Who’s Healthier? A Kenyan Tribe Or A Group of American Health Professionals?

Recently, I went on a mission trip to the Masai tribe in Kenya. I thought that we would be teaching them, what with our advanced Western technology and medical knowledge, but they ended up teaching us valuable lessons.

“You never asked.”

Before I get to that though, a story. There was an interesting TED talk about some Italian aid workers who came to Africa to help locals farm more efficiently. After planting the crops and watching them sprout up, they were stunned to see hippos come out of the river and eat everything they had just planted.

The locals said, “We knew that was going to happen.”
The Italian aid workers replied, “Well, why didn’t you tell us?”

Their answer?
“Because you never asked.”

The point is, just because you know more technically doesn’t mean you actually know more.

My initial impressions were not that far off. The Masai lived hours west of Nairobi, the capital of Kenya. To get there required over six hours of driving, the majority on unpaved and rough roads. Our drivers called it an “African massage” since you get rather unlovingly “massaged” and tossed around in the vehicle for so much of the drive.

When were arrived, the Masai people were thin as I’d imagined. Most of them were farmers, and many of them were barefoot. There were lots of children running around, and they were looked healthy overall.

A difference in lifestyle = a difference in chronic disease

Of the more than 500 patients that we treated, only two had high blood pressure, one had diabetes, and one was obese. The obese patient happened to be our driver, who lived in the city and snacked a lot while driving people around. The majority of complaints were infection-related, both viral and bacterial. Worms were also a big problem due to the drinking water situation, which I’ll get to later.

The Masai walked—a lot. We set up our mobile clinic under an acacia tree and initially, just a few people trickled in. There were barely any houses nearby. But then, people got on their phones and told others that there was free medical, dental, and vision care, at which point people just seemed to appear out of nowhere. There were no donkeys, bikes, horses, or cars. They all just walked over to where we were to get seen. Their level of daily activity seemed to help their overall health as well as their ability to maintain weight.

Their diet was comprised mostly of veggies and beans (I had beans on a daily basis there). Contrary to what I’d expected, meat is a treat over there, not a daily staple. Cows are actually a big deal. The Masai still have a dowry system and the standard is 10-15 cows for a wife. The number of cows you own correlates with your wealth status, which makes the killing and eating of a cow both rare and significant.

“Give me sweets.”

Sadly, one of the most commonly known English phrases seemed to be, “Give me sweets.” It appeared that foreign tourists who visited before us had completely corrupted the children’s taste buds. Can obesity and diabetes be far behind? The dentists on our trip were especially frustrated, as they were spending most of their time treating cavities or rotten teeth that wouldn’t have been there if not for visitors from first world nations. What made it worse is that the young patients in the dental clinic were in pain, pain that would have been avoided if they only didn’t eat candy. And who could hardly blame them for eating candy that was brought in by visitors?

This brings up a few important points.

  1. Sometimes, giving someone what they want isn’t in their best interests. Our group made it a point to not pack any sweets in their luggage so it wouldn’t even be an issue.
  2. Sometimes, you have to do something you’d rather not do because it is in someone else’s best interests. For example, pulling a rotten tooth. It’s never fun inflicting pain, but the little bit of pain can save the person from experiencing more pain down the road. Both of these lessons are important for parents to learn.

Identifying the root issue

One of the major projects we undertook was delivering clean water filtration systems to as many families as we could. One of the parents that came with us had started a fundraising drive and gathered $8,000, which led to the purchase of over 500 portable water filtration systems that could serve the family for as long as they lived.

The reason why we focused on this is that Masai drank water that we would barely swim in. It was brown, animals stood in it, dirty clothes were washed in it… It’s no wonder that so many suffered from worms. What was interesting is that they didn’t seem to be concerned about the condition of their water. Their parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents had all drunk it and fared well. The animals drank it and seemed fine also, so why should they be worried?

