Living in the poor, rural village of Kaugi, in Meru County, Kenya, Benjamin Ikirima occasionally had to push his sickly mother in a wheelbarrow up dirt and gravel roads on their way to the nearest town with a health clinic.
That experience resulted in Ikirima having and fulfilling a dream. Earlier this month he and members of First United Methodist Church in St. Petersburg opened the Mama Rael Memorial Health Centre in Meru.
Ikirima's dream became a passion for others. Robert Dinwiddie—an architect and chair for international missions at the church—accepted the challenge of designing the facility. Dinwiddie faced obstacles throughout, both working in the United States and on his eight trips over five years to the English-speaking East African nation, the last coming about 18 months ago.
|Local villagers, who readily joined the mission team in various capacities as the clinic was being constructed, are shown here at the house where Benjamin Ikirima was raised and did homework by candlelight. Ikirima later built a stone house to replace this home for his parents.|
Among the greatest obstacles were a small construction site, Kenyan government regulations and questionable conduct by a Kenyan contractor.
But through it all, Dinwiddie kept his faith. Reflecting on his trips, he talked about Kenyan children pinching his skin because they’d never seen a white person. Like the team's efforts to open the clinic, Dinwiddie's Christian journey included stops and starts. He re-joined the church in 2008 after being away for more than 30 years.
The project began after Ikirima received a visa and moved to St. Petersburg with $200 in his pocket and two suitcases. Sitting in a downtown park, his money nearly depleted, he saw nearby First Church. A Methodist in Kenya, Ikirima thought he had found “the Mother Church” because of its name. Instead, Ikirima found a place where members took him under their wings and “helped him survive,” Dinwiddie said.
Ikirima became a member of the church, went to school and is now an electrocardiogram technician with a wife, Ruth, and daughter, Precious.
During a First Church mission trip to the Bahamas, Ikirima described how, after his mother's death in Kenya, God “put it on his heart” to build a clinic in his village to help residents get health care, Dinwiddie said.
Three days later
Already invested in annual mission trips to the Bahamas and making inroads in Cuba, First Church mission committee members embraced Ikirima's vision to build a clinic in Kenya.
New to mission trips, Dinwiddie relied heavily on the experience and expertise of Ikirima and mission-trip veterans Pete Creager and Jeff Hearn during their initial trips to plan the clinic.
Subsequently, 32 members have gone to Kenya from First Church. Teams as large as 18—including doctors, nurses and laborers—have traveled to Kaugi to serve in makeshift clinics and to help with construction. On one trip, American health workers saw close to 750 patients in less than six days working out of a Methodist church. Villagers walked from as far as 20 miles to receive care. Many had to be left untreated.
At times, completion of the clinic was described as tenuous. But in the end, a new contractor and a team of local laborers worked day and night for nearly three weeks. Construction was completed two days before the Feb. 5 grand opening—a facility now housing not only a lab, pharmacy and exam space—but also a labor and delivery suite.
Dr. Craig Nelson, First Church senior pastor, attended the opening and was photographed with the first patient, a mother with child in tow. “I think it’s really neat that the church went and listened to the community,” Nelson said. “A maternity ward was not the norm of what most people do.”
Ikirima, now studying to be an RN and recently named employee of the year at Northside Hospital in St. Petersburg, said he is thankful to the church for its efforts. He is most proud that the people of his village no longer have to travel far to receive health care.
“When you go and you experience the need and experience the unconditional love and appreciation these people have,” said Dinwiddie, “you just want to keep going back.”
Team members hope to return with medical equipment and supplies, or money to pay for it, in-country in coming months.
For more information, call 727-542-9740 or go to Facebook.com/MamaRaelFoundation.
--Ed Scott is a freelance writer based in Venice.