Service pilgrimage leads professor to ask questions about faith

Melody Graham was perched on a hilltop overlooking a majestic valley that — had she been in the United States — would have been land that only Hollywood stars could afford. Instead, in November 2007, Graham found herself sharing a blanket with an impoverished and dying African woman in a small village outside of Eldarat, Kenya.

Of the visits and conversations that Graham, Mount Mercy professor of psychology and dean of graduate studies, had with the Kenyans she visited on her 10-day pilgrimage, this became her most cherished.

“She was in excruciating pain,” says Graham, of the woman who welcomed her into her home, “and yet she was concerned with the well being of others during her final hours.” The woman, Hannah, who would die shortly after Graham’s trip concluded, had a large tumor growing out of her face and was in the final stages of her struggle — presumably with cancer — although the lack of Western medicine and doctors in the villages prevented Graham and others from knowing for sure, or for treating her illness and pain.

Graham recounts Hannah as a woman who was gracious, hospitable and personable despite the pain that immobilized her. “She invited us into her home – a mud hut that had an amazing view of a valley,” says Graham. “Her family was with her, and she was lying on a small blanket. Here is a woman who is poor, who is dying, and is in excruciating pain, and yet was most concerned about me getting sunburned,” she says, explaining that Hannah was worried that Graham was being overexposed to the hot African sun. “She kept motioning for me to sit nearer her, away from the sun.”

Spending time with Hannah “was a holy experience,” says Graham. “I shared life with her at the end of her life, and it was an honor.” After she returned to the United States, Graham says she would think back to that afternoon, and wonder “is my sense of compassion muted? If I were in her position — dealing with death and tremendous pain — would I have been that friendly and open or would I simply have retreated to be alone?”

Ultimately, this was only one of the many questions that Graham would ponder when she returned to Iowa following her stint in Kenya working with tribeswomen and children who have been orphaned, many whose mothers had fallen victim to AIDS.

The voyage, which Graham took with her teenage daughter Stephanie, made her question many of the things that she, as an American, often takes for granted as fact, including what she believes about God and community, and how she thinks about mental health.

Graham and her daughter wanted to travel to Kenya to assist in orphanages, teach at a women’s conference, and to gather new research on women’s friendships, a topic she had been exploring in Iowa. Through the experience, Graham found that the Kenyan women she encountered were eager to learn — despite their station in life and limited abilities. “I learned that they empower each other through community,” she says. “Their sense of community gives them a richness of life in the midst of their poverty,” she explains.

The one-room medical clinic that Graham toured only treats patients who are suffering from AIDS and malaria, and she noted the absence of Western medicine and physicians. Within the village in which she spent most of her time, Graham also encountered a number of women who were ostracized from the small society because of their inability to have children.

“When I was there I was known as Mama Stephanie, because in Kenya a woman’s name is also that of her oldest child,” says Graham, whose daughter Stephanie is actually Graham’s second child; her oldest daughter, Katie, was unable to make the trip. Through this Kenyan naming process, Graham learned much about the native culture, including that “if you don’t have children, you don’t have status. Your identity is your child,” she says. During her visits with the native women, Graham talked with the women about some of the differences between American and Kenyan culture, including the generally accepted Western view that all women are valuable, not just mothers.

While there is a distinct richness to being part of the community, Graham also discovered the impact that an undiagnosed mental illness can have on the larger group. One woman, whom Graham thinks would have been diagnosed as schizophrenic in the United States, was clearly separated from the other women due to her behavior. “I was challenged professionally by what it means to be ‘mentally healthy,’” says Graham. “They [the Kenyan women] say that they do not have a lot of mental health problems within the village, but I saw many people who exhibited signs of depression.” Of course, many of these illnesses are virtually unknown to the Kenyans.

Not more than a few months after Graham returned from Kenya, widespread violence broke out in the country. Post-election violence caused hundreds of thousands of Kenyans to flee their homes, and resulted in the killing of nearly 800 people. The area in which Graham and her daughter taught and lived was the center of the violence. “The people I met were kind, compassionate, and some of them just ended up on the wrong side of the violence,” says Graham. She explains that it was difficult for her to square in her mind the friendly, peaceful people she had interacted with and the brutal, inhumane behavior reported internationally. “As a social psychologist it made me realize that the social fabric that holds us all together is fragile,” says Graham. “Decent people can do horrible things, and it is disturbing to learn that first-hand.”

Despite the violent outbreak following her return to the United States, Graham is eager to return to the village — if not to see old friends, but to also ascertain the kind of physical, emotional and mental damage incurred by the violence, and to see if she can lend a helping hand. “I consider myself a giving person,” says Graham, “but these people will give you everything. When you have a lack [of resources] you realize how much you need others, and you really reach out to them,” says Graham. “I hope through this process I’ve learned to hold onto things very loosely and to give very generously.”