, NAIROBI, Nov 1 – She remembers it with almost painful feelings. The mystery of not knowing what her son was suffering from and the endless and desperate search for a cure. The doctors at Kabarnet hospital, Baringo, where she had taken him, tried their best but after a little while realized they could not handle it. They sent her to Nakuru hospital, but there too, no solution seemed possible. They then recommended she takes the child to Kenyatta National Hospital, the national referral facility in Nairobi.
In her silent thoughts and monologues she wondered why her son had stopped walking. Why had the fever left his right leg weak and the massaging not helped? What exactly was it – a curse? Why didn’t the doctors have answers? These and more thoughts went on in her mind.
She also thought about the two week admission at Kabarnet hospital following a measles infection. A month after the ‘strange’ disease had struck him. Could the injections have caused his illness? She wondered silently, getting more desperate and helpless with each step.
At Kenyatta National Hospital, he was admitted and after a while the doctors seemed to have figured out what it was. His condition had worsened and second leg also weakened.
In between the hospital visits she consulted with herbalists. This took her to far-away places including Ukambani (Machakos and Kitui) as well as Bungoma and Mombasa where people told her she could find a cure in herbal medicine.
Ruth Kobilo, 85, looks up in thought, her deep feelings evident from her voice almost as if she has not found an answer to her many questions of over 50 years. “It seemed forever and I had become so des-perate and helpless as I struggled from one place to the other in search for answers. “
She did so with her son on her back.
Ruth is the mother of Goodwill Immunization Ambassador Harold Kipchumba, the man who has become the face and advocate for immunization and effort to eradicate polio Kenya. The Wild Polio Virus (WPV) outbreak occurred in May 2013 in the in Dadaab Refugee camp and host communities with the date of onset of last case on July 14, 2013.
Her husband Kimuge Komen, 88, was away from home most of the time because he worked in a farm in Eldama Ravine. He too was troubled at what had happened to their fourth child and barely could deal with it. In fact over time his presence became rarer which made the situation worse for Ruth and her family.
He says: “It occurred to me that he would not be able to do what our other children could do – work on the farm or look after cattle – which are the roles played by most children in our area did”.
He adds: “It was harsh reality when he got infected with polio but despite this, he has surprised us beyond our imagination.”
At Kenyatta National Hospital, KNH another crop of experts embarked on the problem. There he was ad-mitted and after some time, she was asked to leave him at the hospital while they attended to him. She stayed with her brother as she waited for a solution.
“Then one morning at KNH, the doctor told me he knew the problem. Her son had contracted polio, a dis-ease that weakened the limbs and could not be reversed.
He advised her to leave him in the hospital while they try to support him. “I just prayed and asked God to keep him alive at least as I went away”. God heard her prayers and for five months they treated him and offered him physiotherapy sessions which helped to strengthen his arms and stabilize him.
Meanwhile she stayed with her brother and visited her son. She also visited her family in Kaptiony where her three other children were being raised by her mother in law and other relatives.
“I felt like I had abandoned my other children but I did not have an alternative until I got this one well.” Her kind of relief began when she met other children who had been infected by polio. She and her broth-er learnt about a community – the Bohra Community – on Accra Road, Nairobi which offered physiothera-py and other related support for children with physical disability.
Ruth’s kind of relief began when she met other chil-dren who had been infected by polio. She and her brother learnt about a community – the Bohra Com-munity – on Accra Road, Nairobi which offered physiotherapy and other related support for children with physical disability. Here she came across other chil-dren with similar handicaps. He also got crutches that fitted which gave him mobility.
After this they went back to Baringo where Kipchumba’s siblings were quite puzzled by his ailment. They could go to school but realized his handicap would deny him that. In fact he was denied a place several times. “You see, up until then, no one had polio in the whole area so people did not know what to do with it, “Ambassador Kipchumba says.
His mum still had to keep going to hospital for extra support and whenever he got ill. At one point she left him in hospital because the burden of carrying him back and forth was unbearable and she needed to attend to the rest of the family. She told the hospital personnel to attend to him while she was away.
It is while she was away that a Catholic missionary visited the hospital and met him. She later made arrange-ments for him to move to Nyabondo Home for disabled children in Siaya, which became his second home for the next seven years. There started school and completed hi 7-year primary school.
