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Africa: Making the case for doing good versus feeling good

Michele Hermansen holds a newborn baby in remembrance of the birth of her first grandchild during her recent trip to Africa. (Submitted photo)1 / 5
Michele Hermansen rests roadside with Laura Sather Lemunyete during her recent trip to Africa. (Submitted photo) 2 / 5
Michele Hermansen talks about her recent trip to Africa during XYZ’s November program at First Lutheran Church on Wednesday, Nov. 20, in New Richmond. (Photo by Tom Lindfors)3 / 5
Michele Hermansen talks about her recent trip to Africa during XYZ’s November program at First Lutheran Church on Wednesday, Nov. 20. (Photo by Tom Lindfors) 4 / 5
A Samburu woman works with camels as part of the Samburu Camel Project. (Photo by Michele Hermansen) 5 / 5

By Tom Lindfors

“My first grandchild was born while I was in Africa,” Michele Hermansen said. “I had known he would be since last March. It was a difficult choice I had to make. That day in Africa, since I couldn’t hold my own grandchild, I chose to meet the other little people that were being born on the same day he was so I would always remember who else is growing up in his world and teach him so he can truly be a responsible global citizen. Of the four children born that day, including my little guy, one did not make it past the first 24 hours. It was reminder of just how precious life is, and that there are no guarantees.”

In October, Hermansen, a New Richmond writer and photographer, made her ninth trip to Africa since 2005, accompanied by Arba-Della Beck, president of Family Means, Melanie Sullivan, CEO of St. Croix Orthopedics and Karen Gieseke, director of Family Ministry for the Southeastern Minnesota Synod Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). They were joined by surgeon Dr. David Palmer and his assistant Russ Peterson, who were in the process of planning their 12th visit to Arusha to perform volunteer orthopedic surgeries. Anticipating a two-week trip, Hermansen suggested they visit Stillwater native Dr. Mark Jacobson and New Richmond native Laura Sather Lemunyete.

Jacobson grew up in Stillwater and earned his medical degree from the University of Minnesota. In 2013 he was awarded the American Medical Association’s Dr. Nathan Davis International Award in Medicine for his more than 30 years dedicated to building public health capacity in Arusha, Tanzania.

He is responsible for the construction and oversight of two medical facilities, Selian Lutheran Hospital and the Arusha Lutheran Medical Center and the education of countless young doctors and nurses. The AMA recognized Jacobson for his care of “thousands of marginalized and disabled people, as well as the nomadic Maasi people, including specialized care for women suffering from obstetric fistulas, children with orthopedic problems and individuals living with HIV/AIDS.”

Jacobson and his wife Linda, ELCA missionaries, have lived in Tanzania for more than 30 years where they raised their family.

Twenty-four hours after departing the Minneapolis/St. Paul airport, the group landed at Kilimanjaro Airport on the border between Tanzania and Kenya, and from there proceeded to Arusha, Tanzania, to begin the first leg of their journey.

Jacobson’s mission is best summarized by the medical center’s tagline, “Healing and Hope in the Heart of Arusha.”

Hermansen and her team learned that the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Tanzania (ELCT) is responsible for providing 50 percent of all medical care and 30 percent of all education in Tanzania. In 2005 Dr. Jacobson began building the Arusha Lutheran Medical Center in response to the growing medical demands of a rapidly expanding lower and middle class population in and around Arusha. Today the mission consists of two hospitals, a hospice program which serves 5,000 patients, a nursing school scheduled to open in March 2014, a women’s program founded by Linda Jacobson called Widow’s Might, which is dedicated to educating widows and orphans to be self sufficient, and Plaster House, a program that provides before- and after-care for children undergoing restorative surgery.

Jacobson explained to the team that for this medical effort to be successful long term, it must be organic. The doctors and nurses and other professionals must be Tanzanians, he said. They must embrace the mission, the ministries and the hospital as their own.

His greatest accomplishment is “the people you’re meeting out there. They are truly world standard physicians and professionals,” Jacobson said.

During a visit with three hospice workers to a remote homestead to treat a 29-year-old Maasi woman with breast cancer, Hermansen and her companions shared the first of several unforgettable experiences. The woman had learned that her cancer was too advanced for treatment so the hospice team had been dispatched to administer her morphine for her pain. The mother of three had returned home to be treated by her parents.

“It took my breath away,” Hermansen said when the young woman pulled down her blanket to reveal a tumor the size of a baseball silhouetted against her emaciated body.

Despite her obvious pain, the woman was thankful for her visitors. When the hospice worker asked if she had any questions or requests for her guests in return for being so gracious, she asked if they would sing for her. In that moment, the four women looked at one another and began to sing Amazing Grace. A moment later the young woman joined in singing in Swahili. She too knew the song.

