Personal ties build bridge from Kenya to Columbia

MU doctoral student plans to build hospital in Kenyan hometown with help from Columbia community
Wednesday, February 8, 2012 | 6:00 a.m. CST; updated 4:14 p.m. CST, Wednesday, February 8, 2012
Sharon Kinden, a Columbia resident and Pathways Africa collaborator, greets community members in Jivetti's home village in the Kenyan countryside in the winter of 2010.

COLUMBIA — The 23-year-old woman who died from an infection after stepping on a nail.

The women with pregnancy complications being pushed in wheelbarrows who didn't make it to the hospital in time.

Pathways Africa

To invite Pathways Africa to make a presentation to your community group about the health project and conditions in rural Kenya, contact Sharon Kinden at

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Billy Jivetti said he thinks their deaths and others in the Kenyan village he grew up in could have been easily prevented. But it was the death of his close friend James Sambuli that solidified Jivetti's commitment to help his community by setting up an organization to promote public health in his homeland.

So Jivetti, who plans to graduate from MU in May with a doctorate in rural sociology, founded Pathways Africa in 2010. The program will start by building a three-story hospital that will serve a region in which 100,000 people live. 

Death of a friend prompts action

Two hundred people came to celebrate Jivetti's departure from Kenya to the United States in 2002. The party was filled with singing, dancing and speeches.

Jivetti's close friend, Sambuli, played a keyboard borrowed from a church. The two men shared most of their lives with each other.

As Jivetti prepared to pursue graduate studies abroad, he thought of how he could help his community, starting with his friend.

"If God blesses me in America, I'll buy you a keyboard," Jivetti said he promised.

After a trip around western Kenya, Jivetti's friend contracted a serious strain of malaria. Sambuli underestimated the strength of the disease. By the time he finally got to a hospital, the doctors couldn’t do anything to save him.

"I spent a lot of time agonizing about his loss," Jivetti said. "It could have been me. It could have been someone in my family."

Lack of health care

Malaria is one of the most serious health issues in the region of Kenya where Jivetti grew up, he said. The disease is spread by mosquitoes infected with a parasite called Plasmodium.

Lack of clean drinking water, which causes dysentery, typhoid and other diseases, is also a serious problem, Jivetti said. Of all the children under age 5 in Kenya who died in 2008, 20 percent were killed by diarrhea, another health issue caused, in part, by the lack of clean drinking water, according to the World Health Organization.

The biggest issues are access to health care and the lack of money to pay for medical treatment, said Seth Nandwa, Jivetti's brother and chief of neighboring area Makuchi, where he was reached by cellphone. Nandwa said most people in the area are subsistence farmers and earn the U.S. equivalent of $12 a month.

The nearest hospital to Nandwa's community is six miles away, so patients have to hire a motorbike or taxi, which costs $48 round trip, he said. Treatment costs even more. It takes at least $60 to treat malaria and up to $179 for a complicated childbirth, Nandwa said.

Columbia resident helps make Jivetti's plans a reality

After her husband died in 1997, Sharon Kinden, a real estate agent in Columbia for 30 years, parceled her life into a pattern of selling three houses, taking a trip and then selling three more to save for her next adventure. In that time, Kinden has visited 61 countries.

The day Kinden and Jivetti met in 2009 they were in the Jesse Hall rotunda during an international student orientation. She was handing out invitations to her church's ice cream party and for English classes. Jivetti was volunteering with the International Student Center at the next table.

A little more than a year later, Kinden was shaking hands with Jivetti’s parents at his village of 100 households. Kinden hadn't planned to visit the village when she left America, but that's where she ended up when she had an open day during a safari to East Africa. Jivetti's family arranged her transportation to the village.

Two hundred people welcomed her with singing and clapping. Everyone dressed up — school children in pressed uniforms and women in their finest dresses. Children approached Kinden and touched her gray and silver-toned hair. She brought out a brush, and the children took turns playing with her hair.

Before she left Columbia for East Africa, Kinden had learned that her "bachelor farmer" cousin in South Dakota had died of cancer and left his estate to his 33 cousins.

She told Jivetti, "Whatever it is, you're going to get my share of that money."

When Kinden returned to Columbia from east Africa she got more news. Her portion of the inheritance was $100,000, she said. And even though it was a lot of money, she stayed with her decision that all of it would go to improve access to health care in Jivetti's home region.

"I didn't need this money," Kinden said. "The children in Africa needed this money."

The Fellbaum Community Health Centre Emmaus

Jivetti and Kinden decided to name the hospital after Kinden's late cousin, Lloyd Fellbaum. Once it's built, it will be the nearest health facility for 25,000 people in the immediate area and up to 75,000 more in neighboring communities. 

The hospital will focus on outpatient services, such as malaria treatment, maternal care and immunizations, and at least two full-time nurses and a rotating group of volunteer doctors from abroad will staff the facility.

During Jivett's most recent visit in December, the hospital was a one-story concrete foundation with walls and supports. The donation from Kinden won't stretch as far as they thought. So far, they have spent about $60,000, and the project is far from done.

Inflation in Kenya has pushed up prices for transportation and construction material, he said. Last year, a bag of cement cost $6 to $7 a bag, but by August the price had nearly doubled.

Pathways Africa wants to reach out to organizations in Columbia for help to finish the hospital and stock it with surgical gloves, mosquito nets, medicine and other supplies.

In the future, Jivetti plans to send health workers into far-flung communities and produce a radio program on health.

He said he feels a strong responsibility to the folks back home.

"It's upon people like me who come to study in America to take advantage of the networks and opportunities here," he said.

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