Local lawyer travels halfway around the world to be Kenyan medical volunteer

by Sue Serdinak and Wendy Turrell

Mark Willis practices personal injury law in Akron and is a part-time Richfield fire-medic when he is available. He said he likes to stay busy and involved – and he does. For many years, he joined the work trips of the Bethel Lutheran Church mission group.

Working in personal injury law, Willis is used to taking care of people. In doing so, he became acquainted with several Akron-area doctors, who told him about the incredible work of Dr. Benson Bonyo, who built a medical clinic in a village in Kenya, where thousands of people are treated each week. The local doctors encouraged Willis to use his medical training and volunteer with Bonyo. Willis signed on and said he gets back more than he gives.  

When Dr. Bonyo was a young man living in Wanjava, Kenya, and was given a chance to come to the United States to study, he promised he would return to his birthplace and provide medical care to the people. Before his graduation in 1994 he launched the nonprofit Bonyo’s Kenya Mission. He graduated from Ohio University School of Osteopathic Medicine in 1998 and immediately began to build a clinic in his homeland.

Since then, 20 to 30 volunteers have joined Bonyo as he travels to Wanjava several times a year to provide essential medical services. The Bath resident also has a practice on Vernon Odom Boulevard in Akron, where he treats many underserved people.

In 2005, Bonyo opened the Mama Pilista Clinic in the village in honor of his mother. The clinic offers free medical care, 24 hours a day, with live-in staff, many of whom are clinical officers, the Kenyan equivalent of nurse practitioners. They typically see about 100 patients per day. Many medical professionals travel from the United States to help.

When the teams of volunteers travel to Wanjava, they treat up to 500 people throughout the area in a two- to three-week period. Doctors, nurses, emergency medical technicians, medical students and nonmedical volunteers provide hands-on patient care, administrative support and painting and repair work at the clinic.

Willis leaves his law practice in the hands of associates when he makes the 32-hour trip to Kenya to help in any way he can.

“As an EMT, my role [at the clinic] has been primarily in triage,” Willis said. “When we arrive, we have 75 to 100 patients, and they need to be sorted into those that are more urgent. … I also oversee and sometimes help the medical students who are gathering vital signs and intake information.”

He also directs patients to the right specialists and assists physicians with wound care.

Conditions they see

The Kenyan area is primarily agricultural. People speak the local Luo tribal language, regional Swahili or a little English. This makes communication problematic. Willis said local high school and college students act as interpreters.

Kenya’s government-supplied electricity is so unreliable it is usually out two or three days each week, Bonyo said. Consequently, the clinic runs on a solar-powered generator.  One of his goals is to increase the output of electricity to more than the current four to five hours a day. Another of Bonyo’s aspirations is to supply the clinic’s lab with basic equipment, like a hematology analyzer and X-ray machine. They have regular ophthalmology care and are able to fill most eye prescriptions with donated glasses.

Life in the village is hard in the best of times.

“Most homes are a mud hut. No electricity either,’’ Willis said. “They cook over a charcoal pit. They have to make their own charcoal, buy or barter for it. If they want safe drinking water, they have to boil it. … Access to and the process of making safe drinking water can eat up many hours in the day.”

They see so much suffering. An estimated 500,000 Kenyan children die from dehydration each year, Willis added. When Bonyo was a child, his little sister died of dehydration.

Health issues that would be simple to deal with here are complicated there, said Willis. There are no social services, so the village takes care of their own as best they can. Many children are orphaned, but other villagers take them in.

Willis often works with Marylyne Onyango, who, along with her siblings, was orphaned as a young child. An aunt took in the children and made sure Onyango was educated through the equivalent of 12th grade. Someone in the Bonyo Kenya Mission group found the funds to send her to Maseno University. After she graduated, she took on the responsibilities of running the Mama Pilista Clinic.   

Willis admires the love the Kenyan people demonstrate. “Just seeing how little the villagers actually have, and how much they care for one another is amazing,’’ he said. “They are spiritually wealthy and materially bankrupt. By comparison, we are materially wealthy but spiritually bankrupt.”

All volunteers

In addition to providing medical services, the Bonyo clinic has an educational sponsorship program to help poor children from grade school through trade school or college. Dr. Sandy Deveny, an emergency room physician and wife of Dr. Cliff Deveny, president and CEO of Summa Health, manages the educational sponsorship program. She makes several trips a year to Kenya.

Heidi Weisel, a Kent State nursing professor, is chairman of the board of directors of the Bonyo Kenya Mission.

Willis has distilled his volunteer experience into suggestions for his Richfield and Bath neighbors.

“Be grateful for what you have. Be kind, and if so inclined, donate to Bonyo’s Kenyan mission. … Your donation will help raise a child, provide medication, or medical care,” he said.

More information about Dr. Bonyo’s mission and opportunities to volunteer, sponsor or donate is available on the website bonyokenyamission.org. ∞

Mark Willis, an attorney and a part-time EMT for the Richfield Fire Department, gathers intake information
and gets vital signs for patients who come to the Mama Pilista Clinic. From 75 to 100 patients are often waiting
for treatment at the clinic. Photo provided.

On our cover (photos): Solar panels on the roof provide the electricity for the Mama Pilista Clinic. Richfield resident Mark Willis (on right in lower left photo) often works with Marylyne Onyango (on the left) at the clinic founded by Dr. Benson Banyo (right photo). Photos provided by Bob Tupa.