By TYLER ELLYSON
KEARNEY – Gilbert Hinga grew up in Kenya, but he didn’t meet the people of Kakamega County until recently.
The dean of the Division of Student Affairs at the University of Nebraska at Kearney visited that area for the first time in late May, three decades after he left the African nation to study in the United States.
Hinga, who was raised in Nairobi, returned to Kenya to lead a project through Rotary International, a nonprofit service organization he joined about three years ago with a specific goal in mind.
“I wanted to be part of something that would have a global reach,” he said.
The project, organized by the Kearney Dawn Rotary Club, focused on Kakamega County General Hospital, which serves a population of about 6 million people in western Kenya and eastern Uganda.
Kakamega is the second-most populous county in Kenya. It’s also the poorest.
“This hospital had been neglected for years,” Hinga said. “It was in disrepair and they didn’t have the type of equipment needed to serve that population.”
The numbers tell the story.
Kakamega County General Hospital delivers about 700 babies per month while also treating mothers and newborns who experience complications at other medical facilities.
The infant mortality rate there is 35 deaths for every 1,000 births, compared to the U.S. average of six, and the maternal mortality rate is 488 deaths for every 100,000 births, compared to just 17 in the U.S. The hospital is also severely understaffed.
“You can imagine the needs at this hospital,” Hinga said.
The Rotary project, which was 1 1/2 years in the making, targeted the maternity and pediatric ward as the area of greatest need. More than a dozen Rotary clubs and districts from India, Kenya, Argentina and the U.S., including those in Kearney, Gothenburg, North Platte and Cambridge, were involved with planning and fundraising.
They secured $136,000 to purchase equipment – neonatal incubators, infant cots, an ultrasound scan machine, nebulizers, bedside patient monitors and many other devices – and the Kakamega County government kicked in additional funding for equipment and hospital renovations.
In late May, Hinga led an eight-day trip to Kenya to review the upgrades and train hospital staff and community health volunteers. He was accompanied by medical professionals from Johns Hopkins University, as well as Dr. Cathrin Carithers, a clinical associate professor and assistant dean at the University of Nebraska Medical Center College of Nursing Kearney Division, which is based at UNK.
“It was really a true collaboration,” Hinga said of the project, which also involved Rotary members from Kakamega County.
The hands-on training for hospital health care providers demonstrated best practices for birthing and neonatal care, and the work with community health volunteers, who educate the public, focused on reviewing their practices and curriculum. A team of health professionals from Kakamega County General Hospital will travel in September to Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, to continue their training and learn from medical practices there.
The project has the full support of Kakamega County Gov. Wycliffe Ambetsa Oparanya, who met with organizers, toured the hospital and held a press conference to announce the improvements.
“He’s going to continue funding the project,” said Hinga, noting that the local government will also help track patient data to determine the long-term impact.
Hinga hopes this small ripple leads to a wave of change in Kenya.
“At UNK, we encourage students to be difference makers,” he said. “You never know the effect you can have on people when you just try.”
UNK STUDENT GETS INVOLVED
UNK senior Keegan Francl also made the trip to Kenya, with a slightly different agenda.
The Grand Island native was part of the team helping out at the hospital, and she explored an orphanage and school run by Alice Atemo, a Rotary member from Kakamega County.
Francl, an English major with a history minor, hopes to someday open a school in Africa to instruct teachers there. By addressing the teacher shortage, she said, education will become more accessible for students.
“These kids live in such destitute areas that even if they’re smart and they get high marks in their schooling, they cannot continue to high school or college because they don’t have the money,” she said.
Francl first witnessed this in 2015, when she was part of a mission trip to Zambia. The educators there taught students based only on memory, she recalled.
“I was thinking, ‘How can you grow as a country when you don’t have educated individuals?’” Francl said.
This experience sparked an interest in education, and former UNK English lecturer Anita Lorentzen inspired her to start making a difference.
Lorentzen, who was in the Kearney Dawn Rotary Club before leaving UNK for a position at Excelsior College in New York, encouraged Francl to get involved. Now she’s president of Rotaract, the recently resurrected UNK student organization that’s sponsored by the Kearney Dawn Rotary Club.
In addition to meeting teachers and students at the Overcoming Faith school in Kenya, Francl connected with the Rotaract group in Kakamega County to discuss potential collaborations. During the upcoming school year, she plans to organize a Rotaract fundraiser to help pay for Kenyan students’ education. Other ideas include book drives for kids in the Kearney area and establishing a scholarship fund.
“Our goal this year will be focusing on education locally and internationally,” Francl said.
She also wants to grow the Rotaract group at UNK, which has fewer than 10 members after relaunching during the spring semester. The service club will be recruiting new members during Blue Gold Welcome Week in August.
Francl would like to give other Rotaract members the opportunity to visit Kenya so they can meet those students and hear their stories. The trip, which Lorentzen was also part of, gave Francl a new perspective on the value of education.
“It helped me a lot, seeing how motivated they are when they don’t have as much opportunity or the finances to continue,” she said.
HOW TO JOIN
For more information on UNK’s Rotaract group, contact adviser Lisa Mendoza at 308-865-8528 or firstname.lastname@example.org. The Kearney Dawn Rotary Club meets 7 a.m. Wednesdays at Alley Rose, 2013 Central Ave. New members are always welcome.