On 25 November 2016 Dr Maria Schiestl was awarded the prestigious Romero Award 2016 for her tireless work among the Maasai people in Kenya. In this way ‘ Sei so frei’, the Socio-political Activity Wing of the Austrian Catholic Men’s Association, sought to highlight her exceptional commitment to the promotion of a more just society.
At the venue of this festive occasion in Innsbruck Dr Schiestl spoke to a numerous audience about her life and work among the Maasai people in Kenya. Supporters from her native Zillertal had come in large numbers. The screening of a documentary film gave a rare insight into her day to day routine of medical care and interventions.
Who could have foreseen that barely six months on this joyfully attractive physician would surrender her life into the hands her Creator? In the evening of May 20 she sustained a brain haemorrhage, was taken to hospital in Nairobi, and died the next day, Sunday 21 May 2017.
Entesekera is the place where Dr Maria worked since 2004. It is situated in South Western Kenya close to the border with Tanzania on a plateau at about 2000m above sea level. This so called Loita plane is home to the Loita-Maasai. These semi-nomadic pastoralists constitute one of the 16 different subgroups (iloshon) of the Maasai tribe.
For ten years I myself worked among the Kaputiei-Maasai. Their homeland is situated between Nairobi and Mount Kilimanjaro to the south. The Loita plateau: a remote and inhospitable region, accessible only by 4×4 vehicles, long without a telephone network; on the mobile network more recently. But there is a beautiful tropical highland forest there, and an abundance of clear spring water.
Earlier, as a fledgling teacher in the employ of ÖED (Austian Development Organisation) Maria Schiestl had taught in several high schools in Kenya, including in the diocese of Ngong. When her contract with this organisation expired she returned to her native Tyrol and started her medical studies in Innsbruck, Austria. Her childhood dream of going to Africa as a missionary doctor became a reality. In early 2004 she returned to Kenya as a fully fledged medical doctor. She set to work at a health centre in remote Entesekera which had been set up by Dutch missionaries and later got the support of the diocese of Innsbruck. It was a small ‘bush’ hospital.
When one day Dr Maria objected to a lack of financial transparency in a diocesan building project related to the health centre, her services were terminated. Undeterred she went on with the help of friends in Austria, to found a new community orientated organisation called: “Loita Community Health Service”. Their mobile health service and awareness raising programme reached the remotest homesteads. Much needed knowledge about preventive health care, a healthy diet and proper hygiene was popularised reaching women in particular.
Following the principle: ‘to prevent is better than to cure’ Maria Schiestl laid the foundations of a solid basic medical health care service. The prenatal care of pregnant women had her particular attention. There was a maternity ward in the hospital. When, as happened regularly, a patient lacked the necessary money to pay for treatment she was treated regardless. Up to date modern equipment was installed in the Centre. A state-of-the-art solar energy installation provided around the clock electricity. In the instructional garden of the Centre women learned how to grow vegetables and grain; they developed their cooking skills and acquired other useful knowledge. At the invitation of Dr Maria medical specialists from Europe came on short term visits offering their services: dentists, surgeons, eye doctors.
Whenever Dr Maria would come to Nairobi on a business errant of one kind or another she would always stay at the guesthouse of the Mill Hill Missionaries. Little by little she thus became an adoptive ‘Mill Hiller’, part of the fellowship. On what would turn out to be her final visit to Nairobi she also stayed at the Mill Hill guesthouse.
Metamayiana Enkai! – May God bless you!
Karl Oberprantacher mhm