Life Threw Me Lemons; Lived on The Streets, Had Life Threatening Asthma and Degenerative Eye Problem But Now I am Having My Lemonade – Benson Kiragu

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“My life has been a roller coaster of unforeseen and unprecedented events, but I am proud of whom I have become.” Benson Kiragu outlines as he begins to narrate his story.

I was raised by my grandparents with my two siblings in Uasin Gishu county, Kenya. The year of my birth is unknown to me, but I settled for 1985 when I was applying for a birth certificate.

The year 1992 marked the beginning of a dark phase in my life. The tribal clashes associated with the general election rocked my life and that of my family. Despite us having a home my grandparents were squatters. When the clashes begun our home was torched and we had to run for our lives. 

I remember hiding in a trench with my dear aunt as ragging youth ran past us with bow, arrows and machetes. This was very terrifying. I thought we could escape the attack, but fate was not on our side. A group of the attackers spotted us. As I tried to scream for help, they sexually assaulted my aunt despite her pleading that she was pregnant. This left me hopeless and heartbroken. I thank God that our lives were speared.

Come the break of dawn we took whatever was left and walked for over 20 Kilometers to the nearby town called Eldoret where it was safer. Life in the city was not a bed of roses. We were a family of 10 members living in a single room. Having a meal on our table was almost impossible.

After a while I decided to go live with my mother who was living in a slum dominated by the sale of illicit brews. I stayed there for almost a year, but things were thick. My mother was an alcoholic and could barely provide my basic needs in addition she would beat me if I asked for anything. To survival I would look after my neighbor’s cattle and they would pay me a few coins to cater for my food. At the age of 13 years, I couldn’t take it anymore and chose to seek refuge on the streets of Eldoret.
Life on the streets seemed better because I had money and food regularly. I sold plastic bags in the market during the day and begged for money in the evening while insulting and intimidating those who were not forthcoming.  Nonetheless, the life had its fair share of challenges. To begin with I was assimilate to things such as sniffing glue and using drugs. Other challenges included violence, harassment by the police, unhealthy sleeping environment and lack of medical care.

Along the way, I developed life-threatening asthma. Luckily, I was rescued from the streets in 1997. The Rescue Centre I was admitted to was run by a German missionary called Michael Niswan, and this is where my transformation begun. The Center had about 300 children and the management had a difficult time feeding all of us. Some of my friend decided to return to the streets but I stayed put for the sake of my health.  

At the center I got a chance to attend school and, in a year, I was able to read Kiswahili and write my name. After about two year, I developed a degenerative eye problem, called keratoconus, which threatened to make me permanently blind. I had difficulty reading which affected my academic performance.

Every 2 weeks we would have Dr. and Mrs. Mamlin together with Indiana University medical students come to provide medical checkups. They were kind to bring me inhalers and were the once who noticed my continued eyes complains and took me to an ophthalmologist who recommended me wear hard contact lenses.

The Center was moved to Nakuru where we had a farm and more space. I was required to work in the farm, but this affected my eyes and consequently seemed like an excuse for being lazy. After a while I left and went to Eldoret where my friend took me in. Later, I was able to meet with Ms. Mamlin and shared my frustrations with her. She understood where I was coming from and offered to support me.

My desire was to go back to school which Ms. Mamlin made possible. Since I had no relative to live with, she rented a house for me in the slums and bought me a bicycle to use as I go to school. At some point my eye condition worsened and I had to undergo three corneal transplant operations. My education was interrupted but my God’s grace, I joined high school but couldn’t secure a place in the University.

After completing high school in 2007, I started volunteering at the Academic Model Providing Access to HealthCare (AMPATH) pharmacy department as a pharmacy assistant. Through the mentorship and assistance of the Mamlin’s, Professor Sonak Pastakia, and Indiana University friends I got an admission at the University of San Carlos Philippine and completed a bachelor’s degree in Pharmacy in 2014.

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Through my work with AMPATH, I have been able to contribute in making AMPATH one of the largest PEPFAR/USAID supported HIV programs in sub-Saharan Africa with over 165,000 ever-enrolled HIV patients. The program is growing to including non-communicable diseases like diabetes within AMPATH’s care catchment areas. 

I am also using my pharmacy training to lead the introduction of home-based delivery for non-communicable disease medications which is part of an ongoing National Institutes of Health (NIH) study. 

For years I have been working with Tumaini Innovation Center, an organization working with street-connected children and youth to address the health and other needs of one of the world’s most vulnerable populations. Based on my previous life experience on the street, I have been able to connect with these children and mentor them to set high goals and seek meaningful opportunities.

Related Article: Ambrose Kamya: The Love Child  of Teenagers Who Has Fought For His Silver Spoon

During this period of the COVID19, I am collaborating with Tumaini Innovation Center staff to rescue and reintegrate street children back to their homes as a way of protecting them from contracting and transmitting the COVID19. We have managed to rescue 84 street children and youth, whereby 35 have been reintegrated to their homes, 29 have bounced back to the street in the process, while 20 are being hosted at Tumaini Innovation Center waiting for reintegration to their homes.

I have come to believe that no situation is permanent. If you stay focused and utilize all opportunities things can turn around. My current aspiration is to inspire those who have faced hardships like me. Ultimately, I want to work with the government and other stakeholders to create a favorable system that will offer opportunities for education and healthcare to those children who are less privileged in the society. 

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