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Hoosier native leads construction on new chronic disease care facility in Kenya

Jan. 9, 2014

Sixteen months into a 32-month stay, Michael Greven estimates the new chronic disease care facility in Eldoret, Kenya, is also 50 percent done. Steel beams are in place. Concrete is being poured on the building’s four floors, a newly gifted pump speeding things along.

Kenya construction

A construction crew works on the new chronic disease care center being built in Eldoret, Kenya, with the help of AMPATH, a consortium that includes Moi University and the IU School of Medicine. | PHOTO COURTESY OF MICHAEL GREVEN

A Columbus-based contractor, Greven helped build the Riley Mother Baby Hospital in Eldoret, the vision of James Lemmon, M.D., a neonatologist and professor of clinical pediatrics at the IU School of Medicine, who visited the East African nation and saw no intensive care unit for premature babies. Kenya’s needs are many, and the medical outpost in-progress focused on cancer is one piece in a complicated puzzle of care.

Whether it’s walking through the streets of Gabon as a member of the Peace Corps decades ago, or in Eldoret on his mission with IU, Greven has been struck by the number of homeless children on the streets, orphaned by the HIV-AIDS epidemic.

IU’s association with the Academic Model Providing Access to Healthcare, or AMPATH, a consortium of universities bringing care centers and medical students to a region, has focused on HIV-AIDS. But the $4.1 million, 110,000-square-foot building project Greven now oversees will bring oncology services to a country where there are only 10 oncologists.

This is just one in a line of connections to the country for Greven. His wife’s father, Alan Nolan, a former president of the Indianapolis Civil Liberties Union, had been picked by bureaucrats in the 1950s to host a Kenyan woman after Sen. John F. Kennedy worked with African nationalist Tom Mboya to airlift students to America. The family has been traveling back and forth between America and Africa ever since to see that student, Miriam Chege, for graduations, weddings and other life events.

The contractor and his family have become tied to Africa, fascinated by the views of elephants and giraffes and hippos that roam nearby parks, sights any other Hoosier would have to find in enclosures at their nearest zoo. Greven’s 16-year-old son, Liam, has become an expert photographer, compiling calendars with shots from the Serengeti and sending them home to family members.

A former Columbus North student who is now completing high school online, Liam Greven has learned to speak Swahili. His latest pet project was putting up a fence for a man with polio -- after the Grevens helped plant a vertical garden with kale, spinach and tomatoes in the man’s yard, it was nibbled to the ground by the country’s mass of wandering cows, goats and sheep.

IU President Michael McRobbie visited Kenya in August. As part of his Africa tour, McRobbie shared the country’s fare with the Grevens at an alumni association luncheon; there were corn dumplings called “ugali,” managu vegetables and various roasted meats.

Building in Kenya presents unique challenges. The new chronic disease care facility is rising with the labor of more than 100 Kenyans, paid $5 to $6 a day to wield shovels, picks and wheelbarrows. The only power tools on site are a saw and a couple of drills. Before the cement pump, concrete was poured bucket by bucket.

Kenya construction

The frame of the new center, which will bring cancer care services to a country where there are only 10 oncologists. | PHOTO COURTESY OF MICHAEL GREVEN

Their goal is to “buy Kenyan,” and all of the steel, concrete and floor products for the building will come from sources in-country, Greven said. The doors and door frames will probably have to come from Uganda, he said, while the toilets and electrical supplies may be found in East Africa. If not, Greven will have to buy from Egypt or maybe even China.

For the most part, the workers know English, but Greven has had his share of comical moments trying to speak with workers whose primary means of communication is one of many tribal languages. Greven once tried to share a couple of slices of pineapple with one woman at the site. “Somehow, that became she could take the whole pineapple home with her,” Greven said. “Which was fine. We practice patience here.”

Scheduled to complete the project by April 2015, Greven and his crew have many more months in Africa and more they’d like to accomplish. On Jan. 31, Greven will be part of a group climbing Mount Kenya -- the second-tallest mountain in Africa -- as part of a fundraiser for the care center project. They will spend five days scaling the rock, working from more temperate temperatures at the base to ice and snow as they get closer to the highest points of the 17,000-foot mountain.

The goal, he said, is to be near the top of the mountain by sunrise Feb. 4. It’ll be one more moment in fulfilling a mission for Greven. If this Hoosier has learned anything from his time in Kenya, it’s that Kenyans have come to know Indiana.

“Hoosiers need to know how appreciated they are here,” Greven said. “I know every time I walk through the international terminal (at the airport), they hear you are from Indiana – and you are treated very well.”

Reprinted courtesy the Bloomington Herald-Times

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