“One of the joys of the GHP experience is meeting amazing people wherever we go—people who are committed to making a difference where they live. Mary Kanyaman Ekai is one such example,” said Global Health Partnerships (GHP) Director Connie Adams, MT(ASCP).
Mary Kanyaman Ekai was born into the Turkana tribe in the northern part of Kenya. In her culture, women do not make decisions, she said, and her father believed to educate a woman was “an abomination.”
But as a feisty 9-year-old girl, she was determined to attend school. “Those who are privileged to go to school see a way of life different than what we know,“ Ms. Ekai said.
After Ms. Ekai snuck out to go to school with a close friend for a week, her father found out and exiled her from the home. Ms. Ekai and her mother moved in with her maternal grandmother. She said her mother and grandmother created a supportive environment for her. “My grandmother taught me things I couldn’t learn from my professors,” Ms. Ekai said.
Her teacher and a local priest helped with school fees and supported her while she attended boarding school, enabling her to achieve the education for which she strived. Ms. Ekai excelled as a student, and was first in her class throughout school and third among her peers in her district.
After attending secondary school, she earned a diploma in laboratory medicine. She said she was inspired to dedicate her career to diagnosing disease, because her uncle, his wife, and their six children, as well as her older sister all died after contracting HIV. “My relatives and the community at large never knew anything about diagnosis of diseases,” Ms. Ekai said. “Due to this, my relatives were thought to be bewitched, and all of them perished.”
After working for three years in a small laboratory conducting malaria screening and strip tests, Ms. Ekai went to Nairobi to attend the university and earn her degree as a laboratory scientist.
“Since my graduation in 2004, no matter how far I work from home, I have always used my position to help advocate for laboratory diagnosis of any condition,” she added.
The CLSI GHP team met Ms. Ekai while working with the Kenya Medical Laboratory Technician and Technologist Board (KMLTTB) to develop policies to regulate laboratory equipment and reagents entering Kenya. Over the past year, GHP staff and volunteers have led activities, including quality management systems (QMS) workshops and policy development working sessions.
Ms. Ekai recently left KMLTTB after being named chief executive officer of the Nomad Boy Organization, a nongovernmental organization. She said the core mandates of the organization are education, health, HIV/AIDS awareness, research, human rights, and good governance.
Ms. Ekai credited the experience she gained through her participation in the CLSI activities with helping her obtain her new position. She said that during her interview for this position, she discussed the knowledge and skills she learned from CLSI regarding QMS and standard operating procedures, and stressed the need to have a systems approach to health care in her country. She believes this gave her the edge over other candidates.
She will be working in Turkana County, which is located in northwestern Kenya. Despite leaving KMLTTB, she will remain the contact person for the organization in the county.
The first program she will implement with the Nomad Boy Organization will involve providing clean water to more than 10 villages located along Lake Turkana. The people in these villages suffer from severe skeletal osteoporosis.
Ms. Ekai‘s father is now a village elder in northern Kenya. She said he is now proud that his daughter is returning with the goal of improving the local health care system. “This is the closest I have come to directly helping [to improve] health conditions of my people,” she said. “We are the agents of change. If we don’t do this, it will never happen.”
She added, “You don’t need to be a Bill Gates to make a difference. You only need to have a heart.”