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At the TED Global Africa event held in Tanzania in 2007, South African investment banker Euvin Naidoo gave a very persuasive argument on why investing in Africa makes great business sense. Before starting his talk however, Naidoo told his mostly Western audience, “there’s  something I need to put on the table so we can clear the air.” He proceeded to ask the crowd to name the very worst thing they had heard about Africa. The answers flowed readily; famine, corruption, genocide, HIV/AIDS, even slavery. It is indeed true that to a lot of people around the world, Africa’s synonymous with catastrophe or negativity. This very message has been the basis of criticism of western media coverage of the continent.

In the introduction of a recent article; If western journalists get Africa wrong, who gets it right, Kenyan journalist Patrick Gathara summed the situation thus: “Much of Africa’s coverage is devoid of nuance and context,” he observes, “the coverage seems oblivious to what Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie describes as the “danger of a single story” – the reductio ad absurdum (Latin: “reduction to absurdity”) of the tale of a continent of over a billion people and 54 countries, their existence, history and stories compressed into one simple, superficial, easily regurgitated cliché. “The hopeless continent.” “Africa rising.” “Magical Africa,” he says.

Now, while I vehemently oppose the notion that ours is a ‘hopeless continent,’ I will be the first to admit that it is plagued by a multitude of problems. In fact a lot of social entrepreneurs have admitted to feeling overwhelmed on where to start given the diversity and magnitude of development challenges that need to be tackled. But there is a ray of sunshine. Africa is seeing a wave of change due in part to the increase of what Emeka Okafar the organizer of TED Global Africa calls,”actors in a problem solving society.” Okafar describes these change agents as people who look beyond challenges to what should be done and get about fixing them.

The Ochieng’ brothers

Milton and Fred Ochieng are the focus of the documentary "Sons of Lwala."

Milton and Fred Ochieng are the focus of the documentary “Sons of Lwala.”

exemplify this growing demographic. Though the duo have a legendary, almost celebrity status in the United States, in Nashville Tennessee especially, I only heard about them about 3 years ago when I was preparing to move to the US for graduate school. At the time, I was consulting with Education USA, a public affairs section of the US Embassy in Nairobi  tasked with helping Kenyan students navigate their way through the plethora of US institutions. The center’s advisors help students identify the schools that best suit their academic and personal needs versus their qualifications and available funding.

When the center director at the time, Dr. Mari Emma Nelson heard that I was looking for a good biomedical research program, her eyes just lit up and she said, “you must apply to Vanderbilt.” I was a bit hesitant having never heard of the institution before. So she explained that it was a great, highly ranked school with great programs which also valued diversity in its student body. Perplexed she asked, “have you not heard of the Ochieng’ brothers?” I said I hadn’t. “They attend Vanderbilt as well and they’ve made a great impression there,” she said, “the school is therefore likely to look at your application favourably.” Uncharacteristically, I didn’t investigate the matter further because I was swamped at the time. I just cross checked the school’s rankings and immediately applied to their life sciences graduate program which I joined on a full scholarship in August 2012.

But this whole time I was dying to find out whom these brothers were and what exactly they were famous for. The brothers- Milton and Fred Ochieng’- I was to find out cofounded the Lwala Community Alliance, the core of which was a huge community health facility in Lwala village Western Kenya where they come from. Both brothers came to the US after leaving Kenya’s elite Alliance High School to attend Dartmouth College. They then both proceeded to Vanderbilt Medical School for their MDs. They recounted their story in 2012 when they presented Honoring a Father’s Dream: The story of the Sons of Lwala, as the keynote speakers at the TN Global Health Forum in Nashville.

When they were admitted to Dartmouth, Milton remembers not having the $900 for a plane ticket to start college. But he had a lot of community support. The elders of Lwala village supported the brothers with money for the plane ticket “Our village in Lwala sold chickens, they sold their cows to be able to send us to college,” says his brother Fred, “they only asked us not to forget them.” So they came to America for college. While in junior year at Dartmouth, Milton got a chance to travel with other students to a village in rural Nicaragua and helped build a clinic. This made him realize that being a college student shouldn’t hold him back from helping his father Erastus Ochieng’ fulfill his long held dream of building a medical clinic, the one thing that was conspicuously missing in their community.

“I remember coming back from the trip really very excited,” Milton says, “I told my dad, remember how we’ve always talked about the need to build a clinic? I just have the idea.” Their dad wrote the first proposal towards the project with an estimate of $25,000 at the time. Meanwhile, the HIV pandemic was ravaging much of Africa. The statistics were particularly grim for the Lwala village the brothers say. “One in four people; our friends, our family and neighbours had contracted the disease,” says Fred. “AIDS was really taking lives,” he says, “people called it ‘AIDS the finisher'”. Then the disease unexpectedly hit rather close to home. “We never imagined it would take our parents,” says Fred, “first we lost our mum and then our dad 18 months later.” The brothers took their parents loss as a call to action to provide access to primary care in their community. 

To them they say, “the statistics were not at all abstract, this was personal.” Their father’s dream, his subsequent death and that of their mother plus their indebtedness to a village that had come through for them in thier time of need all precipitated the brothers to start fund raising towards the provision of health care in Lwala. The irony of their situation was also not lost on them, “Fred and I work in two of America’s best hospitals,” says Milton, “places that would make our people’s jaws drop.” In Kenya, the situation is often a stark contrast in rural areas especially with no running water, no electricity and no medical care.

