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Widow who defied poverty to start a thriving clinic in Kibera

United States Senator Chris Coons (right) and his delegation during a tour of Tabitha Medical Clinic in Kibera on August 18, 2022. [Denis Kibuchi, Standard]

Tabitha Atieno Festo’s world came crumbling down in 1998 when she made it to the list of workers her employer wanted to retrench.

The widow and mother of four struggled to find work elsewhere to no avail. With limited options, Tabitha, a nurse, downsized her lifestyle, and moved to Kibera, occasionally finding menial jobs to feed her children and pay rent.

Two years later, not far from where she lived, a white man, Rye Barcott, was also living temporarily within Africa’s largest slum. 

Barcott was a student at the University of North Carolina in the United States was doing a research on youth empowerment and ethnic violence in Kibera. 

He spent a good amount of time meeting the youth of Kibera, finding out what their motives, ambition, and aspirations were, and what it would take to help them leave a life of crime.  

Throughout his stay, Barcott was very cautious not to give handouts to curtail a cycle of dependency but also for safety reasons. On the other hand, a handout is just what Tabitha needed. She was desperate for a breakthrough, and in Kibera, a white man often symbolises hope. 

When Barcott concluded his research and was just about to leave Kenya, Tabitha had to suck it up and bite the bullet. It helped that she had earlier come to Barcott’s aid when he fell ill. 

Armed with conviction and a plan, she asked him for an investment of Sh2,000. Her pitch was that she would purchase vegetables from a cheaper source in Kibera and sell them in Eastleigh at a profit.

Tabitha Medical Clinic in Kibera. [Denis Kibuchi, Standard]

Barcott believed her, gave her the money, and flew back to the US the next day.  Sure enough, Tabitha stuck to the plan, managing to save the profits through a local women’s micro-finance group.

After six months, she had saved Sh13,000, good enough to launch her lifelong dream of starting a clinic. 

She got a few supplies and set up a one-room clinic in Kibera, where she treated residents at a small fee. 

Years later, Barcott visited Kibera and heard about Tabitha’s exploits. So motivated was he that he championed her cause among wellwishers in the US.

With the donations, Tabitha added more infrastructure and named the clinic Carolina for Kibera (CFK) in honour of her overseas friends. 

She also set off another dream of providing high-quality and self-sustaining maternal care.

A friend of Barcott, Donna Schwartz-Barcott, an American nurse and anthropologist, donated microscopes for differentiating infectious organisms such as malaria, yellow fever, and cholera.  

Tabitha’s story even managed to pull strings at Ford Foundation, a leading global charity organisation, which became one of CFK’s first major supporters. 

Her clinic continued to serve the people of Kibera and its environs, 24 hours a day, because in her words, “people don’t stop getting sick at night”.

“Tabitha was like a celebrity in Kibera. People welcomed her into their homes like a trusted friend,” said Claire Weston, a volunteer, and friend of Tabitha’s family. 

Sadly, Tabitha’s health began deteriorating in the early 2000s, eventually passing on in December 2004.

The Kibera clinic was renamed “Tabitha Medical Clinic” in her honour, but CFK went on to open more medical facilities in various parts of Kenya. 

Tabitha might have passed on, but her dream is alive, echoing across the globe. 

CFK Executive Director Henry Omala addresses United States Senator Chris Coons and his delegation. [Denis Kibuchi, Standard]

On Thursday, August 18, US senator Chris Coons led a US congressional delegation to the Tabitha Medical Clinic. The delegation was here for political reasons but also to inspect a CDC project which the US government is funding.

The Tabitha Medical Clinic was chosen by US-based CDC agency, which partners with governments and local medical research centres to identify clinics to partner with and provides operational funding. 

Through these clinics, the CDC partners with local people and conducts tests and free treatment whenever a member of the community falls ill with infectious diseases.

Tabitha Medical Clinic was identified by the CDC as one such establishment.

“This way, they’re able to monitor any infectious disease and stop it from spiralling out of control, like Covid did when it was first discovered in China,” said Hilary Omala, the executive director of CFK Africa.

Unlike in developed countries like the US where leading causes of death are heart diseases, cancer, accidents, stroke, and diabetes, Africa’s top most killers are infectious diseases.

They include acute respiratory infections, HIV and Aids, diarrhoea, malaria, and tuberculosis, all of which can be passed from one person to another. 

Through Tabitha’s concern for her people, conviction, and bravery, thousands of people in Kibera get free medical checkups and treatment.