LIVESTRONG Day Nairobi, Kenya

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Ordinarily we would not get into a car with a complete stranger, especially given that we have no idea where we are being taken. Nor would we agree to rendezvous with a man we met over the internet and let him take us to his house in the notoriously dangerous city of Nairobi, Kenya. Today, however, we completely ignore mother?s advice and climb into the tattered car of Alex Kilele Ndolo. We leave the hotel and pass by the uniformed guard as he swings open the heavy iron gates that create a protective fortress for our hotel. Outside the tranquility and luxury of The Palancia Suites is a world unlike our own. Homes, apartments, businesses and even the kindergartens are secured behind large cement block walls topped with barbed wire or electric fencing.

?We are so happy to have you visit us that we will be slaughtering a goat in your honor,? are the first words our host speaks to us. Director of the Kilele Foundation, Alex has teamed up with us to celebrate LIVESTRONG Day 2010. Ordinarily we would be leading an indoor cycling marathon in Los Angeles, raising money to provide support for people living with cancer, but this year the anniversary of Lance Armstrong?s testicular cancer diagnosis falls on our arrival to Nairobi, Kenya before we embark on a safari to see the great migration. Were it not for our LIVESTRONG mentor, Steve Bartolucci, finding this Kenyan event, we would be sipping cocktails on the patio of our fine hotel instead of sitting in the back seat of a car wondering if we should feel proud of our charitable spirit or embarrassed by our foolishness and naivety for leaving the safety of our hotel.

A forty minute drive over dirt roads covers us with a fine red dust. Our lungs burn from black exhaust billowing from vehicles zigzagging in and out of traffic, everyone jockeying for a better position on roads that have no lanes. Ineffective policemen stand motionless in the middle of the street watching in a daze as cars drive over makeshift sidewalks, jut onto the opposite side of the road and demand that pedestrians take responsibility for avoiding being hit.

A large padlock hangs open from a rusted massive metal gate that belies the tiny cement block house that it completely shelters. Thirty or so members of the Kilele Foundation greet us as if we were celebrities. Visitors from the USA don?t venture outside their luxury hotels, making us highly honored guests. Cameras are not too common either and the children are eager to have their picture taken and immediately see it on the LCD screen. I take photos of the yellow themed center table with yellow roses and handmade gifts for us bearing the LIVESTRONG name. I can?t resist taking a photo of the family goat tied to the wall.

We arrived loaded with 100 pounds of LIVESTRONG bracelets and shirts, school supplies and clothing. Men, women, children and even toddlers are excited to don their yellow bracelets, despite not knowing their global significance. We educate them that the bracelets are the key to starting the dialogue about cancer. This stimulates a discussion of cancer being a topic few in Kenya ever talk about. The fear that cancer is contagious keeps its victims silent. Awareness of cancer throughout the country is scarce. Knowledge of risk factors, preventative screenings and recognition of the signs and symptoms of cancer leave the majority of cancer victims diagnosed at advanced stages. The least informed citizens are the least likely to be able to afford the medicines; medicines that often don?t exist in government facilities.

A natural societal separation of men on one side, women on the other evolves. Stan speaks to the men about his 35 years of surviving Hodgkin’s. Looks of amazement flood their faces as they gaze upon this medical miracle never before seen in their lifetime. The feeling of hope is palpable as each man contemplates the possibility of life after cancer. The men are curious and want to know how Stan knew he had cancer, what type of treatment he had, how he paid for it and if he was cured.

Our conversations are interrupted for a formal welcome from Alex and his wife, Nzembi and the announcement of the slaughter of the goat. Apparently I blocked from my short term memory the promise of a goat and mistook dinner for a family pet. Watching the slaughter is an honor and much to my surprise, is done right there on the dirt patio over a piece of plywood. Despite my commitment to honor the traditions of other cultures I cannot bear to witness this and regret my earlier denial of vegetarianism.

?Cancer, you die from it, no?? is the first question I am asked. Women listen attentively, but are too shy to ask questions. Cathy Inguru, a project manager for African Food Security and Environmental Program, interviews me as if she has a telepathic connection into the minds of the guests. Speaking for them she extracts information from me that I take for granted as basic knowledge. ?Are there different cancers?? ?Can someone live long after having cancer?? ?How do they treat cancer?? ?There is no cure for cancer, right?? said more as a statement of fact than a question. The queries come with an eagerness to learn about a disease that is just recently gaining awareness in this impoverished country.

There are no national cancer registries in Kenya, leaving the truth unknown just how much havoc this devastating disease wreaks on this country of 39 million people. Estimates suggest cancer kills 50 people each day in Kenya, a country where 45.9% of the population live in poverty and have little or no access to health care, resulting in an average life expectancy of 53 years. By contrast about 1,500 people in USA die each day from cancer, but in a population of over 310 million. Average life expectancy in the United States is 77.8 years.