Looking back, Ruth now thinks God intervened anyway because all the fears she had have been allayed. The family was stigmatized and isolated by the community because of her son but God had a solution for her family. When he returned home next, Kipchumba was ready to go to Form One after doing his national pri-mary school exams, KCPE. He had been admitted to Lenana School in Nairobi, one of the best national schools.
“It is at that point that I realized God had answered my prayer. My son was after all going to go to school like other children and fulfil his hopes and desires. He could be educated do something big,” she reminisces.
“When I look at him now, I tell myself, I did not need to have sought herbalists and all those I consulted be-cause I believed he had been bewitched. He has done everything an able person can do and as a family look up to him and he takes care of us.”
We found Kipchumba’s parents in their home in Kabartonjo, perched on a vantage point up the escarpment and overlooking their old home in the in Kaptiony. Kipchumba remi-nisces about growing up and how life has turned out. He is thankful for the opportunity he got at Nyabondo Mission, where he got his sense of belonging and acceptance be-cause he found many other children with dis-ability, some even worse than him. “I realized I was not alone and there were many things I could do” he says.
That included life skills including self- image and self-reliance. All the children were as-signed to do some duty in the home.
He also learnt to be assertive and confident, skills he needed to have in high school at Lenana School where he found himself the only student with the disability in the whole school. His being there helped to sensitize the school about disability . This made it easier for him to pursue leadership and be involved in various other activities.
After school he joined some groups for justice, equity and rights, a path that put him in direct confronta-tion with the government before the democratic wave of the nineties. He later took development studies and has since worked with communities on health, governance, peace building, social accountability and giving the public a voice.
Following the Polio outbreak in Kenya and the region, Kipchumba offered to support the response efforts. The Ministry of Health and partners, UNICEF and WHO, embraced him and brought him on board. As it were, he became the unforgettable voice and face that represents the effort to stop polio in Kenya and sustain other immunization schedules. He was appointed the goodwill immunization ambassador last year by the Ministry of health. He told his survival story first in Mombasa in 2013, which became an instant winner. In consequent national launches of polio campaigns, he has made moving and convincing appeals to the nation and specifically parents. In the past two-and-half years, he has become the face of polio and immunization with most people able to recognize him because of his face on polio campaign posters and on TV. In many counties he has visited, children always first recognize him due to the appeals he makes and the association with polio.
“In Kisumu, a child came to me during one of the campaigns and told me that his young sibling had not been vaccinated. Immediately we found her mum and made sure that happened”. In other places he has come across resistance for immun-ization, including the Kavonoya group in Kitui who believe prayers keep childhood disease and vac-cine preventable diseases at bay. Other groups who resent conventional medicine are found in different parts of the country. There too, he has been the positive voice to convince them and use his physical handicap to show how bad it can get. He has also advocated for Rotavirus vaccine which was launched last year and which helps build immunity of children against diarrhea.
In every county now, Ambassador Kipchumba sparks attention and interest. Recently in Elgeyo Marakwet, Kipchumba won the hearts of many who have come to respect and honor the work he is do-ing. Many in barazas and discussions just thanked him for carrying on the burden by being the face of diseases that need to be wiped out.
His message: “Don’t let any one child go through what I have gone through. Had my mum known about the two drops for polio vaccination 50 years ago, this would not have happened.”
This is the message that has resonated with most of the public. One that has earned him recognition by the United Nations family in Kenya this year for especially making a difference.
His family is all praises. “He is a loving and hardworking man and I love him very much,” says Dorothy his wife. She says it is difficult to handle such a handicap because he always needs support.
“The realities are such that one does not have the luxury of waking up and going anywhere they want. We always have to think about how the set-up of the place is and if he would be able to get there.”
When they first married, her family was very uneasy about it because of his physical disability. “But our love for each other has gone a long way to bring everyone around us.”
His middle son Dennis adds: “One thing we believe as a family is that my father is like everyone else and we know this because he has raised us and provided for us and his physical handicap has not been ever used as the reason to seek favours”.
He says his confidence, willingness to work and not focus on his challenges is what has impacted them greatly. “ We are a blessed family and I am very thankful to my loving and supportive wife and children,” Kipchumba adds.