Friends who gave up and changed their world

By Steve Letchford

I am old enough to know now that, behind all the sweet stories and pageants of this holiday season, there is a Christmas story reality that gets some people to give up their plans for finding peace and security in life and pursue something bigger but less comfortable. Many religious people know this Christmas story of the All-Powerful giving up privilege, taking on the form of a Servant and an Outcast, and then asking people to do the same and follow Him. Many know it, but only some seem to be deeply affected by it.

I want to tell you the story of two friends of ours who are a part of that “some” who heard the story and were deeply affected by its reality, friends who gave up on their personal plans for peace and security and, as a result, changed their world. Their names are Steve and Mary Njenga and, when I am weary, it is friends like these who cheer me on without ever saying a word. Banda Health went live in their clinic in a very low-income community this past week so I have been thinking about them a bit extra lately. Steve and Mary are the types of friends that you just have to watch them live life and you get strength for another day.

Our good friend, Mary Njenga, one of three people who led Kijabe's operating room to its current status as one of the busiest in East Africa.

Seventeen years ago, Mary and Steve were young, gifted, upwardly-mobile Kenyan professionals when their world began to change. Mary was already the Nursing Director of Kijabe Hospital’s operating rooms (then and now one of the busiest operating rooms in East Africa), and Steve was a successful speaker. Their family’s economic future looked bright, to say the least. But early one morning in 2002, while he was leading one of Kijabe Hospital’s outreaches in a town a few hours north of us, Steve looked up at the top of a nearby volcano and asked, “What’s up there?”

“Not much, just a small, really poor village,” was the reply.

That village was Eburru, and it was remote, dusty and dry. Dry, they were told, as in “even-the-cabbage-doesn’t-grow-there-dry.”

For many reasons, including the fact that there is little very little cabbage growing there, it is not the type of place that upwardly mobile young Kenyans move to in the prime of their working lives.

The view to the Rift Valley from Eburru town

But one year later, Steve led a hospital outreach trip to that mountain-top village, he and his team sleeping on the floors of an empty local building. The poverty and medical needs were far worse than they had imagined. They quickly realized that the 4-day outreach hadn’t made much of a dent in the need. So a few months later, Steve and Mary began traveling back every weekend to help out more, leaving Kijabe every Friday night after work and coming back early every Monday morning. 

After a couple of years, they could no longer ignore the fact that even going every weekend was not enough. So they did the unthinkable. They moved with their two boys to this apparently God-forsaken village in the middle of nowhere.

When I took our team to first visit Steve and Mary three years ago, I caught Banda’s young Kenyan software developers staring in wide-eyed disbelief as they listened to these healthcare heroes share their story how they ended up moving with their kids to this dusty little village. “Exactly why did you move your family up here? the Banda guys asked incredulously.

This year, the US Ambassador attended an opening ceremony for the local high school. I heard him ask Steve and Mary that same question, “Why did you move here?” No family ties, no prospect of financial security.

Their answer was very enlightening. To paraphrase it, the reality of Christmas caused them to give up their own plans for personal security and trade them out for plans that prioritized loving God and others

Steve and Mary Njenga with the US Ambassador, Kyle McCarter, celebrating the opening of the administration block of the new high school earlier this year in Eburru.

Though they had never planned to move to a place like Eburru, when they saw the crushing need there after 10 years of climbing the ladder early in their professional career, it became clear that this was what they were to do. So they moved. To Eburru of all places.

Christmas messed up what they thought their dreams and plans for life were. But it was “good messy,” like windswept hair, open-air markets, and family reunions.

At my age, you realize that life affected by Love usually is this kind of good messy. It takes you through the places in life where the cabbage won’t grow, the places described by only the politest people of people as “messy.” Moving to Eburru, life for Steve and Mary’s family got messy quickly, raising two boys with overwhelming need and poverty all around them. But in that mess, a transformation in this little village area on the side of a volcano began to happen.

Malnutrition in the area was so bad when they started visiting that they got friends to help them buy fifteen female goats and one male goat. Working with the four small churches they helped get started there, they gave one goat each to fifteen different families in the community and said, “You have to give the first female goat born back to the church so that they can give it to the next family in the community, but you can keep all the rest after that.” Though the poverty persisted, many families got the opportunity to raise goats and malnutrition plummeted.

The healthcare needs were equally overwhelming, so they took a first baby step and opened a basic clinic in a mud-brick, thatched-roof rondavel. “We delivered babies and sutured wounds in there with no electricity. But if you needed your tooth pulled, we laid you down on the grass over there,” Mary says now, still with a twinkle in her eye. Today, they run a 4-room cinderblock clinic complete with maternity services. This is the little clinic that our team helped get the Banda clinic management solution up and running in this past week, helping them maximize the use of every shilling they spend providing good healthcare in this very poor community.

The original clinic - you had to lie on the grass outside it to get your tooth pulled.
And the clinic today - you can get everything done indoors 🙂

But Mary and Steve didn’t stop there. The educational situation was desperate so they started a school first for orphans and other local kids, then expanded the school to take in paying boarding students and make it sustainable. They recruited young Kenyan teachers with huge hearts, not just teaching academics but helping shape character. Ten years later, the school has over 500 students from the local area and beyond. The national grade 8 exam scores of this “little” school up on the top of the volcano are in the top 5% in the country, and their new high school expands to grade 11 this year and grade 12 next year. When we went to visit them in October, the US Ambassador was there to see what had come to pass.

Signs on the trees all around the school capture the ethos of what happens there, giving kids an opportunity to grow in all areas of their young lives.

The reality of Christmas messed up Steve and Mary’s plans for peace and security. We watched it happen first-hand many years ago. But they are as full of life today as anyone we know. Watching them is good for our souls, and gives us the strength to press on in the “good mess” of our own journey through life.

The Banda team’s lives are much richer because we get to work with the Steves and Marys of the world. We love getting to be a small part of what they do for others and to share their stories with you. Thanks for being a part of this journey with us.

The US Ambassador visiting the Eburru clinic team in action.
Steve and Mary's Eburru-healthcare-hero team, working where patients need them most!

Banda Health 2020

Celebratory selfies at the opening ceremony in Eburru.

A few people have asked me recently what the Banda project needs for its next steps. Over the next few years, we’re investing heavily in transforming healthcare in very-low-income communities, empowering health teams like Mary and Steve’s with technology. Right now we are working hard to raise the next $700,000. With these funds, Banda Health will add powerful new features and expand its coverage to hundreds of new clinics. 

Every dollar helps our team. So many have helped us over the past few years. When we remember that we are not alone on our journey, we feel like celebrating – like putting our arms around whoever is closest and grab that selfie with irrepressible grins that we can’t wipe off our faces! 

Banda Health is our baby, and it’s taking a global village to raise it. We are so thankful for each of you for being a part of this village with us!

Read about the Healthcare Heroes Campaign

Wishing you a wonderful Advent season
and New Year!

Steve and Sherri, for the Banda Health team and our families