Real life hero story. In one night Mary went from being a shy, unknown volunteer in her community to the "The Lady That Saved Many Lives"
When the police car arrived at the clinic with the first survivor, a one-month old baby boy, I had no idea what would lay ahead for myself and the clinic as the night unfolded.
I looked down at the lifeless body of the child. White foam dripped from his mouth. His breathing was faint. I was shaking, confused.
I had no doctors to call on. The two doctors scheduled to work at the clinic had fled the scene to safety.
I prayed, “Oh God, please help me. Don’t let this precious baby die in my arms!”
I was so scared. That child was in my clinic, depending on me for survival.
The commotion had started that evening around 7pm. There had been a loud bang, a massive blast. Next came an unusual breeze followed by another mysterious sound - like an ocean viciously roaring, banging against a rock face.
I walked outside to investigate the sound. A panicked group of local women and children were gathering. There were more women arriving – terrified mothers with crying children clutched to their backs. With them, they brought the terrible news.
Patel dam, located close to the village of Solai, 190km (120 miles) north-west of the capital, Nairobi, Kenya, had burst. The waters were sweeping away homes and claiming people with it.
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The news was devastating. Shouts and screams grew louder. Phones started ringing. People were calling friends, family and neighbors, alerting others of the impending doom.
I looked around the clinic. Inside and out. So many women and children had rushed to the clinic for refuge. What could I do to help them? Could they swim? How was I going to swim? I don’t know how to swim.
My mind raced, my thoughts tormented me. I thought of Derry. I thought of the Solai community and my family. And what about Le Cheile Africa, and all the efforts we’d gone to, to raise money to open the clinic. We had just opened the doors of Le Cheile Africa five weeks earlier.
Anxiety gripped at me as I prepared for death. My hands shook as I texted my fiancé Derry. I wanted to hear his voice for one last time. I was too terrified to call my parents. I knew my dad would be devastated by what was happening. I prayed silently, “Oh God, please forgive me for my sins”.
I continued to shake uncontrollably. I was having trouble breathing. Was this going to be the end? I took a couple of puffs from my Asthma puffer.
Breath in, breath out. I took deep breaths and then I heard a voice speak from my heart, “Mary, you may feel terrified inside, but you have to be strong. These women and children, and the elderly gathering at the clinic are frightened and desperate. They need you.”
I looked down at the precious baby boy in my arms. A renewed energy engulfed me. I felt a presence guiding me on how to act. Thoughts and ideas began flooding into my mind like the dam waters that had brought this child to me.
I held the baby close to my chest to transfer the heat from myself to him. I started clearing his airways and removed the mud and debris from his fragile body. I patted him on his back.
I pleaded and begged that child would not die in my arms.
It was dark. The electric lines had been knocked down by flooding waters. One of the local women held up her phone light as I tried resuscitating the baby.
I asked her, “Please, go boil water for us so we can clean the baby. It will be easier to clear his airways”. She ran next door to her home and started a bonfire. She placed a big pot on it to boil water.
A few minutes later we completely cleaned the baby. We wrapped him with my duvet and I held him close, cradling him in my arms. Next, the baby came out with a burp. Murky water came gushing out of his mouth. His airways were clear. I wouldn’t lose this child.
Slowly, slowly he started breathing and his body temperature returned to normal. I thanked God for this miracle.
Seeing that baby boy come back to life in my arms gave me the energy to keep going.
Inside the clinic on the night of the disaster. Our clinic is very small - Each room 9 by 9, so we worked with the space we had. We had children, men and women in their own rooms respectively.
As the co-founder of Le Cheile Africa, I knew I must take charge. Our small clinic, that we’d struggled so hard to get off the ground, would become the rescue place for the community. We must fight for survival as a community.
Within minutes another police car pulled up with another screeching siren. Three more children were rushed into our clinic. Their state was horrifying. They were covered in murk and mud everywhere with no clothes. Two of the children were hypothermic.
I gathered all the courage left in me. I prayed the children be brave and that no lives would be lost.
Finding Courage From Within
The community say they saw a totally different Mary that night. Though I had co-founded Le Cheile Africa, I personally, was very much an unknown in the community.
I had always been a quiet person, working in the background. I never imagined I could take on the role of a leader. I was so wrong.
