Growing up in the rural village of Lwala, Kenya, Milton and Frederick Ochieng’ were accustomed to traveling for two hours at a time and more than 20 miles on foot to get to the nearest hospital whenever they became ill. But when the teenage brothers witnessed a neighbor die in childbirth on her way to the hospital, the tragedy “planted the seed in our minds that we wanted to be doctors and grow up to do something for our village,” recalls Milton. A career decision spawned by a heartbreaking, avoidable incident would lead the two brothers out of Kenya to the United States and back, so their neighbor’s story need never be repeated again.
Milton, now 29, was the first of the brothers to leave Kenya when he earned a scholarship to Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, in 2000. His parents did not have enough money to buy the $900 airline ticket so villagers sold their chickens and other belongings to pay for it. “Their only requirement was that I not forget them,” says Milton. “Whatever that meant was up to me.”
On a volunteer trip to Nicaragua during his sophomore year, Milton figured out how he’d keep that promise. “I was part of the construction team building a women’s and children’s health clinic and I thought to myself, ‘If we can do this here with college students, what would stop us from doing the same thing in my village?’” So over the next six years, Milton and Fred, who also chose to attend Dartmouth, started laying the foundation to build a clinic in Lwala.
The work was not easy. “We were trying to raise $25,000 and it looked like such a big mountain to climb,” says Fred, now 27. Their father, Erastus, received support for the clinic from the Lwala community while Fred and Milton worked on raising money. A Christian fellowship group at Dartmouth called The Navigators invited Fred to a fundraising event they hosted in which participants would give to different charities. That weekend, Fred came away with about $9,000 in donations. Those donations were followed by others after a local newspaper reported on their efforts.
But in the midst of their success, tragedy struck—twice. While the brothers were in school their mother, Margaret, contracted HIV and died in January 2004. Eighteen months later, their father also died of AIDS. By now the brothers’ dream took on a new urgency. “Now it wasn’t just something affecting the people in the village. Now it happened to our parents, and affected us directly,” says Milton.
Support for the clinic continued from all walks of life. “I remember coming back from my dad’s funeral and a couple of the kids I’d been coaching in soccer gave me $45 they had in their piggy banks,” says Fred. Professors at Dartmouth helped them establish the Lwala Community Alliance (www.lwala communityalliance.org), a nonprofit organization that raises money for the clinic.
By April 2007, they had raised about $100,000—enough for the Ochieng’ Memorial Lwala Community Health Center to open its doors. Since then, the clinic has seen more than 32,000 people, with 65% of those patients being children under the age of 5. Having graduated from Vanderbilt School of Medicine in Nashville, Tennessee, Milton is now an internal medicine resident at Barnes Jewish Hospital in St. Louis, while Fred is in his fourth year of medical school at Vanderbilt. While the brothers finish their training, the clinic is being run by clinical officers, physician assistants, and nurses that they recruited in Kenya.
In the future, the brothers plan to split their time between Lwala and the U.S., continuing to raise money for the clinic and its expansion. The clinic costs about $160,000 a year to operate; the brothers are committed to raise $1.25 million over five years to add a maternity facility as part of former President Bill Clinton’s humanitarian effort, the Clinton Global Initiative (www.clintonglobalinitiative.org ). And the Ochieng’ brothers’ efforts are featured in the full-length documentary Sons of Lwala (www.sonsoflwala.com).Through their challenges and successes, Milton and Fred are constantly motivated by the stories of those who died before adequate healthcare arrived in Lwala. Milton says he and his brother remain determined, adding, “We realize that out of death you can still get life.”
This article originally appeared in the January 2010 issue of Black Enterprise magazine.