Let us begin with a question. Who is a hero? Is it one imbued with magic or superpowers?
Or the one wielding menacing and grim-looking weaponry? Is it someone with mass appeal and vast social media following? Or is it just a simple man or woman easily overlooked, but one creating waves of change in countless people’s lives?
Better still, perhaps it is a friend who stands by you in times of need and plenty, a parent or guardian whom you can never repay, or a stranger who changed your life; whomever that person might be, if asked, we all have people in our lives we regard as heroes.
Today, our hero will be a man called Lawrence Ngoje, who is 42. On a normal day, you will find him at Neema Centre – a children’s home located on a quarter-acre piece of land off the Homa Bay–Rongo Road, five kilometres from Rongo town. Lawrence was a recipient of the Heroes Award from the head of state during last year’s Mashujaa Day celebrations. But how did he get here? What deserving work did he do that led to this honour?
Well, here is his story with another hero, one much younger and tested by the flames of life to the point of brushing shoulders with the afterlife.
A call to serve
“My story starts from when I was working as a financial administrator in a church-based primary school. I joined the institution in 2008, and handling money made me learn of the challenges some of the children were going through, such as being sent home due to lack of school fees and barely affording stationery and uniform.”
Moved by the vulnerability of these children, Lawrence identified two boys who were in dire needed and committed to providing for them. After a year, he took on two more children and catered for all their basic needs including settling their school fees.
In 2011, Lawrence had a career change. He had graduated from college with a diploma in public administration, so when a position for area assistant chief opened up, he went for it and got the job. However, he still had a passion for helping the needy, and more engaged with the community now, he gained new insights into the needs of children in the wider society, and not just those in the small group he was involved with from the school.
“I could not cater for all the children’s needs in the school, and here I was now with a much wider pool. I got to learn of a charitable organisation, Christian Relief Fund, that was helping communities, and so I reached out to see how my community could benefit as well. That is how I started working with CRF, at some point as their field director, alongside my normal work.”
The father of two boys who comes from a humble background himself still felt he could do more, so he ventured out to register a community-based organisation.
“Neema Kwa Watoto Foundation started as a CBO and was officially registered in 2015. We were depending on well-wishers to fund our projects, as we still do, and CRF was actually one of the organisations that helped us set up. I also had an idea to set up a centre which could accommodate children, having lived with a few in my own home, and that is how Neema Centre came to be. In 2017, I resigned to focus fully on the foundation and charity work.”
Crossing paths with Mary Akinyi
“I remember the first time I saw Mary in March 2021. I could feel my heart break because of her frail state. As is routine, all children who come to our centre have to undergo a mandatory health check before we register them and take them in. When we took Mary for the test, the doctor said she was severely malnourished, weighing just nine kilogrammes at the age of 11.”
Mary’s case had been reported to the authorities by locals. A few neighbours had noted her absence for a while and they were concerned for her wellbeing, given that her mother and older sister had previously died, and she was under the care of her stepmother. When the children’s office paid their home a visit, they found a dire situation.
Lawrence says according to the authorities report, they found Mary very ill, hidden under a bed. After the parents were arrested, she was placed under his care by the children’s office while her case was taken up for investigation and prosecution.
“Upon taking Mary in, we put her on a diet as per the doctor’s instruction. A week later, she fell ill and we rushed her to hospital where she was diagnosed with pulmonary tuberculosis. She was admitted for 10 days, then discharged and put under medication until November 2021. For eight months, she fought the illness bravely, getting stronger day by day.”
In January last year, just a short two months after her fight with TB, Mary started developing breathing problems.
“When I took her back to hospital, an X-ray was done, and her right lung was found to have a problem. We were referred to the Kisumu Heart Centre whereupon further analysis, we were informed her lung was dead as a result of TB damage. We were sent home, and the doctor noted the best option was palliative care. This was very hard on me; Mary was just a child with her whole life ahead of her.”
Unsatisfied with the prognosis they had received, Lawrence reached out to a friend who is a doctor at Kenyatta National Hospital and shared the X-ray results with him.
“My friend then connected me to a private hospital in Nairobi for a consultation, and when we went there, the attending surgeon said they could perform a pneumonectomy; the surgical removal of the dead lung. The procedure would cost Sh600,000, and Mary was admitted whilst I went to look for the money.”
Mary stayed in the hospital for a week at a total cost of Sh250,000 as she was on oxygen support. Lawrence was still no closer to getting the amount required for the surgery, so the only viable solution was to take her back home to stop the medical bills from accumulating. As they were leaving, the surgeon cautioned against the discharge, saying they only had a week at most if they were to avoid critical complications.
“We drove back home on a Friday. Then on Sunday, Mary could not breathe and I rushed her back to the local hospital where she was put under oxygen support once more. She kept asking if we could take her to Nairobi to receive treatment because she did not want to die. Her words crushed my heart. I mobilised all my contacts who were supporting the foundation and they responded overwhelmingly. On Thursday that week, we drove to Nairobi having raised enough money for Mary’s treatment.
“We had to use my vehicle as we could not afford an ambulance despite the fact that she was in critical condition. The cheapest ambulance was asking for Sh30,000, the money I could not spare. The only option was using my car and hoping everything went well, which by the grace of God was the case. I had mapped all the hospitals along the way though, just in case her condition got worse.”
Lawrence, with a grim voice, recounts that the six-hour surgery was one of the longest moments in his life. Initially, the surgery was supposed to take half that time, so when it went overdue, he started imagining the worst.
“I stayed with Mary in the hospital for a week post-operation. We would play board games and do colouring to take her mind off the pain, but I realised I was doing this for me as well. I had never spent time in a hospital ward with any of my children. I could barely sleep at night, always checking to make sure her oxygen mask was on correctly, and constantly worrying, although I could not let her see it. I felt like I was becoming a nurse myself.”
He also adds that he wanted to be around just in case the worst came to it and she lost her life, he wanted to spend those last moments with her.
Light at the end of the tunnel
Currently, Mary is among 36 children living at Neema Centre waiting to be reunited with their kin, and her health is much better now.
“Mary has fought so many battles so young, but she has come through victorious. She weighs 30 kilos now, a good indicator that her recovery has been going well for the past two years.”
Besides the children at the centre, Lawrence also notes the foundation is providing support to an additional 210 children living in the community, either with foster families or with their kin.
He adds that the main goal of Neema Centre is to reintegrate children back with their families. The foundation is also involved in other community projects in Homa Bay and Migori such as drilling water for public institutions such as churches and schools.
“We usually have a three-year limit for hosting the children here. Within the three years, we help children recover and reconnect them with their families. We find out why the children left home to begin with, and if there are issues between parents and their children, then we mediate and help solve those issues.”
On getting recognition by the government as a hero; “I did not think I needed motivation for my work because I do it from the heart, but I am happy to say I was wrong. Getting recognition from the head of state and being hosted for a luncheon at State House was very exciting. It reinvigorated me and my desire to keep spreading kindness in the society.”
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