Samuel Bell - Medicine Electives in Kenya
Having just completed my fourth year of medicine in Northern Ireland, part of our course was to complete a six-week elective placement. I was particularly interested in working in a developing world setting, and Kenya was a country I always wanted to visit. When doing my research, I came across Projects Abroad, which fulfilled my course requirements but also provided the opportunity to add a week of conservation work to my project, which was very appealing! Before I knew it, my exams were over and I was sitting on the airplane waiting for take-off, ready to embrace another culture and study medicine in a completely different setting.
Arriving in Nanyuki, Kenya, and meeting my host family
After making my way through immigration in a relatively small terminal of the Jomo Kenyatta airport, I met the local Projects Abroad staff who took us to a hotel in Nairobi for the night. It was here I started to meet and get to know some of the other volunteers I would be spending the next couple of weeks with. The next morning, we packed our bags into the cars and started our three-hour trip to the little town of Nanyuki where Projects Abroad Kenya is based. The scenery alone was incredible, and between my short stay in Nairobi and the surroundings on the way to Nanyuki, it became quickly apparent this was very different to anything I had experienced back home.
Upon arriving in Nanyuki, we met more of the team and got some lunch before being taken to our host families, who I would be spending the next six weeks with. Despite being very far from home in a vastly different culture and climate, I quickly felt at home. My host family were lovely, welcoming people and took very good care of me. I spent a lot of time getting to know them, understanding the culture and (perhaps most importantly!) tasting a variety of Kenyan food each evening. I even learnt how to make some (even if my own attempts back at home have not even come close).
Nanyuki was a small but lively town, vastly different to back home. The town consisted of one main road from Nairobi running straight through the town, with the majority of small shops and businesses / banks etc. on either side of that. The town also had a supermarket which contained pretty much anything I needed during my stay. This was all overlooked by Mount Kenya, with some spectacular views of the mountain in the morning before the clouds could gather.
My medical elective placement
I spent my six weeks at the new-born unit and pediatric ward in the local Nanyuki Teaching and Referral Hospital. Transport to and from my placement was provided by Projects Abroad, although the hospital was within walking distance for when I fancied it.
Most of my time was spent shadowing the medical staff. In the morning, we completed a ward round across both units. It was here I got to see a mix of conditions I would see back at home, along with an assortment of vastly different diseases which I am unlikely to ever see again. The staff were all very friendly and took time to talk to me and teach. Even though my main intention was to experience healthcare in a developing world setting, I was surprised at how much clinical medicine I actually learnt.
I admired immensely how the doctors and nurses managed to make do with so little. Diagnoses were often made on clinical grounds without the fancy tests we take for granted back at home to confirm our suspicions. For example, simple blood tests I am likely to send off multiple times a day at home are completely unavailable in settings like this, with many more advanced investigations such as CT scanning coming at great personal cost to patients and parents.
On top of the hospital attachment, Projects Abroad also run their own free medical outreach clinics with the assistance of medical volunteers and local nursing staff. Funds are spent on medication and medical equipment for use at these clinics. These outreach clinics were an amazing opportunity to put my skills to practice and speak to locals directly about their concerns and issues. The patients benefited from our endeavors.
Evenings and weekends in Kenya
I quickly got to know the local Projects Abroad staff and met a number of volunteers from all over the world carrying out a wide variety of projects in Nanyuki. We got free time in the evenings and weekends to do a multitude of activities – we headed out for food at least once a week (it was usually someone’s birthday which provided a good excuse!) and did some sightseeing at the weekends.
The highlights for me were the Thompson Falls (which were around two hours away from Nanyuki) and the Ol Pajeta Conservancy which is just next door to the town. Projects Abroad also organized several local social events during my six weeks which ranged from cooking classes to lessons on the local language and culture. It was fascinating to learn a bit more about the history of Kenya and a bit about the major tribes, as well as attempt – even if perhaps rather badly – some of the local language.
Volunteering at the Conservation Project
After my six weeks in Nanyuki, I packed my bags, said goodbye to my wonderful host family along with all the amazing local staff and other volunteers I had made, and made the three-hour bus journey to Nakuru to the Soysambu Conservation Reserve.
I spent a week with a handful of other volunteers and staff in the reserve. During this week, we spent a couple of days tracking the endangered Rothschild Giraffe (about 10% of the world’s population currently live in Soysambu), along with a couple of unfortunately unsuccessful lion spotting mornings! We also fixed up a football pitch for one of the local schools, before ultimately losing rather spectacularly to them during a match.
The evenings were good fun – from playing volleyball outside to games of Kenyan poker indoors when it got dark (basically like Uno or Jack Change It) there was plenty to keep us entertained and I got to know another group of great people.
Before I knew it, the week was over and I was on my way back to Nairobi and back home.
I spent my last day in Nairobi at the Masai markets with some of the other volunteers I had got to know during my seven weeks in Kenya. Although I felt time passed slowly at first when I was settling in, I began to realize just how quickly it went by in the end.
Overall, my trip to Kenya was an amazing one which I will never forget! The difference in culture and particularly from my perspective healthcare is staggering, and I return to the UK with a renewed perspective. I also learnt a great deal which will be of great use to me in my final year of medical school and future career.
The Projects Abroad staff were all fantastic and help was always available when I needed it. And of course, I can’t finish this story without a big shout out to my host family in Nanyuki, who really made me feel at home during my six weeks there.