On Manale Patel’s first trip volunteering in Kenya, she noticed a man approaching their clinic with complete sorrow and devastation on his face.

The group of College of Charleston students and local medical personnel were administering HIV tests. This man had come to confirm what he already thought to be true: that he was HIV positive.

But after Patel administered the test, the results came back negative. He did not have HIV.

She told the man and comforted him saying “Sawa sawa” meaning “it’s all right” in Swahili.

Patel did not understand his response but knew he was relieved when he fell to his knees and raised his hands praising God.

Patel and others in the College of Charleston student organization Project Harambee travel to rural villages in Kenya for 10 days during their winter break. Some students opt to do an extended, three-week stay in Kenya.

The students said that the outreach has made them better people.

Outreach project

During the school year, Project Harambee has fundraisers to purchase medical supplies to administer once there.

They also get donations from local businesses.

Many of the supplies are purchased in Kenya because it’s cheaper and helps their economy. This past December, they spent about $6,500 on medical supplies. They also bring clothes and other forms of aid to orphanages.

In Kenya, they live with the family of their professor, Fulbright Scholar Mutindi Ndunda, a native of Kenya.

Ndunda said she first took students to do outreach in Kenya in 2002. Then in 2007, she started again with Project Harambee.

“I want my students to have an enduring understanding of the world we live in,” she said.

The students said that on a typical day in Kenya they’ll wake up at the crack of dawn (usually because the roosters start crowing) to have breakfast.

Then they travel to their outreach destination, which could take up to two hours. Once there, they set up seven to eight tents for their temporary clinics to administer medical supplies such as antibiotics, anti-Malaria pills, HIV tests and counseling.

The students are assisted by volunteer medical personnel in each tent. On other days, they spend time with children at orphanages and donate things such as clothes and bedsheets. But each day is different.

“Time doesn’t exist there. Things just happen when they happen,” said Nthenya Ndunda, the professor’s 26-year-old daughter.

Sarah Potts went to Kenya in 2010 and 2011. She said staying with Ndunda’s family makes them feel like part of the community.

“When you leave, it feels like you’ve left your family,” Potts said.

“They’re more open. Western cultures are more closed. You’re family as soon as you walk in the door,” said senior Kelcey Davis, who went to Kenya in 2011 and 2012.

Personal growth

Patel is now a senior who has gone to Kenya three times. She has taken out loans to fund her trips, but said her personal growth and experiences there are priceless.

“It’s worth it. It’s something that made me who I am and I would pay thousands of dollars for that,” Patel said. She plans on pursing a master’s in public health with a focus on global health after graduating.

“She has changed so much. Her confidence and performance increased. Her life is now focused on health-related studies. Her GPA increased and she’s lost weight,” Ndunda said of Patel.

Other students have noticed changes in themselves, too.

Junior Brooke Byers went to Kenya in 2011 and is expecting a baby girl in April.

She said going to Kenya taught her the importance of family, community and selflessness, which she said will make her a better mother.

“It was nice just seeing how open and loving they were. ... I would love for her to experience Kenya one day,” Byers said of her daughter.

“They (Kenyans) are just happy to have life. They have a genuine joy for it. Going there you realize that life is much more than the career you want. That’s not what will bring you joy,” said Nthenya Ndunda.

But Patel noticed that there are cultural similarities when she saw an avocado tree in Nthenya Ndunda’s 94-year-old grandmother’s backyard. The grandmother maintains her youthful look by putting an avocado mixture on her face, Patel was told.

Beyond the classroom

Many of the students, such as Byers, said they chose to join the organization because they wanted more out of a study-abroad experience.

“I wanted to do service. That’s more valuable to me than classes; being involved and giving back. I don’t know if I would have gotten that from a traditional study-abroad program,” Byers said.

“Academics is more than being in a classroom with formal curriculum. It changes people’s lives. ... This project and others like it help them (students) find their purpose,” Ndunda said.

Not all students in Project Harambee go to Kenya every year. Senior Swati Patel said she worked on the administrative side for two years before going for the first time in December.

“I had to build up the courage to travel. I was going out of my comfort zone because I didn’t know what to expect,” Swati Patel said.

Manale Patel, who is not related to Swati, said she enjoys being able to see a direct impact on the people they help, which sets them apart from other organizations that just raise money.

She said that on one trip she asked a man when he took his last HIV test. “The last time you were here,” the man replied.

“There’s no better feeling than knowing you have a purpose,” Patel said.

For more information or to donate to Project Harambee contact projectharambeecofc@gmail.com.

Reach Jade McDuffie at 937-5560 or jmcduffie@postandcourier.com.