When washing feet saves lives

28 August 2013

Today, Wednesday, we were privileged to journey with Simon, Lucy, Silas, Rahab and their teams an hour further north to where the paved roads of Kenya finally finish and any travel – especially in the rainy season – becomes a real adventure.

We were off to a marginalised village of Turkana and Sanburu people living in those wood and mud round houses surrounded by thick thorn fences – the very archetypal African scene to westerners brought up on a diet of public service broadcaster documentaries and National Geographic magazines.

We had been forewarned of the challenges that would face us but, as ever, the full sensory experience still came as a shock.

In this land of unending contrasts, within sight of a tall communications mast carrying Kenya’s ubiquitous 21st century mobile telecoms network, were a people struggling to survive and, more relevant for today’s exercise, where a people infested by the Jigger Flea.

We arrived at the junior school in the centre of the village to be greeted by a large crowd of young children standing in rows, herded with switches by their teachers, and excitedly singing their greeting. Despite the teachers’ efforts, we were quickly surrounded by curious little faces, all trying to hold our hands, and some rubbing our forearms as if to check that our unusual pink skin didn’t wipe off.

In this football mad country the first thing out of Simon’s car was a precious gift of two new footballs. The harsh thorny surroundings mean the school’s footballs are as quickly shredded as the western visitor’s feet would be in the barefoot football game between “Man City” and “Man United” that was quickly being played out by the older children behind the school.

However we were soon focusing on the Jigger Flea. This little insect lives in the dust floors of the meagre shelters erected by the people, and without the ability to regularly wash their bodies, bedding or buildings, these fleas quickly burrow through skin, especially feet and especially the softer skin of children. At its mildest the result is endless irritation that makes concentration at school impossible, at its worst the result is a physically and mentally crippled life.

A young local social worker quickly filled us in on the challenges. A product of the remarkably egalitarian education system in Kenya, Agnes spoke almost perfect English, was obviously very bright, and was college educated. But with no jobs available she was back living with her mother in one of the mud and stick homes helping to educate the people in a job the government only rarely paid her for.

Agnes told us that, as so often in the majority world so alien to our western lives, the prevention of the Jigger problem is simple in principle but complex in practice: educating successive generations of these tribal people, who have so many other challenges in their lives, to regularly wash themselves and their homes.

Thankfully – even if painful – the treatment for this condition is as simple in practice as the prevention is in theory. You wash the infected feet, then harden the infected areas with iodine, then treat with hydrogen peroxide. Finally, you give the shoeless a simple low cost pair of rubber plimsoles.

Easy said but very difficult to do as the young child wriggles and cries for his mother as the Hydrogen Peroxide burns out the fleas. But wonderful to behold as the same little boy stands proudly wearing his new shoes, feels the relief from the infestation, and desparately points out other scratches on his arm and hand in the hope that a similar relief would be forthcoming.

It was great to be a small part of this simple work in a small corner of rural Kenya. And wonderfully this commited, long term, practical demonstration of Jesus’ love was already breaking down barriers for the gospel, and Simon’s team plans an imminent church plant in the centre of the community. Nevetheless, even with Simon’s rare strategic focus it is daunting to think of the scale of the problem and the lack of resources. Never has the old saying felt more apt: “Better to light a single candle than cry at the darkness.”

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