Sometimes all you need to do is ask


Kate McBride and Stanford





Sometimes, to make things happen, all you need to do is ask. I learnt this recently after I read a confronting newspaper article about a little boy and decided to ask if there was any way he could be helped.

That newspaper article was in the Sydney Morning Herald (SMH), and I was reading it online from Nairobi, Kenya. And that little boy, was 9 year old Stanford, who was suffering from a severe skin condition that had been made significantly worse by him being an Internally Displaced Person (IDP) as a result of the post-election violence that hit Kenya in late 2007.

The newspaper article had been written because an Australian photographer, Jonathan May, had taken a powerfully haunting image of Stanford, wearing a Spiderman costume that he had bought for him, cradling his cherished pet dog. The photo had won the Head On Portrait Prize, which is part of Australia’s largest photo festival and the world’s second largest photo festival.

Reading the SMH online was part of my daily routine to keep up with the news from home and it was this photo that caught my attention. Aside from the overwhelming sadness of the story, it was the fact that Stanford was located in Kenya where I had been volunteering for the past 18 months through the Australian Volunteers for International Development (AVID) program that I couldn’t get away from. He was here and I was here. The irony of it didn’t escape me. I think I read the story three times over, and knowing all too well the situation that Stanford and his family would be facing, I just couldn’t dismiss that photo and those words.

The photo that Kate couldn’t ignore. Image Credit: Jonathan May

Even more reason for me to try was the fact I was working within the Clinical and Diagnostics Program for the African Medical and Research Foundation (AMREF), who provide medical care to disadvantaged people largely located in rural and remote regions across East Africa.

So ignoring my concern that perhaps I was interfering or adding to the large number of emails that Jonathan would be receiving with offers to help Stanford, I sent an email explaining my position in Kenya and simply asked the question ‘Do you need assistance?’

It turned out they did.

I then asked my work colleague, Jennifer, and the Regional Manager of the Clinical Outreach Programme, Dr Asrat Mengiste whether there was any way we could help this boy and without hesitation they said we could try.

That is how it came to be, that on an overcast Wednesday in June, Stanford along with his mother Alice came to our AMREF clinic to be assessed by Dr Mengiste, who is a Reconstructive Specialist. After seeking medical assistance from a multitude of places, Alice just wanted to get a definitive diagnosis for her son.

Talking with Alice I learnt that Stanford had been perfectly fine up until the age of 4 years old. That was until the violence broke out after the 2007 Kenyan Elections, which resulted in her small green grocer business and home being burnt down, and her husband becoming severely injured after being attacked with a machete. Having no other option, Alice, her injured husband and two children at the time, were forced to relocate to the nearby IDP camp.


After a few months of camp life, where food availability and personal safety were a daily concern, Alice noticed that Stanford had began scratching his head in the same place. Required to live in a small white tent, in extremely hot conditions, Alice also began to observe how Stanford would cower from the sun and didn’t seem to want to go outside of the tent.

Kate McBride with Stanford and his mother, Alice.

With Stanford’s condition deteriorating, Alice used the 25,000 Kenyan Shillings (AU $300) given to each family within the IDP camp by the government for resettlement to get medical treatment for her son. Without fully understanding his condition, Stanford received initial treatment for his fading eyesight and a skin lesion on his nose, but the cause of the problem was not determined.

Having to provide and care for Stanford, who was now almost completely blind, and her two other children, elder daughter Mary and younger son John, Alice was able to get Stanford entry into one of the only public blind schools in Kenya. It was here that Stanford met Jonthan, who was visiting the school to see a little girl he had been sponsoring. The bond that formed between the little boy who loves cars and music, and the photographer who saw more than meets the eye, was extremely special.


Indeed it was only through Jonathan and his colleagues’ support that Alice had been able to travel to Nairobi from the IDP camp where she was still forced to live with her children, along with 3000 other people, to be with Stanford for his medical assessment at AMREF with Dr Mengiste.

I also learnt on that overcast Wednesday, that sometimes when you ask a question you don’t always get the answer you were looking for. I wish I could say that the diagnosis of Stanford’s condition was that it was completely curable and that Dr Menegiste could perform an operation and he would be a normal 9 year old boy again. But that wasn’t to be.

Dr Mengiste confirmed that Stanford had a rare congenital condition called Xeroderma Pigmentosa that meant his skin was extremely sensitive to ultraviolet light. Children with this condition need total protection from sunlight and often die of skin cancer early in adulthood.

After examining Stanford, Dr Mengiste noted that he had a persistent cough which following a chest X-ray, indicated there were some troubling spots within his lungs. Along with a biopsy needed for an ulcerating lesion on his scalp, Stanford has been referred to Kenyatta National Hospital for further specialist care.

It was with heavy hearts that we all had to face the reality of Stanford’s situation that day. Indeed in that moment, it was so hard not to dwell on the undeniable fact that Stanford and his family would not get the

Sadly, Stanfords condition cannot be cured.

happy ending I knew they deserved.

But then life goes on. And after some time for reflection and a few deep breaths, I came to realise that there is still a great deal of hope and so much that can be done for Stanford.

Through communication with Jonathan, we have promised to arrange for Alice to undergo counselling to assist her in coping with the on-going burden of caring for her family in such challenging circumstances. Jonathan and his colleagues’ are working hard to raise funds that will enable Stanford’s family to be removed from the IDP camp into a secure and safe home and to establish a small business for Alice to run. They are also aiming to get sun protection clothing for Stanford to wear.  And I’m going to keep helping out in everyway I can.

I do take comfort from knowing that through the now unified support of Jonathan, his colleagues and friends, and Kenyan medical institutions, Stanford will have a far better quality of life. And I’m optimistic that the more people who know about Stanford’s story, the greater opportunity we will have to really make a brighter future for him and his family.

Although it has been a difficult life lesson to know that just because you offer help, doesn’t always mean you can fix something entirely. But I’ve also learnt you can always help a little bit, which makes asking the question so worthwhile.

 Kate McBride is a 31 year old Australian gal who has been volunteering in Nairobi, Kenya for the last 18 months. She work’s for an NGO called AMREF (African Medical and Research Foundation), specifically trying to improve the Surgical Outreach Program. Stanford and his family can be supported through Jonathan May’s organisation Empowering Blind Youth.