I wondered how it could be possible, but the courage came when I needed it. To the community’s surprise, when the survivors came pouring in, I gave instructions with authority. I directed the abled-bodied on what to do. “Please, sister get the boiled water!” “You, brother, please bring the blankets from the neighbors and give them to the families outside.” “And aunty, please take this child. Hold her close, keep her warm.”
I was shaking, moving with speed. The clinic was like a scene from an ER movie. I watched our clinic supplies fly off the shelves. I told myself that our clinic isn’t about the supplies. We are about saving lives. And that is exactly what we did. By the end of the night I’d lost my voice, sense of smell, and I couldn’t taste anything. But it was worth it!
Everyone brought to our clinic, left stable and alive. No one died at our clinic that night. We saved lives.
When I Feel Like Giving Up
While those that sought refuge in the clinic survived the dam disaster, so many others didn’t make it. People I had treated previously at the clinic were no more. One family who I dearly cared for, lost all their four children.
It was not easy mentally. We spent every night and day offering counselling and psycho social support to that family and others that needed it.
I was breaking into pieces and fell into a spate of depression. I had no one to release my emotions to, bar my finace’ Derry, who kept me sane with his loving advice and counselling.
Even now, there are times when I feel like giving up. Running a small organization can be draining and stressful. Le Cheile Africa is still on its baby feet with no source of funding or support except for friends and family. It’s difficult going back to the same people for support all the time.
In my day to day journey I see much poverty, suffering and disease, and that motivates me to keep helping those that are in dire need. When I feel like giving up, I look to them.
I personally, have been through much suffering in my life. In a way, my character and inner person have been shaped by these experiences.
I know the taste of poverty, homelessness, bullying, unemployment, sickness, being a family breadwinner at the age of 18 years old, looking after my dad and siblings. In experiencing these sufferings, I have vowed to myself and God, to always do good, treat others the way I would want to be treated.
My desire when starting the clinic, was to see it grow and impact the community in Solai. The clinic is living up to its dream and making a difference in people’s lives.
We continue to support the survivors of the dam disaster, through healthcare, counselling, disability and mental health programs and also empowerment programs through small micro loans.
A Big Surprise - A Call From The Governor
Two weeks after the disaster there was mass for the victims. Entire communities gathered and the event was attended by high-end politicians including the president of Kenya and his deputy.
I received a surprise call from the Governor, “Mary, will you be in attendance at the mass prayers? We’d like to recognize the clinic’s efforts on the night of the Solai disaster.”
I never imagined, I would be called by the president and awarded for Distinguished Service Rendered to the Country with a Head of State Commendation (HSC) award.
It still feels like a dream come true. When I was saving lives that night, it never crossed my mind that I might be recognized for my efforts. No, no. In my opinion, I did what was humane. That is all.
There were many heroes who did amazing work during the tragedy. Many risked lives for others.
People from different regions set-aside their differences and came together. They shared compassion, supported one another.
There were men helping in the rescue mission, pulling people out of the deep waters. Women carrying children on their chests- kangaroo style. Others looking after the elderly and keeping them warm as people fled their homes. Many others spent the night looking out, to watch if waters were heading in our direction.
In my opinion, the whole community gathered as heroes that night. The way we all worked together was a testament to humanity.
Our Dream Expands
Since the official recognition, I have become a hero for the Solai community. I feel so humbled. Many people come to the clinic looking for help, others come to see the lady that saved many children. With more people coming to the clinic for support, we need more funding to expand.
It is our intention to expand the clinic to include a maternity and in-patient ward for children and adults. We have some equipment and hopefully, we will get well-wishers that will support us with badly needed monetary donations.
We also want to build a community centre that will house a library, computer room, sewing room, day-care with therapists for disabled children and adults and counselling for children and adults suffering from trauma. We are also looking to do fun sport days for kids to help with trauma, escape their daily harsh realities for a few hours, and at the same time learn social skills
We need funding, partners, more friends, supporters and volunteers to help us realize this dream.
There are big lessons in experiencing uncertainty and calamity with a sober focus - the most chaotic moments are the ones from which we can learn the most. I myself have learnt so many lessons …
- We are so much stronger and courageous than we can ever imagine
- Humanity is full of compassion and ready to help where there is a need
- With hard work & determination, we can leave the world a better place than we found it
- That it is through many failures, you eventually find success
Today, though there is still so much to do, I thank God for the miracles that night. I’m so honored and humbled that the clinic saved so many lives. And I pray we will save many more in the future.
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