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The neuroscience of infancy makes it obvious that simple interventions during the early years have a profound effect on children’s achievements in school and later functioning as adults. The crisis in Africa makes problems in Canada pale in comparison, with a high proportion of children orphaned by AIDs and basic infrastructure missing due to conflict and corruption. There is a tendency to think of this as beyond our ability to address and having little effect on us. I would argue that neither assumption is correct. If we each took on a small project then the outcome would be very different. As child and adolescent psychiatrists we have valuable skills, our income is well above that of the average Canadian’s and we are wealthy in comparison to most Africans. We have the resources, if we choose to use them. Furthermore, the potential for disruption in our quality of life, due to global problems arising from millions of attachment disordered adults, should make it apparent that we should act, even if only for purely selfish reasons.
My involvement started almost by accident. Like many of us I sponsored children through charities. The first child, from when I was 18, kept in touch over the years. Ndungu never asked for anything more – just let me know how he was doing. When his daughter was born he asked if he could name her for me – a huge honor which meant I was, in effect, her grandmother. She did not do well and was eventually diagnosed with AIDs, presumably infected at birth in the hospital. Miraculously with cotrimoxazole, vitamin supplements and fortified baby formula, sent from Canada so it was not out of date, she survived. Eventually we were able to obtain antiretrovirals in a pediatric formulation. Meanwhile, it had become apparent that the family had other problems. Ndungu lost his job as he had to take so much time off to care for her. I started sending money, but this effected Ndungu’s self esteem and the family had no security. If anything happened to me they would again be starving. So, I took out a loan, sent a lump sum, and paid this off each month. Ndungu was now a businessman, supporting his family. I thought I had done well, but when visiting in 2004 realised that they also needed land to grow food.
There were several times we thought we’d lose Pippa. She was extremely ill when we arrived in 2007, to find she had TB. This was treatable but complicated my return to work! The family had land, a house and a business; all seemed well, yet Pippa’s parents struggled to find meaning in her suffering. Her mother, Damaris, started to volunteer at local orphanages and realized that no one wanted the AIDs babies; as Ndungu explained “Her soul cries out for justice.” They decided God had taught them to care for sick children through Pippa’s illness and wanted to set up an orphanage for AIDs orphaned and abandoned children. In Kenya an orphanage has to have over 20 children and we discussed attachment needs. Ndungu and Damaris replied, “We’ll adopt the babies, as they need a family.” They intended to do this alone, but my son insisted we should help and so Pippa’s Place started – named for my granddaughter.
We formed a Kenyan Trust and set up an MOU with a Canadian charity; we have charitable status and fundraising is ongoing. The land is being developed and, after a delay caring for internally displaced children in 2007/8, we were ready for the first child. Pippa’s Place is not a formal orphanage. This means that children can join the family slowly and in smaller numbers, more like a natural family. Our first baby entered the family in March ‘09. He’s a happy child and is already catching up despite significant delays when he first came. He is fostered at present but will be adopted, his care being supported and funded by Canadians who wish to help. Other children will join the family slowly over the years to give each a time to have that special attention a baby needs. Tatamagouche school children bought a milk cow; a second is planned. We need to build more rooms and complete the perimeter wall. It has been hard work but fun. I am telling this story because, if a rural doc and a teenager (my son) can do this, anyone can.
If you would like to help, it would be most welcome, but other charities, or your own project, are options. Let’s see what we can do as a profession. As Margaret Mead said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”
Indeed – and we are not that small a group!