As a child growing up in the 1980s on a small farm in western Kenya, Wendo Aszed found it difficult to make good friends. She finally found a confidant when she was in her twenties and working at a bank in the city of Nakuru, Kenya. Her friend was a smart, kind man who became someone “I would die for,” Wendo says.
In 2007, he told her that he had just tested positive for HIV. Wendo immediately got to work trying to help him get lifesaving anti-retroviral medication (ARVs). But by that time, her friend had already contracted meningitis, and he died less than a month later. “When you have the kind of grief I felt, you might grow around it, like a tree grows around a rock,” she explains. “But you never, ever lose it.”
In the hope of saving others from the same fate, Wendo started visiting nearby villages and engaging women in wide-ranging conversations about their health and lives. Eventually she was able to build enough trust to offer gentle advice on how they might find help for addressing their biggest challenges—from HIV infection to the loss of young children at the hands of abusers in the community.
Wendo was so passionate about this mission that, in 2009, she quit her financially secure job at the bank and began helping the women full time. “I had no formal training for this, and I had absolutely no savings to do it, but I just had to do it,” she recalls. She recruited a group of mentors from the local nonprofit community and set up an organization, which she called Dandelion Africa—a tribute to the resilience of women thriving in difficult environments. Dandelion Africa is how Wendo grew around her grief.
The first two years of operations almost broke her. She had no grant money or other resources to pay herself or anyone else. “Ironically, I felt selfish doing what I was doing,” she says. “I knew I was helping these women, but our family was going through hell. My husband did his best to support us with his earnings as a farm manager, but we barely had enough to pay school fees for our children.”
Just when Wendo was about to give up, the Kenyan government gave Dandelion Africa its first grant—a total of $3,500. The grant allowed Dandelion to provide HIV testing and counseling to almost everyone in one community. Through this work, Wendo learned just how many people living with HIV had no medical or psychological support. She saw that she had to go upstream—that is, not just ensure that women could get ARVs but also help change the economic and social conditions that were leading to such high rates of transmission.
Even as she started to line up the resources to go upstream, Wendo faced significant obstacles because of her gender. Once, when she sat down with a local official as she was organizing a government-funded free health clinic for his community, he started to tell her that she would have to pay for the doctors’ and nurses’ gasoline, the staff lunches, and washing the uniforms. When she resisted, he stood up and said, “In my tribe, when a woman speaks like that to a man, we slap her.” Wendo replied: “In my tribe, when a man hits a woman, we kill him.” The official sat down and said, “Okay, let’s plan this clinic.”
Over the subsequent decade, Dandelion built an all-Kenyan staff and a network of more than 200 volunteers, providing comprehensive health, economic, and educational services across a large swath of rural Kenya. Today, Dandelion Africa provides one of the best examples I’ve seen of community-led problem solving.
She and her team built—partly with their own hands—the all-hours Dandelion Medical Centre. The facility, which opened three years ago, is now driving down maternal mortality, HIV transmission from mothers to their babies, and vaccine-preventable diseases in a region where families previously had little access to even the most basic care. “When I first started the organization, I was barely staying alive,” Wendo says. “To come full circle and open a medical center that ensures every woman in the region can get quality care, that was just overwhelming to me. I just wish my best friend could have been with us at the opening.”
Dandelion Africa is also taking primary care directly to families. Its nurses hop on motorbikes and travel to homes, where they provide immunization, HIV testing, and other services. Dandelion Africa has also helped thousands of women and girls access contraceptives and sanitary supplies for the first time.
Wendo’s organization has also launched efforts to empower women and girls. For example, it helps women access small loans for starting their own businesses. It helps women adopt profitable farming techniques. And Wendo’s 22-year-old son helped create a successful effort to engage men and boys as advocates for women and girls. “When I see men becoming champions fighting FGM and whole villages saying no to FGM because they see how it harms the whole community, I know we’re doing something right,” Wendo says.
Counterintuitively, Wendo often finds it even more difficult to change women’s perceptions than men’s. “Sometimes, the women simply can’t imagine what it would be like not to be beaten by their husbands,” she says. “But we’ve learned how to reach them. We share stories that help them envision a different path.”
While the name Dandelion Africa suggests that Wendo has aspirations to expand in other parts of the continent, that is not the case. “We are going to stay in the hardest parts of Kenya, where no one else wants to work,” she explains. To achieve greater scale, she is working to cultivate 50 more dandelion-type leaders around the country.
Although finding 50 others with Wendo’s drive will not be easy, I’m optimistic that this tough, resilient leader will succeed.