Dinner is prepared by a team of women, slicing, dicing and chopping in a well choreographed symphony. In lieu of assisting with the cooking I am handed a baby to tend to. As the children await dinner they play with the school supplies we brought. Colorful stickers and rulers are the favored gifts, followed by colored pencils and paper, which keep the grateful children entertained for the duration of the evening. Even the adults are eager to receive a gift of a ruler.

Food and water in a foreign land is always a concern for any traveler. Adding to our anxiety is eating a home cooked meal in a home with dirt floors, a hole in the floor for a toilet and no electricity. We step over the goat head as we make our way to the buffet table. ?As long as the goat is cooked well we are okay, aren?t we?? I whisper to Stan. ?We know the meat is fresh!? he responds, providing me no reassurance that we are safe to eat.

As we pick our way across our plates we exchange stories of cancer. Unfortunately the stories from Kenya do not have the happy endings that many survivors from the United States tell. Most stories begin with the person never having heard of cancer or having only a vague notion of what it is. The middle of each tale includes the lack of medicine available, and even if chemotherapy or radiation can be obtained in a hospital or clinic, only a tiny minority can afford to pay. No insurance and a government that does little to provide medical treatment for cancer patients means the end of almost every cancer story is death.

Money is not the only obstacle to treatment, a dearth of medical specialists adds to the burden. Only 4,500 physicians practice in Kenya, a mere 1 doctor per 10,000 people. In comparison the USA has 26 physicians per 10,000. Of those 4,500 doctors six oncologists, four radiation oncologists and four pediatric oncologists serve the estimated 80,000 Kenyan?s diagnosed with cancer each year. There are no trained surgical oncologists in the country. Only one public health facility with three machines exists in the county to provide radiotherapy services to just 3,800 patients fortunate enough to receive care each year. Lack of funds, properly trained medical personnel and the necessary diagnostic and treatment resources sends 51% of the physicians leaving Kenya to practice in other countries where the opportunity to save lives is a reality.

A bright yellow cake in honor of LIVESTRONG Kenya is lit with candles. Stan and Alex make a silent wish, no doubt each wishing to bring help to the Kenyan?s dying of cancer. They cut the cake together and feed one another a bite like a wedding couple vowing to take care of one another for the rest of their lives. Indeed this is what Alex is hoping for with his foundation.

Safely returned to our hotel we leave the next day for the African bush. Part animal watching, part spreading the word about LIVESTRONG. We give bracelets to our guides and rangers, camp staff and managers and fellow safari guests we meet from all over the world. The yellow bracelet is not recognized by anyone we meet in Kenya. Everywhere we go in this country cancer is viewed as a death sentence. Hope of survival is a foreign concept. Cancer, for many people is an alien word. Masai villagers have never even heard of cancer. They repeat ?can-sir? several times as my guide interprets for them in their native Ma language. According to the Masai I met they don?t have ?can-sir? in their villages. The idea of seeing a doctor is confusing to them. They look at me puzzled when they tell me that when women get sick they are treated with herbs and trees. Before we leave one another we exchange bracelets, beads and bones exchanged for yellow rubber.

Despite the pessimistic outlook for Kenyans, Alex Ndolo has a smile that stretches across his face. A victim of a poor health care system himself, the ravages of polio in childhood don?t get in his way. In fact, Alex never mentions himself; he is only interested in helping others. His dreams go beyond cancer. He wants to provide clean drinking water, prevent HIV/AIDS, educate young girls about pregnancy, provide wheelchairs for those that cannot walk, train villagers in a trade that will allow them to support their families, and feed hungry Kenyans. The idea that he is just one man trying to save an entire country does not enter his mind. He has added the fight against cancer to his crusade and hopes that we bring his message back to the United States so his countrymen do not have to die just because they had the misfortune of being born in a country that is barely picking a fight with cancer.

Learn more about The Kilele Foundation at www.kilelefoundationkenya.org

-Susan Ashley, Ph.D. and Stan Steinberg, D.C.

10 thoughts on “LIVESTRONG Day Nairobi, Kenya”

  1. wow! It definitely is extraordinary. But it’s my home. And all the experiences seem normal to a local. I wish I could do something to help.

    1. cynthia mwangi says:

      i second that Humphrey,it feels like home.wish there was something more we could do to bring in more awareness

    2. Raid2 says:

      Not having oncologists in your country is not a bad thing. Oncologists are not the right people as treatment and cures are not about something Oncologists are on the path for. Also, look to countries that lead in Cancer treatments like Germany, Japan. The USA is 20 years behind, not something you want to emulate. Look for better answers.

  2. Jambo Alex,

    I just read about your project and situation in Kenya and I feel very proud and fortunate to know you. Yes, we will coordinate a drumSTRONG Kenya and we will raise awareness and funds for Kilele Foundation Kenya through our collaborative rhythms.

