From the very first origins of FAME, there has always been an incredibly tight bond with the Rift Valley Children’s Village in Oldeani. The Children’s Village, or RVCV, has been around for approximately 20 years and was the brainstorm of India Howell and her business partner, Peter, who together developed an amazingly successful organization of which RVCV is only one component, though is also perhaps the critical element that provides significance to the others.
RVCV is a children’s home, rather than an orphanage, for the purpose is not just to provide a residence, but a true home and family for each of these children who were either homeless or whose families were unable to care for them financially or their homes were completely broken. India and Peter have become the legal guardians for all their children, raising them here until they are ready to go off to college and finally to develop successful careers and lives of their own. But regardless of where they are, RVCV will always be their home and they will always be India’s children. There have been a total of 108 children to date with the vast majority still living at the village, but a number of them have gone on to living in other towns and cities.
As I mentioned, RVCV is only one component of a larger non-profit, the Tanzanian Children’s Fund. In addition to the children’s home, TCF has also worked to improve the education not only of the children living there, but also the entire community. In addition, TCF also provides medical services to the community (hence FAME’s involvement) and microfinance to women in the community to empower them to support their families with skills through the Rift Valley Women’s Group. In regard to the education component, it was clear to India and Peter from a very early time that the schools were horribly under staffed and under resourced. It was not at all uncommon to have a single teacher be responsible for attending three classrooms at a time and resources such as books, desks and writing instruments were very difficult to obtain.
By partnering with the local government and providing funds to directly employ additional teachers and to obtain addition resources for not only the primary school directly adjacent to the village, but also another primary school close by and the secondary school, the quality of education for these communities has vastly improved and has remained so. One means of assessing how well the system is doing is by looking at the percentage of children who pass their exams that enable them to progress to secondary school. If you do not pass the exams, your education is over at the 7th grade. I don’t have the recent data, but in the past, the schools from the Oldeani region in which the village is located have had a near perfect record for children passing their exams which is quite remarkable.
Sending her children to school alongside the children from the local villages, it also quickly became very clear to India that if the community health was not improved, it would negatively impact her children. This is the part where FAME came to the rescue. From its inception, FAME has provided medical services to the Oldeani community and the RVCV has created a health clinic that in the past has been staffed by nurses, but most recently acquired their very own clinical officer, Africanus, an amazing clinician who had started at FAME working with the neuro team, was quickly hired by FAME, but then felt that he would be perfect to staff the clinic at RVCV given his skills and wonderful demeanor (I am obviously an Africanus fan 😉). In the beginning, FAME would provide frequent clinics at RVCV not only for the children there, but also for the community and TCF would also support the medical care for the community within their specific catchment area. Over the last several years, though, it was determined that patients in need of medical services beyond what Africanus could supply would be brought to FAME by car and treated there. Though there are no longer general medical mobile clinics provided by FAME, we have the continued the mobile neurology clinics during our visits here and spend two days evaluating patients on site at the village.
The final component that TCF has provided to the Oldeani community is there financial and economic empowerment through microfinance and vocational education while also assisting in marketing. What began as a small group of women being lent sewing machines with the idea that they could eventually purchase them and become self-sufficient has grown into a much larger scale operation now supplying their products to a number of resorts and gift shops throughout Northern Tanzania. The women participating in this project have become increasingly independent with their ability to provide for themselves and their families. There is a small duka (shop) at RVCV where all of the items made by the women’s group are displayed and we always make sure to visit this as it’s nearly impossible not to find something there to bring home as a gift. The range of the types of items created continues to grow over the years and everything is off impeccable quality. What started as a small group of women has now grown into a much larger cooperative that has helped to sustain numerous families and communities.
Needless to say, a visit to the Rift Valley Children’s Village is always an incredibly uplifting experience on so many levels for it is an example of what can be accomplished when there is a well thought out plan and a generous will to succeed. On the other hand, one cannot help to think of what the world would be like if it were filled with places such as RVCV , and people such as India and Peter and everyone else involved with making it the success that it has continued to be over the years.
