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It was with great sadness that I heard the sudden news that Gideon Okoth had died in Kenya. I do not know any details. He and I had been corresponding closely the past months as he was excited about our moving our non profit activity to his country and we were plotting ways that we could link up and spend time together. The past few years had taken us in different directions as he focused on his dental career in Oyugis while I struggled with ill health in America. With our non profit move to Kenya it looked as though the opportunity for visiting again was on the horizon.
Gideon was an amazing man. I met him nearly twelve years ago on one of the early trips to Kenya with Project Helping Hands. In those days he had the government contract to provide dental care throughout the country to prison inmates. He saw a flyer announcing that PHH was sending a medical team to his home town of Oyugis and this so intrigued him that he caught a night bus from Nairobi and came all the way home to meet us and to see if he could be part of the work we planned. Survival is such a struggle in Africa that the ''giving back'' gene is not often encountered in individuals. But it seems that Gideon must have gotten a double dose of this gene because it was the essence of his character. He instantly became a most valued team member. Over the years he worked many missions with PHH in Oyugis and at other sites. At the early PHH missions to Uganda he met and trained a number of dental students who then filled his role as timed moved on. He loved to teach and his enthusiasm and friendliness were infectious. One young American volunteer picked up on his spirit and compassion and it helped him form his life goals. He has just completed Medical School and is starting his medical residency at Harvard.
Working together was only one facet or our relationship. I quickly learned that he was an avid chess player and had once beaten the Kenyan national champion. We played many games together and some of my fondest memories in Kenya and Uganda are late night games while we talked about the world in general and how we proposed to change it for the better. He was a more clever chess player than me and a sharply balanced attacker, but we ended up matching well since I had studied the game and taken lessons in college. And boy did we fix the world!! It is too bad that we never figured out how to make all of those ideas happen. Whenever I visited Oyugis I would stay at the house that his wife, Evelyn, designed and that they then built. I watched the house grow from ideas on paper to a nice little oasis just outside of town. For some reason my visits in those days matched the house evolution so I was there when the roof went on and then when the water came. Early on we took turns taking ''baths'' after clinics in the darkened roughed out shower room with a pot of hot water while Evelyn created some wonderful dinner concoction in their rustic kitchen. Their son, Adams, kindly allowed me the lower bunk bed in his room when I was there.
In Uganda Gideon was the first to recognize that there was developing chemistry between Shannon and me so he shared that most important event in my life. We did our best to keep our plans quiet and secret, but he was too astute an observer of people to not notice. Had we chosen to marry in Africa, Gideon would have been our best man. Shannon and I were so happy that we got to host him and Evelyn when they came to America to be the featured presenter at the PHH annual conference in 2012. They loved America!! After the conference where both he and Evelyn spoke, we vacationed in Seattle. We took them to a Mariners baseball game and Gideon tried his best to figure out exactly how this confusing game was played. He was so focused on the game that he even declined to join us when we wandered out to take advantage of the food stands which is the reason many attend baseball games. Later that night we met some representatives for Keen's Shoes and they invited us to an event at their store the next day. The event had games that you could play to win pairs of shoes from the company. The four of us each won a pair. They could not imagine how a company could give away four pairs of shoes when one pair would cost more than a month's salary for most people in their country.
Gideon made a number of journeys to Tanzania to meet and treat the kids at the Kilimanjaro Orphanage Centre and some of the preschools. This was a great help since good dental care was not easily found. When he obtained a new high flow dental cleaner at his practice in Oyugis, his first thought was to come to visit us in Tanzania so that he could use it to treat all of the kids. We set the device up in our back yard in Pasua and had to create a strange collection of tubes and fittings powered by a rented generator to make it work. But it did work and he spent many hours treating all of our kids who would march over in twos and threes from the orphanage about 100 yards away. Gideon was not only big hearted, but he was also a big man. I loved having him around wherever we were. His size and confidence were imposing and when traveling with him you felt safe. Many other PHH members have told me the same thing.
I still am in shock that Gideon has passed. To justify it in my mind I assume that God must have a toothache and He needed a good dentist. In spirit, empathy and compassion Gideon was a giant of a man. I am sure he will be a big presence in Heaven, but he has left a huge void on earth for those of us who knew and loved him.