing.

Father Don Bosco Onyalla
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