MAF to reinstate mobile eye clinics across Kenya

Published: 2 Jan 2022

MAF Kenya country director and pilot, Ryan Cuthel

Having a ‘purpose in life’ was always Ryan Cuthel’s dream. Today, the country director for MAF Kenya is living that dream as MAF and partners plan to launch a new service to Marsabit and Garissa in a bid to improve eye health in remotest Kenya. MAF’s Claire Gilderson finds out the latest and asks Ryan why he still loves Kenya after 17 years…

Ryan Cuthel has served with MAF Kenya and MAF South Sudan – initially as a pilot and more recently as a country director - since 2005. Apart from a four-year stint with Australia’s Royal Flying Doctor Service, which ended in 2016, Ryan’s heart has always been in Kenya.

As a child, Ryan was a frequent flyer to Canberra, Australia, visiting relatives. This and his admiration of ‘fast things’ ignited his passion for flying. A career as a pilot was calling and he was blessed to attend flight school at 17 before becoming a Christian at 18.

God was going to use Ryan’s skills and passions in ways he never imagined:

‘I always had dreams and passions, but not really a purpose. My ideas back then were about making money and setting myself up for comfort. As a kid, I was taught that this was important, but God had other ideas and changed my heart.

‘My fundamental purpose in life really got me thinking - What am I actually doing? What meaning does my life have? What is my purpose? I’m not here just to make money and die – there has to be more to it.’

Ryan Cuthel, MAF Kenya Country Director and Pilot

‘The end of the earth’

Nearly 20 years later, Ryan’s purpose - serving the people of Kenya and South Sudan through aviation – still rings true. As a young pilot at the tender age of 23, Ryan never forgot those first few landings in Kenya’s most impoverished areas:

‘The capital, Nairobi, felt developed, but an hour and a half later I’d land somewhere that felt like the end of the earth. The remoteness and underdevelopment of the places where I’d land had the biggest impact on me. In my first few months, it was quite a shock. There were days when I thought, “Where am I? How did I end up here?’”

Aerial view from Marsabit Shuttle

Marsabit County in arid northern Kenya is one of those places that Ryan speaks of. 340 miles away from Nairobi and situated on an isolated extinct volcano in the middle of a desert, MAF provides the only regular flight shuttle service to and from Marsabit on Tuesdays and Fridays.

By road, it would take eight hours to reach Marsabit from Nairobi, whereas a MAF flight only takes one hour and 40 minutes. MAF’s Marsabit service has been running for at least 30 years.

MAF’s Marsabit shuttle service has been running for over 30 years

80% of blindness in Kenya is preventable

Compared to Nairobi, healthcare in Marsabit Country is extremely limited. Eye health in the region is particularly poor.

According to Christian Blind Mission (CBM), 80% of blindness in Kenya is preventable and curable. Three out of four people who are blind, do not need to be.

Thousands of people are needlessly blind because they can’t access simple surgery or treatment that could save their sight. Going blind when you’re on a low income often means missing school and losing your livelihood and independence.

Child blindness in rural Kenya usually means missing school

A simple cataract operation could prevent all of this, but accessing treatment as a nomadic Kenyan farmer living far away from any health facility is very difficult and expensive.

74% of Kenyans live in rural areas where healthcare, let alone eye care, is extremely limited (source: The Fred Hollows Foundation).

Many nomadic farmers live in Marsabit County where eye care is extremely limited

‘People who can’t see will be able to see again’

Given the huge need in this area, MAF – in partnership with Kenya’s Ministry of Health, CBM, The Fred Hollows Foundation and Kikuyu Hospital near Nairobi - will reinstate eye safaris this year.

The eye safaris unfortunately stopped running 12 years ago when funding dried up, but thanks to new funding streams and a renewed focus, this new service will once again restore people’s sight. Ryan is excited that MAF will be part of this incredible work:

‘Eye health in some of these places is terrible These communities move around a lot and live in smoky huts where they light fires – they sleep in there and cook there. When this service gets going this year, it will be really high impact work that will transform lives. People who can’t see will be able to see again, which is really awesome.’

Many nomadic farmers live in smoky huts, which can damage their eyes

Ryan explains how the new eye safaris will work:

‘We will start in Marsabit County and Garissa County and go to each region twice a year. It’s very difficult for our partners to reach these remote areas, so we’ve put together a plan where MAF will fund the bulk of the flights. Our partners will just pay ‘bus fares’.