    We can introduce drumSTRONG Kenya to the global community and call for a Team Kenya to form for Kilele Foundation to be directed towards survivorship support and perhaps a cancer clinic in your area.

    I am also extremely proud of our friends Susan and Stan. Wonderful humans with such beautiful hearts. They are engaged and engaging people. Much respect.

    Are there local Kenyan drum-makers who we could ask to build drumSTRONG drums for the rhythm events. I would like to support your local economy.

    We will communicate more over the next few weeks and I will put this in motion.

    All the best,
    Scott

  3. Jambo Alex,

    I just read about your project and situation in Kenya and I feel very proud and fortunate to know you. Yes, we will coordinate a drumSTRONG Kenya and we will raise awareness and funds for Kilele Foundation Kenya through our collaborative rhythms.

    We can introduce drumSTRONG Kenya to the global community and call for a Team Kenya to form for Kilele Foundation to be directed towards survivorship support and perhaps a cancer clinic in your area.

    I am also extremely proud of our friends Susan and Stan. Wonderful humans with such beautiful hearts. They are engaged and engaging people. Much respect.

    Are there local Kenyan drum-makers who we could ask to build drumSTRONG drums for the rhythm events. I would like to support your local economy.

    Fellow Kenyans around the world can participate in their current communities.

    We will communicate more over the next few weeks and I will put this in motion.

    All the best,
    Scott

  4. Thanks alot Mr Scott

    We thanks you so much Susan and Stan too for being good members of kilele foundation kenya, and the support you giving to to our community Machakos, Makueni. and Kitui where kilele foundation works and soon we will be able to work the whole of contry KENYA and east african to stop our people going evey hear every day by CANCER.

    Yes we have local kenyan who makes drums and next week i am going to sent you photos of some and we will be senting some to you in USA becouse kenya and Uganda is small money to buy them.
    Please tell us when you want us do event of drumSTRONG/Kilele Foundation Kenya rhythm of 100 people Man , Weman and youth with all with drums play from 7 PM to 6 AM And the day time we have other members and friends of kilele foundation driving motorbike from 9 AM to 3 PM some with cancer and give there stories for cancer
    we need support of this event and one person from your office can join us like what Susan and Stan did please.
    We also need hospital has you said since we have no one in that place and also many people pass way since they dont know what is cancer
    You can join us in facebook this like. http://www.facebook.com/media/set/?o.174255412548&ref=mf and our http://www.kilelefoundationkenya.org and our email info@kilelefoundationkenya.org
    Our Address
    Kilele Foundation
    P.O BOX 27785-00100
    +254733536377 begin_of_the_skype_highlighting +254733536377 end_of_the_skype_highlighting or +254722536377 begin_of_the_skype_highlighting +254722536377 end_of_the_skype_highlighting
    Nairobi Kenya Africa

    Thanks Alexander Ndolo

  5. Alex Ndolo says:

    Kathryn Hemmings After finding myself in the fortunate position of having Alex as a Facebook Friend thought I just share a little with you.10 years ago I was diagnosed with breast cancer & had a mastectomy followed by selective chemo.All clear after 5 years.Lo behold came back 2 years ago they found it in my spine.Devastated.Had the tu…mour out & spinal fusion with radiation.Up & walking within a day.Yes I am very determined.Then I had a selective 2nd mastectomy & reconstruction in May this year.I continue to have Arimidex & Zometa Bisphosphonate treatment.My Oncologist Jill Bishop is great.Also my Glan Clwyd Hospital too.I have great optimism that immunotherapeutics will cure us in the near future.Also there are leaps & bounds in research going on right now.My hope is simple.That we have a Universal ruling for every person wherever we live whatever our circumstances for access to drugs for our disease that is a blue-print for absolutely everyone.x.

  6. Alex Ndolo says:

    Beckie Wachira my name is Nyawira,i am writing concerning a sharp pain in my breast. I went for a diagnosis at Kinyatta National Hospital kenya. The doctor there sent me for an ultra sound,i cud not afford it immediately but later i had it done and it revealed an abnormal mass.i took it back to the doctor and was told i needed a FNA.Again i returned to Kinyatta National Hospital ,paid a…nd was booked for the following week.when I went, the doctor said that the FNA could only be ULTRA SOUND GUIDED because the lump is small.i have not done the test until now because the cost quoted by several pathologists with the ultra sound facility is way above my ability.so i have decided to once again bother you hoping that may be u might advise me on how i could probably access help.i really wish to know whats type of mass I have because i feel very unnerved.thanks in advance.

  7. Armstrong Armstrong Maina says:

    Thanks to livestrong for this storry of kilele foundation kenya, we are in kenya and member of the group and we like all kilele foudation kenya doing to support people with cancer ,, lets all support them
    Thanks
    Maina

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