Conduit of Life

Conduit of Life

By: Sean Sheridan, Photos by Chuck Bigger

Compassion's Child Survival Program in Kisumu, Kenya

It's just an old Coke bottle, top worn and label faded. The soda pop inside is long gone, sucked down by a thirsty soul in dusty Kisumu, Kenya.

But the bottle, capable of holding 500 milliliters (15 ounces) inside its familiar beveled glass, is not empty — it is filled with the promise of something far more sustaining. Life.

"Some areas in Kenya are experiencing severe drought," says Victor Ogada, Director of PAG Buoye Child Survival Program (CSP).

"And that means that people die from malnutrition." One key to stopping malnutrition before it starts — and saving millions of lives around the world — is a simple solution taught in Compassion's CSP centers called oral rehydration therapy, or ORT.

The 33 CSP mothers in Kisumu, all selected from among those in the direst need in the community, have gathered at the center to learn how this works.

The information is timely. Recent news suggests that the region is already on the verge of another food crisis like the one that hit them and the world in 2008.

Coupled with malaria and AIDS, this triple threat has resulted in child mortality rates of 206 per 1,000 births in the Kisumu area, much higher than the Kenya-wide stat of 52 per 1,000.

When a food crisis hits, the numbers would be driven higher, making what Compassion shares in this Child Survival Program and others around Kenya even more critical for helping families prevent dehydration, malnutrition and other diseases for their children.

Standing before a flip chart that lists the causes of dehydration — diarrhea chief among them — a Survival Specialist explains that ORT starts with the Coke bottle. It conveniently holds the exact amount of boiled water that, when combined with one packet of oral rehydration mix, one-half teaspoon of salt, and six teaspoons of sugar, makes the lifesaving elixir.

"Be careful when mixing this," the specialist says as she pours in the sugar. "Too much sugar can make diarrhea worse. Too much salt can be harmful and cause an electrolyte imbalance."

She goes on to explain that children with dry mouths, who have rapid breathing or heartbeats, or whose skin is shrunken or lacks elasticity are the ones who need ORT quickly.

In other words, the children who are already malnourished.

The mothers, nodding their heads, fully understand the urgency. One of the mothers, HIV-positive Gertrude Ooro — who herself lost two children to the virus — now smiles as she listens.

"Before I entered the Child Survival Program I was just thinking of death," she says later from inside the home that this Compassion church partner helped her build.

She tells us that had she known about the Child Survival Program earlier she believes those two children would still be alive.

But armed with what she is learning about ORT and other ways to properly nourish the three children whom Compassion has helped her safely deliver and care for during her time in the Child Survival Program, her life has changed.

But the transformation was not easy. "Gertrude was like a pariah, an outcast," Ogada says.

"But now she is a role model. That transformation to a person who is so very radiant and can reach out to other people, to opportunity — that gives me a lot of pleasure."

It is this transformation that keeps the CSP workers motivated, keeps them trudging along dusty trails and over hills each week to visit the mothers, pray with them, and encourage them to take on the mantle of healthy change in the community.

On the day we visit Gertrude's center, we see her embody this leadership: After watching the ORT lesson, Gertrude walks to the front of the room and, taking the Coke bottle in her hands, proceeds to repeat verbatim the lifesaving procedure that the group has learned from the Survival Specialist.

She has clearly become — despite the stigma of HIV — the role model Ogada says she is, a conduit of hope like the Coke bottle. Looking around the room, the workers are smiling, clearly pleased with their protégé.