As for its location, RVCV sits near the village of Oldeani in an amazingly beautiful area of open fields and coffee plantations in the shadow of the crater rim above and the drive to and from follows the ridgelines and into the deep valleys between until we finally arrive at a lovely spot among the coffee fields. Entering through its gate for the very first time is an experience for the residents and, as we approach the administration building, our patients, all wearing the wonderfully colorful dress of the local population are patiently sitting on long benches awaiting our arrival. As has been the case for some time and even more so since the arrival of Africanus, charts have been pulled and registration begun for the many children and adults that we’ll see today for their neurologic issues. Many are follow up patients who have continued to receive their medications and interim care from Africanus and the health clinic here whether they are the children of RVCV or from the surrounding community.
Many of these patients we have seen for several years now and others are new and, as is usually the case, there is a preponderance of epilepsy . The facility here, though, is an absolute pleasure to work in and the best we see here other than perhaps our lovely outdoor clinic at FAME. There were only three rooms set up for us initially, but we were able to convert a small room that was being used initially for intake into our fourth examination room and Alex volunteered to see patients there as the weather this morning was quite cool and everyone had a bit of a chill.
One of the nicest features for us here at RVCV comes at lunchtime. At Kambi ya Simba, we had brought lunch boxes from the Golden Sparrow which were actually quite nice, but nothing compares to the lunches the mamas prepare for the volunteers at RVCV, which, thankfully, also includes us on these days. Fresh baked rolls, a huge amount of delicious chunks of tuna, salad, pasta salad and fruit. Though I love the lunches at FAME, and especially the rice and beans, lunch here at RVCV is an excellent diversion for us and certainly nothing that should be passed up. I actually couldn’t imagine eating this well on a regular basis and would worry if that were the case as I’d probably gain a ton of weight here which would not be a good thing for me.
Seeing patients here at RVCV is always a pleasure, and not just because of the lunch, but rather the fact that their healthcare is provided for by the clinic and we do not have to worry about the common probably of patients not being able to afford medications. This, of course, does not mean that we have different prescribing practices depending on where the patients are coming from, but rather it just doesn’t have to be such a part of our discussion with them as it is at FAME or in our other clinics. Here, the patients will return to see Africanus, and the appropriate medications will be dispensed to them at no cost. This obviously requires a significant amount of support and costs must be monitored on a constant basis to determine sustainability.
Leaving RVCV this day, it is just as all the school kids are being dismissed and there was a mob scene on the road as we passed by the entrance. All of the kids live in the area and walk to their homes which are distributed throughout the coffee plantation and the adjoining farms. We did create a bit of commotion as the boys wanted to race along behind us, and considering we couldn’t travel too fast because of the bumps on the road lest we activate the laughing machine in the back seat otherwise known as Cara, they were nearly catching up with us for a good distance. I always like to take a bit of a different way home from Oldeani as the area is just simply so unbelievably gorgeous. The huts of families living throughout the fields dot the hillsides, each with their thatched roof and commensurate solar panels as there is no power or running water here to be had. Farmers working their golden fields while their children abound around the homes, all waving to us as we pass by. Life is so much slower paced here rather than the hectic life we live back home with so little down time. Here, the day ends as the sun sets and without electricity, there is little to provide lighting other than a fire to warm the house and to cook with. The new day begins with sunrise the next morning.
We arrived home in time for me to take a bike ride through town to the opposite side and then up the big hill that leads back to FAME. It’s a nice circuit to ride, but the roads are so incredibly dusty right now and there are intersections where six inches of a fluffy dust will accumulate only to erupt into a cloud that surrounds my feet and leg. Thank goodness they have been running our kuni boilers in the afternoon so I’ll have a shower when I return home as it will be well deserved. I would have been in it immediately other than the fact that the others had walked to town after I had left on my ride and I had forgotten to bring a key with me. So, locked out of the house, I forced myself to relax in one of the hammocks waiting for them to return. Thankfully, we’re on Swahili time and have no schedule.