by Katie Gorham
On a bright August day in 2008 as I rode a small van home, I had a quiet epiphany to myself. I was tired from a hard day’s work and sweaty from the heat of the day – but I was happy with what I’d accomplished and was enjoying the view out my window: a yellow-orange sunset highlighting the greenery of the mountainside I was slowly climbing and the entire sprawling valley below.
The van was a matatu, the main mode of transportation in Kenya, and the immense valley was the Great Rift Valley, which I’d seen glorified this way several times already during my summer adventure volunteering at an orphanage in a small rural town in the Kenyan Highlands. On my lap, fast asleep, was a tiny boy called Gichinga*, his dark skin contrasting vividly with the pale arms I had tightly wrapped around him. There was a rapidly growing puddle of saliva on my chest fed by an apparently unending stream from his mouth, but luckily I’d brought along plenty of other shirts.
I was thinking about our day together: a two-and-a-half-hour journey by bus, matatu, and finally a long walk, to the clinic in Nairobi where Gichinga received a checkup and his monthly supply of HIV medications, then the same two hour journey back to the orphanage – all of this punctuated by odd looks from onlookers puzzled over what a skinny mzungu was doing toting the world’s cutest orphan all over Kenya. He’d made the same trip every single month with various other volunteers, ever since he was brought to the orphanage by a neighbor; his mother, probably after learning of her own HIV status, had abandoned Gichinga and his infant brother in their rural hut. We have no idea how long the boys were left alone, but by the time the neighbor heard their cries and investigated, Gichinga’s baby brother was dead and Gichinga was in bad shape.
But by the time I met him, Gichinga had received treatment, adequate nutrition and lots of love from his aunties at the orphanage – and he was thriving. He was loud and fun and scrappy, was one of the brightest boys in his class and dreamt of becoming a doctor. And as I sat with him asleep on my lap, I realized the tremendous difference modern medical interventions, made accessible through aggressive, innovative, and well-funded programming, had made in his life. Without them, he wouldn’t have survived to change my life.
Still, he’s vulnerable to pneumonia and other infectious diseases – even more so than his peers (who, I might add, are as wonderful as he is). And that’s what World Pneumonia Day is all about: working to prevent the disease that take the lives of the children we love – even those we haven’t met yet.
In the end, World Pneumonia Day is the day to celebrate what we want for all the children in our lives: a future.
Katie Gorham is staff member at International Vaccine Access Center (IVAC) at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
*Name has been changed to protect privacy