It was interesting to see their reaction when the water filters changed the brown water to clear water in seconds. Soon, everyone wanted a filter. The camp we were staying in received an onslaught of calls from people asking if they were any more filters. Our translator was actually a bit angry when he saw these filters in action. He asked, “Why is this simple technology just now making it to my people?” Good question. They have smartphones, motorcycles, and Coca-Cola, but no clean water.

The water project was the sustainable portion of our mission. So what if we treated the people for worms? If they drank the same polluted water, they would’ve gotten worms again and fared no better than before. We wouldn’t have done much except make ourselves feel better.

There were two main lessons I got from this.

  1. If you don’t know any better, how can you change? The Masai simply didn’t know that drinking that brown water was bad for them. They just thought that was the way it should be, based on their predecessors’ example. This points to how knowledge truly is power. Education at all levels and in all areas is a good thing.
  2. If you don’t take care of the source of the problem, i.e. clean water, then everything you do, from antibiotics to de-worming kids, are just very temporary “Band-Aid” remedies. I truly believe that most of Western medicine is at this superficial level. We treat the symptoms of disease, but fail to address the root cause of chronic medical conditions, which are mostly based in unhealthy lifestyle habits, such as smoking, poor diet, and lack of exercise. It sounds harsh, but the American health system is the best if you’re trying to actively die, but not so great if you are trying to live a long and abundant life.

The Masai quality of life

One the first day we arrived, our camp hosts told us that the Masai people have a very different pace of life than we do. “They’ll want to talk to you,” our hosts said, “They are not in a rush.”

Even when we were haggling at the local markets, the Masai would strike up conversations during and after the negotiations. They would want to keep talking to you even if you didn’t buy anything from them. There wasn’t a big emphasis on outcomes and productivity. Now, that might drive some of us crazy, but isn’t that the problem? The Masai are not stressed. Can you say the same for yourself? Most of us tend to get stressed about this, this, and that, and then get stressed about others not being stressed! I’d say that that’s a bigger problem.

One thing that everyone—including the kids who came with us on this trip—agreed with is that the Masai are generally happy. They are happy with very little. They also show a lot of gratitude for even little things we gave out, like coloring books, crayons, balls, and small toys. They were so happy to get them. To be honest, though, they were happy even before we gave them out. We in the first world are conditioned to think of those
“poor African children.” I suppose it is true to an extent, but the overall reality is that even walking barefoot, wearing poorly fitting clothes, and drinking brown water, the Masai children had huge smiles, played with exuberance and life, and were happy.

There are multiple studies showing that gratitude prolongs life and improves the quality of life. It seems that the Masai have that figured out. We’re the ones who haven’t figured it out yet. We struggle when the Wi-Fi is bad, or if our latte isn’t made the way we like it. How long are we going to allow these first world problems affect us?

Which group is better off?

I’ll get to my question now. Which group is actually healthier? The Masai tribe or the American mission team? Which has less chronic medical conditions? Which is taking fewer medications? Which has more people at a healthy weight? Which has less stress? Which group has more happy people? The Masai people have us beat in all categories.

I don’t know about you, but I’m not happy with the answers above. We may be more “advanced,” but that doesn’t mean we are healthier and better off. There is a lot we can, and should, learn from the people that we thought we were going to help

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Harvey Hahn, MD, FACC

Dr. Hahn graduated from Loma Linda University in 1994. He is currently the director of the Cardiovascular Fellowship Training Program at the Kettering Medical Center in Kettering Ohio.

  1. “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication” – Leonardo da Vinci
    Gratitude is lost among 1st world countries; entitlement has suffocated us.
    Thank you for sharing.

  2. Thank you for sharing your observations and a truth that needs to be shared: “…just because you know more technically doesn’t mean you actually know more.” and “We may be more ‘advanced,’ but that doesn’t mean we are healthier and better off. There is a lot we can, and should, learn from the people that we thought we were going to help.”

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