Grace, The Kind One
By: Becky Straw | Photos By: Esther Havens
Winding through narrow streets, around potholes and ditches, our driver was careful to dodge all the children in school uniforms walking along the edge of the road.
I was in Uganda to evaluate Living Goods, a young organization working to get life-changing health products into the hands of people in need. They’ve become nicknamed the “Avon of Africa” because they train women to sell products door-to-door. But instead of beauty products, they sell essential medicines. Women apply to become trained as licensed Community Health Promoters (CHPs) and in turn, they earn an income while caring for their communities. I heard they were onto something, and I was eager to learn more.
In 2015, nearly six million children died before reaching age 5, mostly from preventable diseases. Treatments to save their lives cost less than a cup of coffee. It’s a tragedy I’ve seen firsthand, and it haunts me to this day. Years ago, a mother flagged me down on the roadside in a remote region of Liberia, asking if I could save her toddler. The little girl was severely malnourished. Her long, sticky legs dangled from out of the blanket, while her mom held her close. Too weak to even lift her head or smile, the little girl could only blink back at us.
If the scene wasn’t tragic enough, the mother wasn’t even Liberian, but from the neighboring country of Guinea. By the time I had met her on that roadside, she had been walking for three days through the forest in search of help.
I’m not the hero in this story. Her toddler didn’t make it. That moment has stayed with me ever since.
The vast majority of children in developing countries aren’t dying from unknown diseases or acts of war. They perish because their parents can’t find medicine or a trained health care worker in time.
This is where Grace comes in.
When my car pulled up, she was sitting on her front step, waiting for us. A row of her laundry was gently swaying, drying on the line. She greeted with a huge hug, as her chickens scratched the dirt around us in search of food, and we were ushered into her modest home.
Beaming, Grace introduced us to her children, touching each one proudly as she said their names. Lovingly, each grinned back at us.
Grace became a CHP out of necessity. Her husband recently passed away from a sudden illness, leaving her alone and without income. My heart ached thinking this family must be still be grieving.
I often ask mothers what they like most about having a trained Community Health Promoter in their village. Many cite that it’s nice to have a mom who they can go to with questions if they feel ill.
But often, their first response is, “I like that the medicine is real.”
At first I thought they were just talking about the brand names. Then I learned one-third of all malaria meds are actually fakes, counterfeits mainly from China. It has become a 4 billion dollar industry. And another unjust hurdle for those living in poverty to jump through. I cannot imagine wondering if the anti-malaria drugs I’m giving my child are real, or just sugar pills.
Living Goods operates a heroic supply chain by purchasing the supplies in bulk and then distributing it to tiny hubs around the country. Some branches are even built out of a few cargo shipping containers stacked together. It’s primitive, yet secure.
Every few days women walk or ride a bike to their local branch to collect more supplies. Armed with over 60 health products, these women don’t just treat illnesses; they also prevent them by selling bed nets, water filters, and vitamin-fortified foods.
A recent five-year study revealed that just having one CHP in your village reduces child-mortality over 25%. It’s a remarkably effective discovery. Therefore, Living Goods is trying to expand as quickly as possible. They just opened up shop in Kenya, too. Your donations help open new branches, educate women to get their health care license, and upon graduation, your generosity gives women like Grace a crisp uniform and bag. From there, she’s up and running.
Inside Grace’s home, I was curious what the village thought of her new position. She had always been a mother and neighbor. Now, she walked through town with her uniform, encouraging moms to breastfeed.
I asked her kids what the neighbors call her mom, thinking there could be a fun nickname for a working woman.
Instead, Ruth piped up, “They call her, ‘the kind one.’”
As in, “Oh, your mom is Grace, the kind one.”
It wasn’t an answer I expected. Grace went on to explain the story.
Her first week on the job — the first opportunity to earn an income — a woman came to her door frazzled and desperate saying, "My children are dying, please help me.”
Grace grabbed her bag of supplies and ran with her to the home. Sure enough, all three children had malaria. Grace could tell it was serious.
The mother broke down in tears and pleaded, “Grace, please help, I don’t have any money for the medicine right now. Can you please help me?”
Grace thought for a moment. She was supposed to earn income to care for her kids - not give it away. She herself was desperate, widowed and living in poverty. Her plate was full. This job was supposed to be her lifeline.
But Grace couldn’t turn away. She lent her neighbor the money, gave the children their first dose of anti-malarial medicine, and walked home empty-handed.
A few days later, the children recovered. The neighbor set out to repay Grace for the money she borrowed. As she went, she exuberantly danced through the streets of the village shouting at every neighbor she passed with arms raised, “Grace saved my children’s lives! If you are sick, you need to see Grace! Grace is the kind one.”
So on that day, Grace became the most trusted, most loved mother in the village. She became known as Grace, the kind one.
She now cares for over 800 people in her community, and has treated over 300 cases of malaria.