Healing others brings joy to ViNA founder

Anita Boling, founder and executive director of the local nonprofit Village Network Africa (ViNA), has found her own sense of healing in doing the same for others. To come this far, Ms. Boling quotes the adage she references in the name of her non-profit: it took a village.

After her husband’s passing, the nurse and health educator has dedicated herself to ViNA to improving the health of women and villagers in Africa, and found it has given back to her in spades. She prepares to return to Africa with volunteers next month to continue improving life for rural villagers in Tanzania.   

“It’s a joy to me. I feel like I am really making a difference with the poorest of the poor in the world,” Ms. Boling said. “We are talking about people who don’t have plumbing, don’t have electricity, and don’t have food a lot of times. It means the world to be able to make a difference for them.”

Ms. Boling felt the call to go to Africa long before the trip actually happened. As associate dean of nursing at California Baptist University in Riverside, Ms. Boling began planning the school’s first Rwandan mission trip, set to take place in the spring of 2007. She planned to attend along with her students when tragedy struck. In the midst of planning the trip, tragedy struck when her husband was killed in a fatal car accident in late November of 2006. Despite her loss, Ms. Boling returned to work with the intent of continuing with the Rwandan missionary trip. But co-workers worried about her and asked her to stay behind. The missionary trip still took place, but Ms. Boling remained at home.

Her calling never went away and, Ms. Boling worked to make heed it. Sure enough, another opportunity soon presented itself. A missionary friend of hers encouraged her to begin her own nonprofit. Without hesitation, she poured herself into the endeavor and was surprised at the response she got from friends and family.

“I couldn’t believe the amazing people that came out of the woodwork to help,” Ms. Boling said. “They have really come together and helped make this happen.”

With a team of nurses, physicians and educators, Ms. Boling and volunteers began work in Uganda in 2007. Their efforts began with animal and agricultural projects and gradually shifted to include health issues, a passion of Ms. Boling’s. As a nurse and developmental psychologist, the topic is near and dear to her heart. She used her expertise and the experience of her volunteers to implement health education and build a fully furnished vocational-technical school. The Rotary Club helped installed wells as well as “health clubs” where villagers could for health education.

Ms. Boling began looking to help other villages once she deemed her work in Uganda sustainable. She soon set her eyes on Terrat Ward, a poor rural area of Tanzania with one of the largest maternal mortality rates. Terrat Ward consists of three villages—Mkonoo, Nadasoito and Terrat.

In Tanzania, Ms. Boling knew that the primary focus of her project would be on improving health and health education, as well as improving access to clean water. The first step in ViNA’s work is conducting research and assessing an area’s need. This researched revealed that Tanzania has one of the lowest per capita income values in the world and only 21 percent of the population has access to improved sanitation. After Ms. Boling’s first visit, she realized the need was even more dire than she had first anticipated.

“There was no soap and their way of handling water would recontaminate it, if it wasn’t already contaminated in the first place,” she relayed.

Drinking or washing water was often left uncovered, to which uncaged chickens would help themselves to drinking or washing water, which was often left uncovered. Due to the lack of proper clean-up of animal feces and other sanitation issues, a range of illnesses including diarrhea, cholera, and malaria were common. The biggest problem ViNA faced was providing the villagers with the most essential necessities like clean water: “Eighty percent of their diseases are water-based,” Ms. Boling explained. ViNA set to improve upon that number.

Volunteers knew the first step to affect change was to provide the basics.

“You have to have good nutrition and good health to go to school,” said Dr. Rose Liegler, co-chair of ViNA’s health commission.

ViNA’s work centers on setting up health clubs, where selected sub-villagers are trained by ViNA volunteers on germ prevention, disease control and sanitary systems, after which they can share the information with their families and neighbors.

One of the biggest hurdles ViNA had to overcome was finding an effective way to communicate. Because many of the villagers are illiterate, the ViNA relies on cards with pictures on them to relay information effectively. Upon graduation, each student is given a bike and a satchel with cards and sent off to start “clubs,” or centers where they can begin teaching others and implementing the strategies for healthy and sanitary living.

One such strategy is a contraption ViNA refers to as a “Tippy Tap,” a no-touch hand washing station. In using the tippy taps—created using branches and string as a pulley for the water and soap— the Villagers are able to wash their hands without touching the water jug or reusing a bar of soap, thus eliminating the threat of recontamination.

It has taken a lot of trial-and-error. While the tippy taps in general are widely successful, the original design had to be modified as Villagers explained the goats liked to eat the hanging soap. They have moved the soap higher up to prevent that from happening.

“We learn so many interesting things,” she laughed.

While there have certainly been obstacles in spreading the word, a return visit to Tanzania last year proved that their efforts are making the change they desire. The diarrhea epidemic has stopped and incidents of malaria have been greatly reduced, according to Ms. Boling. Water is being boiled and covered.  

“They are simple changes, but making a huge impact,” Ms. Boling shared.

However, the work does not stop at teaching sterilization practices. Villagers have asked ViNA to help teach them about natural family planning and first aid, along with solving issues of spousal abuse and reducing the maternal mortality rate. Ms. Boling and volunteers will head for Tanzania next month to begin work in tackling the first 2 requests.

ViNA volunteers are also working to set up sustainable solar and water systems. As of now, their only source of water comes from the river, a daily 4-hour trek each way for village women. The river is a shared commodity between villagers and animals, which poses a constant threat of disease. The goal is to establish the water system in the main village within the next 5 years, budget permitting. ViNA projects depend on the generosity of others, and as of now, the water system is expected to cost about $30,000. But Ms. Boling remains optimistic. Through the ups and downs she sticks firmly to her resolve that it will all work out.

“God will provide,” she maintains. “[Village Network Africa] has brought me joy in the midst of suffering. In the midst of everything that was happening, it has been my bright spot.”

As Ms. Boling pays for overhead costs, 100 percent of donations made to ViNA directly benefit the services it provides. Those who wish to contribute a tax-deductible donation may do so by sending donations to ViNA, PO Box 1930, Claremont, CA 91711. For more information or to get involved, visit www.vnafrica.org.

The ViNA team invites the community to join them for a send-off party on Sunday, May 5 from 3:30 to 7:30 p.m. at 3521 Padua Ave. The celebration will feature a raffle, items made in Tanzania by ViNA’s women’s empowerment group for sale and taco bar with homemade tacos, salsa and flan. Margaritas will be available for $5 each. A $25 donation is requested. To RSVP, contact Ms. Boling at anita@vnafrica.org.

—Beth Hartnett



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