“It was a really precious moment of great privilege to share,” Hermansen said.

Their second stop with the hospice team was to render care for a man in his 30s with advanced stage AIDS. He sat with is feet wrapped in cloth up to his ankles, revealing his lower legs covered in lesions. Hermansen explained that one of the opportunistic diseases that piggybacks on AIDs is Kaposi’s Sarcoma, a type of skin cancer responsible for the young man’s lesions. Reality set in when the care worker asked to examine his feet and he removed the cloth bandages.

“The stench and the flies were something that I had never experienced. His feet were swollen and gangrenous,” Hermansen said.

The nurse remarked they must be very painful and offered to clean them.

“She took out the gloves that she had along and the antiseptic and a pan and she knelt down on the ground next to him and she washed his feet with such incredible, incredible compassion. I thought, what a privilege it was to watch the hands of Jesus,” Hermansen said.

Jacobson explained that ELCT cannot do this work alone and that partnering is key to sustainable success. A partnership with the Denver Hospice has proven extremely beneficial to the hospice program and their partnership with the Maasi Girls School addresses their growing need for health care workers.

From Arusha, the group flew north to Nairobi to meet Lemunyete. Following a stint in the Peace Corps while pursuing a degree in Tropical Animal Production And Health at the veterinary school at Edinburgh University in Scotland, Sather met her husband to be, a Samburu warrior from northern Kenya, Reuben Lemunyete. Twenty years later, Sather, now Lemunyete, is a citizen of Kenya where she and her husband have raised a son and a daughter.

From Nairobi, the team embarked on a 1,000-mile round trip into the bush at the very northern tip of Kenya to an area called Ngurunit, where Lemunyete lives and manages several programs that address the educational and nutritional needs of women and children.

Their route took them first to Marlol, where the Lemunyetes had a home, and from there to Ngurunit, Reuben’s hometown. It took the team eight hours to cover the 125 miles from Marlol to Ngurunit, traveling mostly on dried up river beds and primitive trails.

“There aren’t any roads and there certainly isn’t any electricity. In most of the really rural areas of Africa there are cell towers, so there is some cell phone reception, but any here in northern Kenya, so we aren’t going to be in communication. We’re just going to be in the bush,” Hermansen warned her companions.

“Laura calls Ngurunit her little piece of paradise. It is absolutely stunningly beautiful with mountains all around it,” Hermansen said.

Aside from two substantial structures in the village housing Lemunyete and Reuben’s niece, a nurse, the rest of the residents live in a single primitive hut.

“The people of Ngurunit live a pastoralist lifestyle; they are herders,“ Hermansen said.

Since there is no water in the village, the men are required to take the stock and travel on foot up to 60 miles to collect and transport water back to the village. Goats and sheep have traditionally provided the food and milk for the villagers, until Lemunyete established The Samburu Camel Project.

“Once the animals left, the women and children were becoming malnourished. They didn’t have food; they were becoming dependent on relief food,” said Lemunyete, the manager of Participatory Education, Awareness and Resources (PEAR) Innovations, Heifer International’s implementing partner for the camel project.

Camels can go for six to 12 days without water, live off the trees in the area and can remain at home when the herds are in the field. The camels offer the women of this semi-nomadic community a drought-resistant source of food and income during lean times. By partnering with Heifer International, Lemunyete was able to get 80 camels delivered to the village this past spring.

“These camels are owned by the women.” Hermansen said. “They are able to form partnerships with their husbands because they own property.”

The team visited the Salato Women’s Cooperative. Lemunyete’s first project. With Lemunyete’s help, local women learn how to weave baskets using local materials which can then be sold. To promote the program, Lemunyete arranged to take seven of the women to New York City in 2012, where they spent a week weaving baskets at the Smithsonian.

Hermansen explained there is a difference between relief and community development. Relief is a temporary measure, like delivering food and tents after a disaster. It does not have a lasting impact. Providing education and job training are tools that lead to sustainable lifestyles. They empower individuals and communities to survive and eventually prosper over time.

“That’s what Laura does. She is there, she is present, she is part of the community. She does whatever needs to be done that day. It’s about how we can make a difference, not what makes us feel good. I think of it as, we are really active human doings as opposed to human beings. I have started to think about being human as being present in the rest of the world without always thinking we have to come in with the solution and implement it. A lot of the time, people already have the solutions, whether that’s here in New Richmond or somewhere else in the world,” Hermansen said.

“It was a trip of great compassion, great joy, and hope, and of presence, being with people. We saw great faith and fabulous commitment and perseverance and there was great trust within our team and among all the people that we met,” Hermansen said.