A recent medical mission to Kenya was also a homecoming for Red Deer’s Vanessa Higgins-Nogareda.
Vanessa and her husband, Dr. Gustavo Nogareda, were part of an aid trip to the developing Africa country, organized by Lacombe charity A Better World.
Vanessa, a nurse in the anticoagulation department of Red Deer hospital, and Gustavo, a local cardiologist, were on an Alberta team that toured free medical clinics throughout remote regions of Kenya.
In some cases, their African patients walked for days, carrying small children, to seek treatment for HIV, parasites and other illnesses.
While it was the first trip to Africa for Gustavo, Vanessa spend her early years in Kenya, where her parents worked as missionaries.
From the time Vanessa was three months old in 1982, her mom and dad worked with Turkana and Masai tribes, running a health dispensary, building a school, water dams, irrigation systems and offering other assistance.
After Vanessa turned four in 1986, she returned with her parents and her African-born younger sister to Alberta, but spent many years longing to revisit to the place of her earliest memories.
“As a family, we always wanted to go back to Africa, but it was a long journey and we are a big family,” said Vanessa, who also has a brother born in Canada.
When she and Gustavo heard about the aid trip through local participants, team leaders Dr. Ray Comeau and his wife Daryl, they thought it was the right opportunity to visit Kenya while also doing some good for its people.
Accompanied by her husband, her parents and younger sister and brother, Vanessa returned to the village of Maji Moto in November, after wrapping up the medical tour, and discovered her family still had friends in the Kenyan community.
“It was incredible. A lot of people remembered us and what my parents had done to help their village,” she said.
“Looking back, I have so much resect and pride for what my parents did.”
The 31-year-old saw the school her mom and dad helped build, without which many African children would not have received an education.
Many memories were stirred, such as when Vanessa played with Kenyan kids as a child.
“They were fascinated with my blonde hair, which they thought looked like a cow’s tail.”
She also remembered finding a zebra leg that was left by a lion in the front yard.
Her mother would say, “Vanessa, you can’t go walking by yourself at night or the hyenas will eat you!’”
While the high elevation took some getting used to, Gustavo, Vanessa and her brother Brent climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro before leaving for Canada on Dec. 6.
But the trip’s focus was the medical aid tour to remote areas, where Africans continue to live a tribal lifestyle.
Gustavo believes few Canadians have encountered the kind of fundamental poverty that exists in rural areas of southwestern Kenya.
“We are so blessed in Canada,” added Vanessa.
“Here, a kid might not get an iPad, but kids there don’t even have shoes.”
Their Kenyan patients were treated for many medical and dental complaints, but a few came with serious, non-treatable conditions that require surgery.
Since the clinics were not equipped for operations, Gustavo referred these people to other organizations whenever possible.
The 46-year-old Argentine-born cardiologist and his wife found it very difficult to turn patients away when more people turned up than could be handled within the full clinic schedule. “The biggest barrier was time,” said Vanessa.
But the gratitude of the Kenyans and their profound need left the couple happy to have helped.
“I was so touched by the story of a 14-year-old boy with cerebral palsy who could not walk. His family brought him by scooter and his mother carried him on her back to see us. They so desperately wanted to help him,” said Gustavo.
He and Vanessa are hoping to return to Africa someday.
In the meantime, Vanessa wants Central Albertans to know they can also help fill ongoing needs. For instance, schoolchildren in Maji Moto sleep on a concrete floor.
“I’d like to raise money for bunk beds.”
For more information about A Better World, please visit www.a-better-world.ca.