In the wake of the September 21st shootings and hostage takings at the Nairobi Westgate Mall I have found it difficult to write about the minutiae of laboratory medicine and the details of running a laboratory in the developing world. Instead, my mind wanders to my own personal experiences in Kenya and Nairobi and the people I have encountered in my travels.
In all my times on the African continent I have only been to Nairobi twice (not counting transiting through the airport, which would take the number up to at least ten). My first time in Nairobi was for one day as I made my way to a six month volunteer position in Tanzania. I landed at the Nairobi airport, an intimidated 25-year-old, all alone. I was scared and nervous but incredibly excited. My memory of the city that time is hazy but I can still smell the distinct scent of the air upon exiting the airplane, and I can still feel the knot of nervous excitement in my stomach.
By my second trip to Nairobi, years later, I was much more accustomed to East Africa. This time I was there with an ASCP colleague and volunteer to conduct laboratory assessments at level I and II labs throughout the city. We spent a week driving all over Nairobi and the surrounding suburbs visiting multiple labs. We saw a lab being run out of a container, and another that was inaccessible by car, it was so tucked away in one of the poorer areas of the city that the road was too narrow for anything but foot traffic. We saw labs in desperate need of basic supplies and electricity. We met lab techs who were working hard to do their best with the few available resources.
As we drove around the city we not only had the opportunity to visit these labs and conduct our assessments but, while mired in the worst traffic jams I have ever experienced, we had time to observe the city. We watched women and men working, shopping, socializing; children playing, and running to and from school. We saw an energetic city with millions of people going about their daily lives. People who I imagine are touched by this tragedy. People I have been thinking about these past couple of weeks.
While my heart breaks for those who suffered and lost loved ones, a tragedy like this reminds me why the work of global outreach is so important. With injuries (both catastrophic and not) the lab is an important part of overall health care. A situation like this reminds us of the importance of having well-run, safe, accurate blood banks to treat the wounded and sick.