I have spent the last 9 months working with Shining Hope for Communities, (SHC), at a health clinic in the Kibera slum of Nairobi, Kenya. I began soon after graduation from Brown University where I was a Development Studies major. I knew I wanted to spend this year abroad working with global health, and fortunately, my best friend from home attended Wesleyan with Jessica Posner and Kennedy Odede, (a former Kibera resident) the founders of SHC. Ken and Jess were a compelling duo, and, having studied the theory of development until it was oozing from my ears, I was excited about their leadership and vision for the organization.
SHC is designed to address poverty holistically. The clinic aims to do the same on a smaller scale, using Community Health Workers (CHWs) to address longer-term social aspects of health. Of course, when a sick patient walks in the clinic, we do what we can immediately, and clinically treat the disease. One day, our CHWs heard that a patient we knew was critically ill. They went to her house and literally carried her into the clinic. She was treated for malaria, but during a follow-up visit a few days later it was clear she was not improving. The clinicians realized that the medication was not working because she was severely malnourished. Our Project Manager, who prior to this job was head of an informal security group in Kibera, discussed the issue with the clinical staff, and finally suggested we give her a few day’s worth of fortified flour and porridge. Later, in response to a question about the day, he responded: “I learned something very important today: sometimes, food is the best medicine.”
This was a profound insight. In Kibera, food is rarely seen as “treatment.” Rather, “lack of food” is a socioeconomic issue alone. Changing this paradigm is essential to holistically addressing the poverty that keeps Kiberan residents so marginalized. Fortified food products have a powerful ability to not only treat patients, but to shift a mentality; moving away from issue by issue solutions lets us recognize the complex systemic forces that trap people in intergenerational cycles of poor health and poverty.
As I wrap up my year, I know it is easy to push places like Kibera to the back of our minds. And while globally, the issues of slum life need these large scale paradigm shifts before they can fully be addressed, organizations like 2 Degrees force us to confront – even momentarily – large problems around the world, solutions which begin to bring hope.