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Lwala and Harpeth Hall: ‘When communities lead, change is lasting’

In Lwala, Kenya, the dreams of one rural community created a movement that would benefit not only their village, but the country as a whole.

The movement began two decades ago when Milton and Fred Ochieng earned scholarships to attend Dartmouth University in the early 2000s. The brothers’ parents, both teachers, sacrificed much to send the boys to good schools, but the family could not afford the international flight for the two young men to attend university in the United States. Their village of Lwala in Migori, Kenya, rallied behind them. Members of the community sold their chickens, cows, goats, sheep, and land to raise $900 for flights. Their one request? “Do not forget about us.”

The brothers did not.

Inspired by the dreams of their late father, the two doctors returned to their home in Kenya after completing their studies at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine and opened the health clinic that in 2007 became the Lwala Community Alliance. The clinic, along with a Lwala program created to support girls education, addressed the challenges faced by women and girls in the rural African community. A few years later, the organization established a partnership with Harpeth Hall — one that connects girls across continents through a shared purpose and continues to thrive today.

Harpeth Hall honored that partnership in an all-school assembly on Sept. 29, welcoming Lwala Community Alliance’s Doreen Achieng Baraza Awino (director of health systems strengthening) and Joe Mulinge (quality improvement office) to the school to speak. The visit marked the first time Lwala’s representatives have been able to travel to the United States since the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The assembly not only educated students about the work being done in Lwala, but it also celebrated a unique connection. In the same year that Harpeth Hall first partnered with the Lwala Community Alliance in 2011, the United Nations also established International Day of the Girl — a day to address the challenges girls face and to promote girls’ empowerment and the fulfillment of their human rights.

“Women and girls represent half of the world population and, therefore, also half of its potential,” the United Nations notes. Through international activations on Oct. 11 every year, the U.N. works to establish global gender equality, which has proven to help achieve peaceful societies with sustainable growth and development.

International Day of the Girl is important at Harpeth Hall and for Lwala, both of which are passionate about ensuring that girls have equal access to quality education no matter where they live. Through its 11-year partnership with Lwala Community Alliance, Harpeth Hall has helped change the outcomes for women and children for the better.

‘When women and girls lead, communities thrive’

From the moment it was first established, Lwala addressed great needs in the village.

At the time, when a woman was in labor, the village would use donkeys and wheelbarrows to transport her to the nearest hospital. With the village located on a remote northwestern inlet of Lake Victoria and far from health care facilities, too often, women would not make it to the care they needed in time. That led to a high maternal death rate. At the same time, Lwala recognized that the adolescent girls of the village often dropped out of school due to pregnancy.

Lwala not only established a health clinic, it also started an educational mentorship program called “Broadened Horizons.” In Kenya, educating girls means advancing the life of the whole community. The positive effects include higher wages, better farm productivity and family nutrition, marrying later in life, smaller family size, lower infant and maternal mortality rates, higher rates of school enrollment for future children, and a reduction of HIV rates. Still, many girls never finish primary school.

The Lwala Community Alliance works to improve access to education for the children in the community. It provides uniforms and sanitary towels to girls in upper primary school. It also runs girls mentoring programs to help girls stay in school or re-enter school.

More than a decade ago, former Harpeth Hall Head of School Ann Teaff saw the alignment of Lwala’s goals with Harpeth Hall’s mission of educating girls to become responsible citizens who have global perspectives and make meaningful contributions to their communities and the world.

In 2011, Harpeth Hall and the Lwala Community Alliance began a formal partnership centered on Lwala’s girls’ education programs. After a group of Harpeth Hall seniors and Mrs. Teaff traveled to Lwala for their Winterim program in 2013, Harpeth Hall made a formal commitment to fund the Girls’ Uniform Initiative, which over three years would provide uniforms to 1,100 girls in the community as incentives to stay in school. In the years since, Harpeth Hall’s partnership with Lwala has evolved to support Lwala’s mission: “Every mother deserves a safe delivery. Every child deserves a 5th birthday.”

Through Public Purpose and STEM initiatives, Harpeth Hall students have raised funds for Lwala annually through community events, knitted hats for newborns, worked with Lwala’s hospital to have Nashville-area students design better labor and delivery beds during Harpeth Hall’s STEM Summer Institute, and traveled twice to Lwala both during the initial Winterim visit in 2013 and again in 2020.

The partnership continues to thrive today through this generation of students. During the September all-school assembly, Ms. Awino and Mr. Mulinge introduced students to Lwala’s model of community-led healthcare, which prioritizes care for women by the community.

This is accomplished through three groups of community members: community health workers, youth peer providers, and community committees.

The community health workers are volunteers who work with the women in their village to provide nine months of free evening meals, care, and education for women throughout their pregnancy. Youth peer providers are young boys and girls who are educated to volunteer to act as support for their peers. Lwala found that younger women were more likely to open up to their peers rather than adults and this model has helped many seek medical advice. Community committees work as intermediaries between the community and the healthcare workers and hospital. Their crucial role helps to build trust with the medical communities while dispelling myths and misconceptions of healthcare within the community.

“Women are the ones caring for the community. When empowered to lead, we can make a big change.”

- Millicent Miruka, Lwala community health worker

Through this community-led initiative, Lwala “improves the health of women and girls across the life course, and we strengthen their representation in decision-making so that they receive the health care they want.”

Since 2019, Lwala has increased obstetric ultrasounds by 121%, provided mentorship, family counseling, and financial support to 240 adolescent girls who had dropped out of school due to pregnancy, allowing them to return to the classroom, and is working with the Kenyan government to recognized community health workers not as volunteers but as professional healthcare workers, allowing for a salary and greater benefits. The organization’s work has inspired villages across the country to build community-based healthcare practices of their own.

The challenges girls and women face across the globe are unique, but by coming together, everyone has the capability to fight for women’s equality. Whether it is by knitting newborn hats to encourage prenatal education or by actively working to enact change like the leaders of Lwala, there are so many ways to help.