Garissa County in eastern Kenya is predominantly Muslim with limited healthcare and high rates of illiteracy. Ryan continues to unveil his plans:

‘We are starting with four eye safaris this year – four week-long trips - probably one a quarter. We have a three-to-five-year plan, where we will eventually expand this service to seven counties across Kenya - Marsabit, Garissa, Wajir, Isiolo, Lamu, Mandera and Tana River.’

Ryan, Anna and the boys love Kenya!

Heart will always be in Kenya 

It’s clear that Ryan and his wife, Anna, love the Kenyan people. Even faced with uncertainty in the grip of a pandemic and living in a developing country, Ryan and his family stood firm:

‘People talked about going home, but that never crossed my mind. We definitely didn’t want to flee the country. We wanted to be here and help our team through it and make sure that everyone was ok.’

The same strong emotions were evoked back in 2008 when the Kenyan post-election violence kicked off. Ryan and family happened to be on home assignment, catching up with relatives in Australia and undertaking various MAF speaking engagements.

Their first reaction wasn’t relief to be so far away from the chaos and danger – they were actually itching to get back:  

‘People were being killed and places were being burned. When most people see that on the news, they would never want to be there, but we just wanted to get back.

‘We wanted to be there because the country was hurting - we felt bad that we were somewhere else and not part of it. We felt really guilty and tried to get on the next plane back.’

Ryan and the MAF Kenya team serve people all over Marsabit and beyond

Somalia refugee crisis – a defining moment

Another defining moment for Ryan came three years later in 2011 when MAF was the first flight operator to respond to the Somalia refugee crisis. 

Ryan flew food aid, essential supplies and various disaster response staff to Dadaab Refugee Camp in eastern Kenya.

He recalls meeting a mother of eight who had pushed her eight-year-old paralysed daughter in a wheelbarrow to reach the camp. They had been walking for 20 days:

‘A thousand people were arriving every day. I was at the entry point of the camp where refugees were arriving after walking for days.

‘There was this lady with a wheelbarrow and six kids – all under the age of 10 - and she had been walking with them. One of her children who was disabled was in the wheelbarrow.

‘She had walked weeks to get to Dadaab and lost two children along the way. She didn’t have any food or water. They were desperate.

‘When that crisis began, MAF were one of the first organisations to respond. We started flights twice a week to Dadaab before the UN responded. We did that for nearly six months before the UN started their flights with much bigger aircraft, but we were there first.

‘I saw the conditions people were living in – that’s probably the toughest thing I have seen in Kenya. I’ll never forget that place, that day or that lady with the wheelbarrow – her story was heartbreaking.

‘It’s those moments when you’re on the ground and you hear someone’s story first-hand - as a pilot, it’s extremely rewarding. To be involved in that sort of stuff is humbling – to see the struggles that people have just to live.

‘Those things have hopefully shaped the person I am today.’

A Marsabit woman carries water on a donkey

‘Purpose, career and passions - all in one place.’

Ryan concludes that working for MAF – doing God’s work – has fulfilled him in ways he couldn’t have imagined:

‘My time at MAF Kenya has far exceeded my expectations. I only expected to stay for two years - something fun, get some experience and tick the ‘missionary flying in Africa’ box. It’s easily a job I could do for the rest of my life and not get bored.

‘There’s something more at MAF – you’re not just helping people physically, you’re doing it spiritually. It’s pioneering work and so necessary.

‘Everyone I know who’s worked with MAF has loved their time – not just the job, but everything it encompasses. It’s your purpose, your career, your passions - all in one place.

‘When I thought about joining MAF, someone said to me, “you know what your problem is? You try and find a job that fills every compartment of your life,” and I think that’s a good way to sum it up – it actually does.’

For anyone else seeking God’s purpose in life, Ryan offers up some sound advice:

‘We joined MAF because it was what we felt God had actually placed in us. If we didn’t use it, it wouldn’t be right.

‘If you’re considering mission and feel like God is stirring something up in you - explore it and chase after it because he probably has put something in you! Hopefully God will take you on a journey, which will be as amazing as ours.’

The first eye safari will take place in spring.

Marsabit Airstrip