Peter "Awilo" Kithene

Address at a University of Washington Donor Gala Event

delivered September 2011, Suzzallo Library, Seattle, Washington

Audio mp3 of Address

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[AUTHENTICITY CERTIFIED: Text version below transcribed directly from audio]

Standing here tonight, addressing all of you about my life's work and the journey that brought me here, is very significant to me. It is significant because this month marks the 10th year since I came to the University of Washington; significant to me also because my journey started in a very remote village in rural Kenya, where outcomes like mine are not often possible, or even imagined. 

When I arrived at the University of Washington to begin my work on my bachelor's degree, I also began my work -- I also began to work on my childhood dream: to create a new future of other children and families in rural Kenya who started out like mine. The University not only provided me with the academic training I would need to realize this mission, but opportunities to engage in public service.

I was honored with humbling awards such as the Mary Gates (students) Leadership Award, the Munro Public Service Fellowship and the Edward E. Carlson Student Leadership Award. From the start, I felt supported and loved here. I felt that this is the school I belonged.

My childhood was spent dreaming of a better future and a better community and how to make that dream real. I was born in rural Kenya. I grew up poor. But not just poor, I grew up in one of the poorest families in my community. Poverty, in -- in villages like mine, separates people from the basic human needs, like access to adequate health care. Where I come from, when someone gets sick you hope for the best -- or the -- you hope for the worst, actually. There's nothing you can do [except] stay at home.

I remember when my younger brother, Moses, became deathly ill. My job was to return to my family's bedside to check if my brother was still living. After losing several of their kids, my parents couldn't stand going to check on my brother. And when my youngest brother, James, got equally ill, my parents took him to a medical dispensary. With no evaluation or diagnosis, he was given painkillers and sent home. His condition worsened. And by the time we got him across the border to Tanzania to the nearest hospital we could get to, he was diagnosed with meningitis. Luckily, my bother survived; but he lost his speech and hearing.

So I became terrified of illness. I lost six of my siblings to illnesses. And by the time I was 12, I lost my parents as well. I have no idea how they died or if they could have been saved. And suddenly, while still in grade school, it became my duty to bring -- to bring up my four -- my three other siblings, including now my -- including my deaf brother.

And in this new role, as the head of the family, I could feel my ambition and dream to go to school slipping? School was too far expensive, especially now, and my passion to go to school was considered a waste of time, and a selfish waste of time. There's no way I could go to school.

But I wouldn't give this dream up. I knew that the best way possible I could have was to get the best education possible. Soon, I was able to move from my village to my maternal grandmother's village, who allowed me to finish my grade school. [I] finished grade school; did my national exam -- grammar school national exam. I emerged as a top student in my province, Kenya. This achievement awarded me a full scholarship to Kenya's premier high school in Nairobi, a 10-hour drive away.

Far from home, and at school, I continued working hard to honor my parents for the start they had given me in life. While studying in Nairobi, I had many experiences that further shaped my dreams and direction. In my role as the student in charge of the clinic, my student team and I rushed to countless scenes of accidents and illnesses in the city. And since the city had few other resources, my student first-aid team became critically important to the city of Nairobi.

And when villages were struck with cholera, I went to the quarantined areas to provide care. I traveled with the Ministry of Health to regional schools and churches to teach about HIV/AIDS awareness. It was within these roles that I was further confronted with the dire need of medical needs of my -- of the people in my country. I finished high school and was awarded places both at the University of Nairobi and the University of Washington. And guess what? I chose to become a Husky.

Coming to the University of Washington was an eye-opening for me. I met incredible professors who taught with passion and zeal; tons of courses to choose from: drama, music, dance, religion -- you name it. In fact going to school here was like the first time I walked into Costco: I wanted everything I saw. I was even able to find a job here TAing for Swahili. They taught my national language.

In and out of [the] classroom, the University taught me lessons. I was given incredible opportunities I never thought I would have. As part of the University['s] Common Book event I was able to meet and get personal advice on my -- to follow my dreams from the founder of Partners In Health, Dr. Paul Farmer. I was selected to attend a breakfast where I got to meet Melinda Gates. Again and again the University provided opportunities for me to be supported in my efforts to serve. I couldn't wait to put all this knowledge and opportunities to the utmost use.

And in my junior year, I began Mama Maria Clinics, a non-profit organization designed to change childhood experiences like mine.

Mama Maria Clinics are reliable, sustainable, an entirely new system of health delivery dedicated to providing health care to communities like that one I grew up in. And while collaboration and partnerships are the -- are at the heart of what I am doing, sustainability is paramount. The idea of making Mama Maria Clinics sustainable was critical to ensure that there is no interruption in the delivery of care to the people who need it most. Medical services where I come from are often as seasonal as the rains: They come and go.

It was very important to me that the people that I served know that they can count on our services both in good times and very trying times. And the fact that my childhood dream has grown into a model of hope to villages across Kenya, that tens of thousands of lives have been saved and changed, and families no longer have to fear illnesses, as I once did, is a testament that anything is possible to those who believe, get the support they need, and take action.

Now, when I think of my work, I think of the words of Henry David Thoreau, who once stated (and I quote): " Do not worry if you have built your castles in the air. They are where they should be. Now put [the] foundations under them."

It's the University of Washington that gave me the tools I needed to build the foundation to my castle. Quite honestly, the University is the cornerstone of that foundation. The University taught me that with the right mission and support, my efforts and hard work would not only make a difference, but could have the potential to change the future of rural African healthcare. It is here, at the University of Washington, that my dreams and...ambitions ceased being crazy ideas, but was to be taken seriously. It is here, at the University, that I was able to become a voice... for so many I left in rural Kenya.

Thank you, University of Washington, for giving me the tools.

And I commit to carry this "Corrigan vision" as I take what I've started and work to build and spread clinics across Keya.

Thank you very much.


Book/CDs by Michael E. Eidenmuller, Published by McGraw-Hill (2008)

Please Visit: Mama Maria Clinics

Also in this database: Peter Kithene's CNN Heroes Award Acceptance

Audio Source: YouTube.com

Audio Note: Modified to diminish background noise. Some audience reaction portions edited out. All original speech content preserved.

Copyright Status: Text and Audio = Used with permission.

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HTML transcription by Michael E. Eidenmuller.