While most students spend winter break relaxing or spending time with high school friends, this January, nine Cairn students chose to devote two weeks to partnering with the people of Gatamaiyu, Kenya from January 3-19.
For alumni Peter Mbugua ‘98, trips to Gatamaiyu mean returning home. A native Kenyan, Mbugua and his wife Gail ’98 provide a bridge between the community and Cairn’s team of students, staff, and medical professionals. During each of four trips since 2010, teams have hosted a medical camp serving over 1000 patients in 8 days, as well as coming alongside the local church in the construction of a new education building. Among other purposes, this building will house the Benjamin Wellness Center—the only medical facility within an hour’s walk.
The medical needs in Gatamaiyu are great. As sophomore Ben Cardillo recalls, “Most of the people have at least one major health concern—near blindness, spinal distortion, cracked teeth, blood pressure through the roof. Some people had never been to a clinic or received medical attention. Every night, we had to turn people away – but they never complained. That was humbling.”
But, as Presidential Intern Zach Mahon points out, “There’s a duality: Obviously, you want to meet their physical needs—but the other side is relationship. Everything we do for them would mean nothing to them if we didn’t have a relationship with them.”
Mahon explains the Kenyans’ theology behind this: “They see it as a church unity thing. They really emphasize that Paul calls us to be unified. Paul wrote to Timothy, ‘I just really want to come and see you—not because you need something, but because I just want to encourage you and receive encouragement from you.’ If we just sent money to help build the building, they wouldn’t feel like we’re being obedient to that.”
This emphasis on relationship was reflected in the work patterns of the Kenyan hosts. After his second trip to Gatamaiyu, Mahon has plenty of examples: “We bring very efficient tools, and we teach the Kenyans to use them. But the way that they work, we learn from that. The first time that I went, we were laying a foundation… [breaking stones with] only 2 sledgehammers and 5 mallets. As Americans, we wanted to be doing something else… but they said, ‘Stay. Just sit with us. When we get tired, we’ll hand it off to you. Talk to us as we work.’”
Cardillo, a first-timer, jumps in: “That was hard for me, because I come from a ‘Get the work done and get out’ mentality. But I think that’s why they would stop us—tell us to stop working, take us over in the shade, and talk to us for half an hour. Work is good, but if you don’t connect with the people in a meaningful way, it doesn’t matter as much as we thought it would.”
For many participants, these relationships are what bring them back. Of the 29 participants on this year’s trip, 8 were returners from previous years. Blair Benjamin ‘94, for whose father the Wellness Center is named, has accompanied the Mbuguas on all four trips hosted by Cairn. Alumni Natalie Crooke ’12 and two medical professionals have all served in Gatamaiyu on three trips. Although only a first-timer, sophomore Erica Meyer already understands the importance of this: “We went on a short-term trip, but it’s a long-term mission. For years, Cairn has been going to the same place with the same people, and that means a lot to them. Maybe we won’t all be able to return, but they’re going to continue to build the building; they’re going to keep up the relationships.”