Kwa Mkono Polio Hostel – Tanzania

Monica's Walk

Welcome to Kwa Mkono Polio Hostel – the first and only volunteers in the 50 year history of the hostel. Most simply put, this was quite possibly the most challenging experience of my life thus far. There are various reasons for this remark. Some will be portrayed in this post, others can really only be explained in person or really through emotions. 
They say a picture is worth a thousand words. I have thousands and thousands of words that could explain my multi-week journey at a 50 child polio hostel, 5 hours from anything, in the heart of the dry lands of Tanzania. For the purpose of this blog I am going to let the photos do most of the talking. (If you click on one of the photos, you can scroll easily through the entire set with a full screen view.) I suggest doing this before or after actually reading the blog, to get a full spectrum view.
Aside from the obvious challenge of knowing a minor amount of the Swahili vocabulary, the communication barrier dove much deeper. I am a woman. My skin is white. I am a white female Doctor of Physical Therapy trying to give my service in deed instead of monetary donation in a place that has it’s own personal views of women, white people and the value of a tangible dollar bill over thousands of dollars worth of education, training and knowledge. My goal is to help these children as much as possible in a place where the concept of an educated woman is foreign, along with the majority of the English language. Good luck!
One of the residential staff members’ daughters.
She followed me everywhere. A curious, intelligent, beautiful soul.
Play time! Toys? Well they had one, yes, one toy. – they collected scrap string and yarn from wherever they could, kept tying it together. As more yarn was collected, eventually they had enough to create a ball the size of a hacky sack. We got our hands on another ball within the first few days. Needless to say – these 50 children have mastered the art of sharing…
In the photo above we are playing with sticks (or fingers) in the dirt. I draw a picture – they copy it and draw the same. Then repeat in reverse 🙂 I taught them once how to write my name. Although, at the time, it seemed too difficult for them to re-create. The next morning as I walked to one of the buildings I saw my name written in the dirt EVERYWHERE! Turn around one corner, there it was, “Monica,” walk accross the grounds, there it was 20 more times along the way. This became a re-occurring theme as the days passed by. Every day I would find my name written in new places. Apparently they learned (and understood) <3

Emmanuel playing with someone else’s wheel-chair. He has cerebral palsy. Not all of the children who live at the hostel have polio, though that is the majority. The wheels on the chairs are made of old worn out or damaged car tires. The man in charge of fixing the wheel-chairs has polio and is spectacularly devoted to his job and helping these children as much as possible. Supplies are severely limited though. Some of the wheel-chair seats are made of old plastic lawn chairs…
Typical living quarters in the Kwa Mkono village. The clay huts certainly are effective in keeping you cool during the hot summer months. Unfortunately it was very difficult to take pictures of people or settings outside of the hostel. It was usually taken negatively or with high risk of being bombarded by a bunch of locals demanding money…or willing to just take it off your hands for you.

Both of the girls sitting have polio and are unable to stand independently.

A day of working with these precious little beings <3
 If you think these kids look malnourished, consider this: we were two volunteers that were considered important and respected ambassadors to the hostel. We never went without enough actual bulk of substance to ingest, there was always food left over from our meals. The challenge, was what the food actually consisted of (or lacked for that matter). We received three meals per day: white bread for breakfast, and either white rice, white pasta or white potatoes for dinner. Steamed cabbage was usually the side, occasionally we were blessed with spinach. Tea to drink and two white  biscuits for a snack during the day.
The kids? They get maize (ground corn with water made into a porridge) and beans…three meals a day. I believe 1-2x/week they may get a portion of meat. 
Have you ever experienced not having ANY protein or vitamins in your diet? I dare you to try. Nevermind! Ha – I am a health professional, I could never wish that on anyone! In brief, each morning I would wake up and feel my muscles becoming moderately more ‘mushy’ (yes that is the first word that comes to mind) than the previous day. Exercise? Where might you get the energy to do that when the only things you are ingesting are simple carbs. Zero protein, zero vitamins, zero minerals, and negligible fat. 
Think about it. Then think about those kids who spend their entire lives eating far less than what took me only weeks to cringe about…

The two girls standing next to me are inseparable. The one standing behind the wheelchair pushes her best friend (in the wheelchair) EVERYWHERE, all day, every day. She has the more mental strength than I have ever seen in such a little being. Physically, her strength deems it a miracle that she is able to even stand up (she weighs ~45 lbs.), let alone push her friend all over the grounds and too/from school down the road. It has become her purpose in life. She has a mission, a point of importance, and someone is counting on her. For this reason alone, she has found a way to maintain both her own mobility, and that of her best friend.
That, my friends, is devotion and love at it’s finest. And probably nothing short of a miracle…
To my right – the leader of the pack! This one runs the show. She has hydrocephalus (along with one other child at the hostel). She speaks the best English of the kids and helped me communicate tremendously. She is unable to stand independently, but has astounding mental determination and leadership skills. If someone has a problem, she’ll most certainly sort it out!



Ladies and gentelmen – the Physical Therapy Room! If this isn’t enough to make you want to put a care package of supplies together, I’m not sure what is…

One floor mat. One plinth. Tires for wheelchairs. Crutches and leg braces.

