Local generosity saves lives in western Kenya

Paul Salmen, MD, and Nancy Reinisch

The new rescue boat has responded to more that 50 emergencies and is much safer than its predecessor.
Organic Health Response / Contributed |

What a difference a year can make. Early last year, we received this message from our friend Walter Opiyo, the emergency boat captain on Mfangano Island, Kenya:

26, Jan, 2014:

“It was around midnight the father called me for assistance, that his wife was feeling labor pain and I was worried due to the condition of the boat. So I called back to inform him to come down to the beach immediately. Imagine it was raining and the lake was wavy with strong winds. Therefore I decided to grab the boat very fast, since the situation was growing more worse that I could not wait long, the baby was almost coming out and Eve (the wife) was restless and weak due to pain.

“My friends, I and Joel quickly mounted our motor on the boat and started our transportation to Sena clinic. We were three people in the boat, me (captain), Joel and Eve. On our way around Sena beach area, Joel told me that Eve is almost giving birth and I told him to hold her in a better position. After some minutes, passing the ferry landing bay I heard the infant baby crying and drove the boat safely and Joel kept holding Eve and the baby since the placenta is still attached to the baby.

“I left them in the boat while Joel is holding both the baby and Eve. My friends, I ran very, very fast and it was muddy and dark too, since we did not have proper light provider. Reaching the hospital, I woke up the nurse in charge that night, briefed him about the case. Immediately he responded very fast. I went together with him to the boat that night around 1:30 a.m. I helped the nurse separate the placenta with the baby in the boat safely using our gloves and the bed in the boat.

“Imagine it was very, very cold and raining, too. The lake was rough and our boat is weak and leaking during bad weathers, since this is the season of rains (Jan.-May) and the winds blow strongly, sometimes the whole day long. But I am trying very hard to keep everything safe as we wait for a better emergency boat.


“Walter Opiyo

“Emergency Boat Captain, Ekialo Kiona Center”

In February 2014, we launched a capital campaign to raise money to replace the leaky old fishing/emergency boat. We owe the success of the campaign to our friends of the Roaring Fork Valley.

The 25,000 Suba and Luo people of Mfangano Island live without basic medical care. A three-hour commercial ferry trip aboard a wooden “canoe” equipped with 2-inch-by-6-inch plank seats used to be the only route to emergency medical care. Men frequently died from construction wounds, children from snake bites and women died in labor.

Three years ago we procured an aging fishing boat from a generous fisherman and an even older 28-horsepower outboard motor. Our emergency boat service carried desperately ill Kenyans from the villages of Mfangano to the regional hospital in Sindo, often through the night and across raging lake storms.

Last year, our very dedicated boat captain, Walter Opiyo, informed us that the old fishing boat had grown weak, leaky and dangerous even by Mfangano standards. We needed to build a new emergency boat.

Some of our friends on the island wanted to buy a modern fiberglass hull, but the experienced fishermen urged us to tap into 2,000 years of Suba boat building wisdom and employ the skilled craftsmen on the island. We created a budget of about $20,000 to build a new boat, buy a reliable outboard motor, furnish the boat with emergency medical supplies, gasoline and train 10 emergency rescue responders.

On Feb. 9, 2014, we held a fundraiser, “Pint Night” at Treadz on Grand Avenue. Owners John and Erin Zalinski generously opened their shop, while Cooper Avenue Liquors and the Glenwood Canyon Brew Pub supplied the beer. Dozens of friends and neighbors from throughout the Roaring Fork Valley joined us at Treadz to learn more about the projects of Organic Health Response, on Mfangano Island, Kenya. Our wonderful friends donated $20, $50, or $100 and purchased handcrafted Mfangano Island Sisterhood Exchange Program aprons, all of this to help us with the Emergency Boat Project. That evening was a wonderful success. Not only did we raise over $20,000, by raising a few mugs of beer, we raised the chances of survival for our friends half a world away.

A few local friends went above and beyond to help us meet our goal. The Glenwood Springs Sunset Rotary donated the funds to buy a new, 40-HP outboard motor. Locals Jan and Bruce Shugart donated money to train the first cohort of emergency responders and “health navigators” on the island. M.J. and Dr. Bob Derkash donated the money to furnish three years of fuel for the emergency boat

Our Kenyan staff of OHR went right to work on designing a new boat. Traditional Suba Lake Victoria boats are handmade from planks of blue gum wood, bent into shape with wood-fired steam and fashioned together by glue and thin metal strips, all without any power tools. Our American graduate students and Kenyan health workers designed a boat with a traditional hull but unlike any they had ever seen. It was fitted with an adjustable patient bed, watertight compartments for medical supplies and a canopy to shield a patients from Lake Victoria storms.

On July 1, 2014, the Ekiolo Kiona emergency boat was formally launched at Kitawi Beach, Mfangano Island. Since then it has responded to over 50 calls and ferried dozens of emergency cases to hospitals and clinics on the Kenyan mainland.

By night the new emergency boat floats a few feet offshore at Kitawi Beach waiting for our boat captain to transport the treasured outboard motor by wheelbarrow, and our health navigators to bring a victim by hand carried gurney into the lifesaving hull of their bright blue, new emergency boat.

This simple project leveraged the small investment of a few generous friends in our community to create a huge benefit for the people of Mfangano Island. The boat itself carries precious lives of our friends in Kenya and the prominent logo of thanks to friends here in the Roaring Fork Valley.

We want to thank all our friends in the Roaring Fork Valley who hold in their hearts such a generous world view!

Paul Salmen and Nancy Reinisch are from Glenwood Springs. They are “responders” with Organic Health Response, a community resilience project on the Island of Mfangano, on Lake Victoria in remote western Kenya. OHR was founded in 2007 by post-graduate students from Glenwood Springs and sustained by the generosity and enthusiasm of residents of the Roaring Fork Valley. To learn more about this project, please visit

Support Local Journalism

Support Local Journalism

Readers around Glenwood Springs and Garfield County make the Post Independent’s work possible. Your financial contribution supports our efforts to deliver quality, locally relevant journalism.

Now more than ever, your support is critical to help us keep our community informed about the evolving coronavirus pandemic and the impact it is having locally. Every contribution, however large or small, will make a difference.

Each donation will be used exclusively for the development and creation of increased news coverage.