A comparison of health indicators between the two countries is telling. “From the life expectancy trajectories, Americans can on average expect to live twice as long as as our friends and family in our village in Lwala,” says Milton. He says that less than 1% of Americans are infected with HIV while Kenya’s overall infection rate is around 7% and as high as 20 to 40% in their home county of Migori at least at the time when they were starting their venture. Fred also notes the big threat of child mortality in the area, “a child in Lwala is almost 20 times more likely to die than a child born in the United States.” In the US, on the other hand, as much as $5,000 can be spent on a single patient during end of life care. “As young doctors working in the American medical system, we administer millions of dollars of care each year to help people live to 80 years and beyond,” says Fred, “but back home, babies struggle to live to 1 month.”

The duo took all this really personally, “we miss our parents and live each day trying to extend the lives of our friends and family.” Sadly the gap that divides those who live from those who die is often financial, says Fred. So seven years ago, the brothers started to fund raise or as Milton characterizes it, taking “the longest of long shots.” They started off by engaging their immediate peers, colleagues and professors. But these efforts were kicked up several notches when in 2005, Milton, then a student at Vanderbilt met Barry Simmons, a local TV reporter looking for a story.

The two met at a local coffee shop and Simmons was completely blown away when Milton laid out the clinic’s blue prints saying, “I want to build a clinic, but I’m not sure how.” Simmons thought they could do a local news feature but then realized such a platform wouldn’t help to raise substantial funding. In what can only be described as a leap of faith, Simmons quit his job within weeks, to make a documentary film for the brothers. Of his decision, Simmons jokes, “it wasn’t the most well thought out decision.” He explains, “I thought, well, I’m about to turn 30 and I want to have a legacy too,” he says, “I want when my kid asks me some day, what did you do in your 20s and 30s, I want to be able to tell them that I did something that mattered.”

The trio used the documentary which they titled Sons of Lwala for fundraiser screenings. You can view the trailer here: Honoring a Father’s Dream: Sons of Lwala Trailer – IMDb. In April 2007, after 3 years of fundraising, the Lwala Community Health Center finally opened. In April 2011, construction on a new maternity and integrative care wing was completed, tripling the space of the original clinic. The facility was thereby upgraded from a community health center to a community hospital. The program also extended on its original scope of health care provision to a broader more holistic approach. “Our mission is to build the capacity of the people of Lwala to advance their own comprehensive well being,” says Milton. By well being he says he means, “a state in which every individual realizes his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and is able to make a contribution to the community.”

Under the broader mission, the program has become multi-dimensional. Through partnerships with several non-profit agencies they are able to provide clean water and sanitation training, school uniforms and instruction in agricultural techniques, small scale micro-enterprise, public health outreach, and education programming. But they see all this as being integrated: On the education of girls for instance Milton says, “educating the girls of Lwala simultaneously fights poverty, disease and social decay. It’s one of the best protections against AIDS. Since the barriers for girls are multiple, so must the solutions be.”

Aerial View of the Lwala Hospital Facility

Aerial View of the Lwala Hospital Facility

The brothers’ 2012 presentation and a look at the alliance’s webpage summarizes some of the programs milestones since its inception thus: 2 Million dollars raised; 40 high school students sponsored, 160 Kenyans employed;  70 patients treated per day, 300 babies delivered annually, 350 people trained in maternal health; 500 people trained in hygiene and sanitation; 800 girls in new school uniforms; 1,000 people on antiretroviral therapy; 1200 women receiving prenatal care; 18,500 people treated for Malaria, 80,000 total patient visits; 3,000 individual US supporters. Milton and Fred’s multimedia presentation ended on a poignant note by noting the singular statistic that likely fueled all the others: 1 FATHER’S DREAM!

Credit: Adam_Schultz / Clinton Global Initiative

Credit: Adam_Schultz / Clinton Global Initiative

The brothers have achieved above and beyond what a lot of people might have expected (including themselves). They are now working on making the model self sustaining. It is however very painful that their parents are not here to see it all. Milton wistfully remarks, “maybe if the clinic had been up and running when my parents were still alive they might still have been here to celebrate with us.”

The world has taken note. Accolades upon accolades have rightfully been heaped on the two. Their documentary was featured by CNN and ABC news, in 2009 ABC news nominated them as the ABC’s Persons of the Week. They were selected to attend the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) for 2 years. Their work has been featured on the one.org website. Apple the makers of Mac are also featuring their work in a documentary short film. Last but not least, the duo were featured in Black Enterprise’s, “40 NEXT” emerging business leaders. 

One thing hang at the back of my mind while I was compiling this story though. At the Tennessee

Credit: Vanderbilt Global Health Institute

Credit: Vanderbilt Global Health Institute

Global Forum, a member of the audience asked the duo a rather pertinent question: “Have you seen any impact of your program in inspiring people in surrounding areas in starting similar initiatives or is this an isolated success story?” Sadly, the long and short of it is, no, not really. Fred and Milton mentioned that a few people had been inspired to start similar programs in other countries for example Burundi but no one in Kenya has attempted to replicate the model.

This is the challenge before us therefore.

Fred Swaniker the founder of the African Leadership Academy which aims to “develop the next generation of African leaders,” says his inspiration to start the academy was the realization that good leaders, even a single good leader can have much more impact in Africa than any other place in the world because most African institutions are weak. He gave an example of President Obama and how sometimes even when he has the best intentions, congress or the senate can still halt his execution. In contrast, African leaders have way more sway because there aren’t as many checks and balances and this can be used for good just as we all know it has been used for evil.

Swaniker says he hangs the famous quote by Margaret Mead on a lot of walls at his academy. The quote says, “never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” Paraphrased for Africa he says it would be; “never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed leaders can change Africa, indeed; it is the only thing that ever will.”

Note: I hope this inspires you to awaken the problem solver that lies in all of us, it is the only way that we can push Africa from a being a society that mostly consumes to a society that mostly produces. #Bless!

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