It was a privilege once again to have long–term MAF passenger, Alison Curtis, fly with us on one of her regular visits to Wamba Hospital, in the remote Samburu district of northern Kenya. This time she was travelling with three members of the Calleri family, old friends from her home in Switzerland, who also have strong personal ties with Wamba.
Alison has been visiting Wamba Hospital since 1985, after her son volunteered her educational services to the founder and medical director at the time, Dr Prandoni. From its humble beginnings as a dispensary, today the hospital is a 200-bed facility which houses, amongst other things, operating theatres, X-ray and physiotherapy facilities, a maternity and new-born intensive care unit, and a small residential home for mentally and physically disabled children.
Thirty years ago however, services were far less developed and in particular, there was no special provision for the education of the children who were inpatients at Wamba, often for many months at a stretch; no activities or educational stimulation for them as they passed long hours in a hospital bed, doing nothing. Dr Prandoni expressed frustration and sorrow that he was ‘fixing them medically, but destroying them mentally’. So, Alison’s role has been to address this challenge, and come up with daily programmes of both brain work and physical therapy activity, to keep the children occupied mentally and progressing in school work as normally as possible. She never knows how many children she will find when she arrives at the hospital, or what their problems will be, and so has to be ready for anything when she flies in.
Over the last year she has been closely involved with two children in particular: Memusi Lelopeta, a young boy who suffered severe burns and lost both his feet trying to rescue a baby from a fire; and Mary, a girl with cerebral palsy, who has been rejected by her father but whose mother is committed to both her health and her education. Alison has helped Memusi’s family to get him a place at a boarding school for children with severe physical challenges, and although she did not see him on this trip, she received reports that he is doing well. He has had surgery to release his thumb, which has been fused into his hand by the fire, and his legs are being prepared for prosthetics so that he will eventually be able to walk again.
Since Alison’s last visit, Mary had also gone to boarding school, but the separation from her mother proved too hard for both of them, so she is back at home and attending a local school. It has been identified that she needs a wheelchair, so Alison is already making plans to provide one that will be comfortable, practical and strong enough to withstand the rough terrain of her rural location.
Alison’s dedication to the people of Wamba also extends beyond the walls of the hospital compound. In recent years, in partnership with Monica, Clementina and Luigi Calleri who were also on the flight, she helped to start a community nursery school, which now has almost 200 children enrolled. The construction of the ‘Calleri Early Development Centre’ and the Calleri’s strong bond with Wamba arose from a family tragedy: the loss of Seba, stepson of Monica and stepbrother to her children, who died in an accident whilst climbing Mount Kenya in 2007. The Calleris wanted to maintain a connection with the country, and so through Alison got involved with the community in Wamba.
The small school which now bears their name was originally just mud and stick buildings, located on church land beside the airstrip. Through their support and oversight, there are now two permanent classrooms, providing a safe, secure and stimulating learning environment. The school also has a kitchen, so that some nutrition can be given to the children, who might otherwise not eat very well; and latrines to help to encourage good standards of hygiene.
As on previous visits, Monica and Clementina enjoyed connecting with the children, and encouraging them in their learning. Combining their creativity with Alison’s practical skills, they painted one of the classroom walls to look like water, and then showed the children how to make fish out of paper plates, to turn the wall into an aquarium. Everyone was very pleased with the result. For Luigi, who was visiting for the first time, the trip inspired him with all kinds of different ideas of how he can use his talents to benefit the school. During their week-long stay, they also had time to meet with the school board and catch up with matters of administration, as well as discussing future plans for development of the centre, and further support of the children as they progress into primary education.
When she first started visiting Wamba, Alison travelled by road, but for the past 15 years she has been flying with MAF. ‘I like MAF because of time it saves, and the security,’ she shares. ‘Over the years the road has been improved, but highway banditry risks remain more than my family will allow!’ It was our privilege to partner with Alison and the Calleris in their endeavours to support the community in Wamba, where geographical and economic isolation brings many challenges.