The kids were ALWAYS interested in what was going on around their territory 🙂

One of two of the physiotherapy technicians – fixing a leg brace.
They need more leather straps and buckles badly.

Sewing machine.
I performed full evaluations and assessments on every child at the hostel, wrote up reports and created a program which incorporates progress, safety and treatment charts for every child. We implemented the new program while I was there and to date I have already received two seperate packets of reports from Sylvester (the admin. leader of the hostel)!
He has been walking with these crutches for over 6 months, lost 90% of his left shoulder mobility and says he ‘hates his crutches because they hurt him.’ Can you solve this problem…
Let’s shorten that left crutch shall we?!
Unfortunately I was too engulfed in the assessment/treatment and forgot to take an ‘after’ photo. We shortened the crutch and practiced walking. Took him a few days to get the hang of it. Result: immediate reduction in pain with ambulation and crutches, increased mobility and compliance with a stretching program for the left shoulder to aide in improving his range and function.

Had to make it fun somehow!
I thought it might be a struggle to get the kids to participate in their assessments. Wrong!
Most of them were lining up at the door waiting with excitement for their turn. These children want to feel better. They want to move more. They want to learn.
There is so much to be done…

They also need shoes and AFOs.
Instead of buying them a bucket of balls and coloring books, we decided to go big and donate a swingset for play and therapeutic purposes. NEVER did we imagine this to be such an incredible feat and rewarding production!
Yes, I know how to use a saw.

Almost no electric tools.
These kids would have sat and watched us for hours on end. So intrgigued and waiting so patiently for their new ‘bembea.’ …yes I know how to use a hand drill too 😉

One of my favorite kids – Athumani. He’s the other child with hydrocephalus. He arrived to the hostel at age 7 and had never walked (due to extreme weakness in the lower extremities/legs). Someone gave him a pair of crutches though never showed him how to use them. He watched the other children quietly. He doesn’t talk much. Tried to walk, fell down, over and over. Tried and tried again. Slowly but surely he completely self-taught himself how to stand and walk using crutches. Now, four years later, he walks everywhere. His leg strength has not and will not improve much due to his condition. Yet you will rarely find him sitting. He is standing in the background of most scenes, watching quietly, observing, thinking? I wonder what he is thinking about. A look of wisdom and mystery rests quietly on his face and in his demeanor. Always a smile. It killed me not be know Swahili fluently in this case. I wanted to learn his story from his perspective. This child most certainly has something to share and radiates a most stunning light of perseverence, determination and deep wisdom from within. I hope to meet him again someday.

Had to put these kids to work at some point!!
They’re sanding the seats to the swingset – they are quite important helpers 🙂
After a long struggle to find wood and basically everything necessary to create this thing – it’s finally up and ready to paint! Here we go!
Uhhhh – think these awesome kids are a little excited?!?

Finished Product


Let the Fun Begin!!
We made two of the swings very close to the ground so the children with severe lower extremity/leg contractures or amputations could more easily boost themselves onto the swing seat.

It worked!!
Even in the sweltering heat, these kids would not leave their swingset until they were
called to bed at the end of the day…
This guy was one of the first ones to jump on – he compensated just fine! …and was a great teacher, especially in helping the others kids to learn how to pump!
What a beautiful family (of 50 kids)!
Some had a little more trouble than others getting themselves onto the swing seats.
No sweat, each child had his/her own strengths, and they worked together like magic. The amount of helping, sharing, learning and giving among these young souls is truely one-of-a-kind. <3


She has some of the strongest core muscles I’ve ever seen in a 10 year old. Her legs are severely contracted. That doesn’t slow her down one bit! She uses her fists as ‘feet,’ her arms propel her forward faster than any running child on the grounds. She’s fearless, and my motherly nature most certainly surfaced as she propelled herself so high on the swing that I thought she might fly off!

This child is one of four brothers, who all stay at the hostel and who ALL have severe spina bifida. Each successive brother’s condition more severe than the previous. He is the second oldest at the age of 11, unable to bear much weight through his legs. He had watched the others meticulously for days, building up enough courage to give it a shot.
…my heart pounded as we stood back and watched. I recognized that we needed to let him be independent in his attempt. I prayed and prayed that he had enough upper body strength to hold himself on the swing…
Definition: HAPPY!
This is hands-down my most favorite photograph of the stay at Kwa Mkono. Never in my life have I seen ANY child with so much joy and pure happiness streaming from the depths of his soul! If this doesn’t make your heart smile, I’m not sure what will. <3
…this would be my 2nd most favorite photo! We called this child ‘Dennis,’
because of his personality resemblance to ‘Dennis the Menace.’ He ALWAYS has a smile on his face, is a dare devil and most importantly, this little trouble maker was the king of all pranks at the hostel – including stealing our black paint, in which all of the kids proceeded to hide out and paint their cups, bowls, wheelchairs, etc…
My going away gift! Traditional African Kanga.
Kwa Mkono staff recieving a donation from the church that helps support them – from the U.K. 
If you have any desire to help support this family of 50 children at Kwa Mkono Polio Hostel in Tanzania, please let me know. I will be continuously putting things together for them – they can use assistance in any way your imagination can come up with. <3

Note: I have recieved full permission to photograph and speak about the children pictured throughout this blog.

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