Yonice and author Caroline Rau.
In America, at dinner parties, on first dates or at company barbeques the most common first question is "What do you do for a living?"
In Narok, Kenya that first question is, "What tribe do you call yourself from?"
Here in America, we scramble to come up with a purpose for being. If we don't do something, we aren't worth anything.
In Kenya, one is born with a purpose and an identity simply by being someone's son or daughter and sharing the blood of people that have existed since time began.
This feeling of connection was what first caused me to fall in love with Kenya. Assisting at the birth of a baby sealed it.
I longed to help in whatever way I could.
Masaai Warriors dance a greeting to tourists.
What can I give?
I boarded the plane worried that I had nothing to offer to a people whose culture was so different from my own.
I spent the first week teaching English grammar at a primary school. It was wonderful to form friendships with the children. I was grateful to be able to leave them with a positive impression of mzunugu - the Kiswahili word for white people that echoed off the walls wherever I walked.
I wondered, however, if I was truly doing enough to help. Outsiders were rare, and I certainly felt more like a respected guest than a person of service.
Then one day, my fellow volunteer, Brody, came home looking exhausted. He had been working at the local hospital. It was rainy season, and there was an overflow of burn victims who had come too close to their campfires while warming themselves.
Although my previous medical training had only included watching my grandfather perform his veterinary surgeries, I decided to lend a hand.
The beginning of trust
What tribe do you call yourself from?
Our mile-long hike to the hospital ended with a telltale stench of decay. The people waiting outside to be seen did not remind me of the smiling faces in the school.
We walked into the children's unit, and, to my surprise, heard not one child crying. Instead, there was the sad quiet of pain that cannot be treated, and the heavy breathing of little bodies in the silence of suffering.
From then on, I helped to change bandages, replace IV fluids and record temperatures. I fetched water and filled syringes.
Soon the patients began to look at me not with quizzical glances or requests to touch my hair, but with a more comfortable, soothed expression. They knew that they could trust me to care for them.
The mother of the first baby I caught.
"There is good"
One day, the midwife called me in and explained that three women were about to give birth at roughly the same time. She told me to catch the baby from the older woman who had already borne three children.
The midwife's hunch was right, and two of the women gave birth at almost literally the same moment.
I held the older woman's hand, waited until the proper dilation, and told her to scuma (push), as confidently as I could muster. It was an easy delivery and I cleaned off the child as the midwife gently sewed the woman back up.
The first child I caught was a beautiful, healthy baby boy. His eyes were still closed, since he wasn't yet used to sunlight.
He looked a little purple because the pigmentation in his skin had not yet developed. He had a strong cry, which meant he had a healthy heart and lungs.
I dressed him in the outfit his mother had brought along, and wrapped him in a clean piece of cloth.
The mother was praying quietly to herself in Kiswahili. As I approached her with her newborn son she said to me in her best English, "There is good, there is good," referring to her perfect, new little boy.
The meaning of labor
Brody (left), our midwife Samson (right), and my two favorite nurses on either side of me (center).
After this first birth, I helped the midwife with several other births, including one cesarean (or surgical) birth. Most women walked several miles to the hospital, alone and very pregnant. A few were accompanied by their husbands or mothers. For the most part the woman's loved ones could not leave the field or the shop to come to the hospital.
The hospital was one of the finest in the country: it had the basics like clean syringes, clean cotton, and basic surgical tools. And that's all.
If they choose to give birth in a hospital, Kenyan women often wait to be seen by the midwife until labor pains begin, or their water breaks. Some of them have had pre-natal care, but many simply show up at the hosptial.
They strip from the waist down—hospital gowns are too expensive—and lie on a plastic-covered table.
Women in Africa often have many children. Their bodies are strong from hard physical labor. This seems to significantly ease the pain and simplify the process of childbirth.
After giving birth, many of the women I saw simply walked out of the delivery room with their new child. They had to tend to their homes and businesses.
Author Caroline Rau is considering a career in a medical profession.
It's a whole new world
My experience in Kenya has changed my life significantly, by opening me to a whole new culture and a world of new possibilities.
Before my travels, I was not sure what I wanted to study or what occupation I wanted to pursue. Ironically, by traveling to a place that does not put much importance on one's profession, I now have a clearer insight to my future.
Now I'm interested in public health, midwifery, family planning, and even medical school. My hands-on experience in Africa has given me a firmer grasp on the world around me.
by Caroline Rau