Sliding in Broadside: “What a ride!”
PCV Keith Keyser may be three times the age of most PCVs, but his energy (and success) is a wonder to behold.
By Janet Lee (Emdeber 74-76)
“He may be retired, but I have a hard time keeping up with him,” says a twenty-something male PCV about fellow Volunteer Keith Keyser. To look at Keith, one would not imagine that he had just celebrated his 70th birthday. Nothing slows him down. He is adored and respected by the other Volunteers, many of whom are the age of his own grandchildren. In fact, he signs most of his emails Keith/Dad/Grandpa/Great Grandpa. He is also more wired than most of the other Volunteers, updating his Facebook page, blogs and emails at all hours of the day and night through the use of CDMA (Code Division Multiple Access) technology — electricity and internet permitting, of course; this is Ethiopia after all. That should not come as a surprise; he retired as the IT Director from Denver Water not so long ago.
Although assigned to the Finote Selam office that is in charge of the prevention and control of HIV/AIDS and the support of those with suffering from the diseases, Keith has tallied up a wide variety of successes in his short two years in Finote Selam.
Among them are:
- Creating an Access database for the hospital to manage its patient medical records
- Setting up a chicken project complete with a three-room chicken house and an incubator room;
- Writing a handful of grant proposals;
- Setting up a community library and securing reference books for the secondary school library;
- Helping set up two urban gardens;
- Hosting weekly English language discussion groups in his home;
- Helping obtain soccer balls for a youth and sports group;
- Working with a health club at the Preparatory School to distribute mosquito nets;
- Accompanying three girls to the summer Camp Glow, Girls Leading our World camp in Gondar;
- Volunteering with Operation Smile in Jimma, an organization that performs surgery on cleft lips.
Still nothing has touched his heart as much as his work with the mentally ill and in particular, a young woman named Ana (not her real name). His emails are filled with her trials and tribulations, ups and downs, bumps and bruises, progress and relapses. She is schizophrenic with a persecution complex, and like so many mentally ill in Ethiopia was ignored, abused, and left to fend for herself. While working as a housemaid for a family, the son took advantage of her sexually. When she became pregnant, the family kicked her out of the house. She was approximately 16 years old and on the street when she gave birth. She struggled to raise her daughter while begging, but ultimately her child was taken from her and given up for adoption. Until she met Keith, her only protector was a Moslem bike repair shop owner who allowed her to while away her time at his shop. She slowly came to trust Keith and called him her “father and mother.”
It took some doing, but Keith was able to put together the proper papers, accompany her to Addis Ababa and have her admitted to a hospital where she was treated. Although nearly everyone else had given up on her, “Her eyes tell me that there is a vibrant person in there that wants to come out!” It is unclear what may have triggered her illness. It may have been brought on by her poverty and lack of ability to care for her daughter who was then taken away from her, or some other traumatic event in her life, including being sexually molested while living on the streets. Her situation is further complicated by being HIV positive.
Even though the hospital may be one of the best mental hospital in East Africa, Keith felt like he was abandoning her at the hospital, a bit like in “One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” Ana shared a ward with 19 other women, each in varying stages of illness and delusions. Patients usually have a family member to watch after their affairs, provide them with care, food, tea, and other types of support. Keith was able to find a surrogate caregiver for a fee. In the meantime, Keith needed to deal with the typical Ethiopian bureaucracy of paperwork and signatures for her treatment.
After nearly two months of hospitalization, she returned to Finote Selam where the community was surprised at how “normal” she had become. She seemed to be recovering well emotionally, but was having difficulty adjusting to the HIV/AIDS medication, a common occurrence for the first few months as the body’s immune system is challenged by the medications. For the most part, she has reliably taken the medications on her own, but has occasional mishaps. She developed a severe infection on her head while Keith was away on Christmas holidays, an infection that is not that uncommon in AIDS patients. That has been treated and her life has some resemblance to normality.
Keith’s reputation as a miracle worker and sympathetic soul has drawn others with mental illness to him for assistance. He and Ismael, the bike repair shopkeeper, have taken over 45 patients to the Addis Ababa hospital for treatment, a harried and eventful eight-hour mini bus experience, each direction. But Ana will always have a special place in his heart.
Keith has decided to extend his service and transfered to Mekelle at the beginning of this year to work with the Clinton Foundation to help improve the management of the country’s hospitals. This extension will allow him to occasionally check on Ana and his other projects. It seems that Ethiopia has had as much an effect on him as he has had on it. The extension will also give him an opportunity to travel further within and outside of Ethiopia and pursue his passion for photography. One of his recent photos, “Preparing the Garden for Planting,” was selected as a finalist in the Peace Corps 50th anniversary photo contest.
His wry, self-deprecating sense of humor comes through in his emails, blogs, and Facebook page, especially in the captions to his most exquisite photos. In a pre-Peace Corps experience in a Masaii village in Tanzania, he reflects, “The Masaii village people gave us gifts before we left; I was given a goat since I was the oldest member of our group.”
What keeps him going? Where does he get that passion for life? He explains that he believes in this adage: “Life is not a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming, wow . . . what a ride!!!”