I am Youthful at Heart
Category : Naya Blog
By Robert Aseda, (@Varaq)
That being youthful is not just about age is one thing that Mr. Okello Gershon, a community health volunteer, has strongly exhibited.
You are likely to meet in him in a meeting with the health minister just as you are likely to meet him in the night dens of Migori engrossed in intimate conversation with young people the age of his first born son.
Mr. Okello takes his job as the first link between the community and the healthcare service very seriously; be it rushing pregnant women to the hospital, referring newborn babies for vaccination, reporting outbreaks such as cholera, providing information on hygiene and sanitation.
But nothing beats his passion for family planning.
He explains that for him this is personal.
“I grew up in a very huge family. My father was a polygamous man with many wives. My own mother had ten children! We couldn’t enjoy certain basic needs other small families enjoyed like good food, access to health, education among others.”
While as a young boy, there was nothing he could do to improve the situation of his immediate family, he knew he had to do something about it when he grew up.
That was the beginning of his long challenging but fulfilling dalliance with family planning.
Mr. Okello got his first job as a lab assistant with John Snow Incorporated.
But as fate would have it, he was soon moved to a community mobilizer on family planning.
That was in 1991: the time when most of the group he fiercely wants to reach were not born yet.
John Snow would later go down and Mr. Okello would temporarily shift his attention to several business interests.
He never felt at home until Nyarami, NAYA’s partner in Closing The Gap Project, set up shop in Migori County and gave him a platform to be the bishop of family planning again.
The landscape on family planning had truly changed. Whereas Nyarami provided access to modern family planning in a friendly environment, the situation wasn’t as appealing then.
“Almost twenty five years ago when I began this work, there was limited access to modern family planning methods. In fact it was highly secretive and considered something only prostitutes and promiscuous women went for. “
He remembers the widespread use of traditional methods and the gory details of how sometimes this noble attempt at birth spacing could go awfully wrong.
“Apart from the traditional herbs that were used, sometimes there were cases were the womb was tied. This was done when you were already pregnant but you wanted to delay the birth even for two years!”
This skill though was just as highly sophisticated and rare as it was dangerous. Most times it led to still births and even death!
This was almost guaranteed especially if the specialist who did the operation moved or died.
Right now he says the environment has improved because even young people can access reproductive health services including abortion care and family planning in youth friendly facilities that pay attention to the right to privacy, confidentiality, services, health, life, freedom from discrimination among others.
But even with the improved environment, Mr. Okello does not consider the job done.
“This youth friendly services are far apart and some even don’t meet the minimum conditions to be truly referred as youth friendly.”
But the forty four year old young man believes charity begins at home.
“After having four kids, I talked to my wife and we decided to go for bilateral tubal ligation (BTL), a permanent method of family planning”
He feels blessed that his wife, a trained health care worker, supports him too, including with certain groups of people who may be shy to approach the free man.
Opposition to his kind of work hasn’t been sleeping tough.
His own brother, a member of the county assembly wonders why he doesn’t want people to have more kids so that they could ensure his reelection and perhaps take a jab at a bigger seat.
But Okello is unperturbed. Unshaken. Unmoved. Unyielding. Just like the proverbial tree standing firm in the raging river.
Even the monstrous myths and misconceptions on family planning won’t derail him. Such empty talk revolving around the use of contraceptives being causes for cancer or that the coil disappears into the woman and comes out in the head of the child or that family planning makes women permanently infertile or that it makes women give birth to physically deformed children haven’t dampened his spirit.
Instead he uses chief’s barazas, women group meetings, community outreaches, his classes at Migori Institute of Science and Technology and other platforms accorded to him as opportunities to clarify and provide the true position on family planning.
‘I know of several people, including my students who have risked their life while undergoing unsafe abortion, yet access to family planning services will greatly reduce such incidences”
He says his agenda will not be complete until men are fully involved in family planning.
He hopes that NAYA training on advocacy and his recently completed course on community health will sharpen his old axe to cut deeper into the tree of unmet needs for family planning and eventually translate into economic growth.
NAYA is currently training Service Delivery Partners in the Closing The Gap Project on Advocacy.
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