Even a Warrior Can Hit a Breaking Point

Today I cried for my Kenyan friend and colleague. Today we held what have come to be known as “Nuru Days,” the one day per month where we gather all of the Nuru managers together for a special leadership training event. The staff members really soaked up every session. They were eager to learn more about strategic planning and the Nuru Model and they walked away delighted with their new knowledge. But one woman didn’t make it through the day.

I was actually standing up front teaching a group of about 30 Kenyan staff about the Nuru Model. We were walking through each step of the model. I watched a woman in the front row carefully jot down the examples on her handout of ways that we “Innovate with Nationals.” And then suddenly, out of the corner of my eye, I saw her body stiffen and leap and collapse onto the ground before anyone could reach herA colleague sitting next to her carried her to the front lawn where we tried to make her comfortable, elevated her feet and waited for her to come out of shock. We called a taxi and a few of our healthcare staff members took her to see a doctor.

Training continued and we got word later that she tested positive for malaria. The doctor also talked to her about her ulcer and the anxiety that has contributed to her current state. She was issued meds and went home to rest.

This woman is a warrior. Her recent battles include the following: dealing with an alcoholic husband who once had a successful career but tragically lost that post, got tuberculosis, refused to quit smoking and drinking despite his deteriorating condition, and then died in her arms; caring for her young children who are still waiting for their daddy to come home and who’ve suffered from broken hearts, whopping cough and typhoid; taking in her younger sister after personally rescuing her from an evil kidnapper motivated by black magic; suffering herself from malaria and chronic back pain; and comforting her mother-in-law after her brother-in-law was killed (the mother’s second son to die).

And all this happened in the past year.

During a recent meeting I was having with this woman and a few others I noticed that she seemed distant and somehow distracted, not her normal self. She’s had a few recent bouts with sicknesses. I’ve encouraged her, strongly encouraged her to take a day off and rest, but only once did she actually do it. She said that when she goes home and tries to rest she feels worse and that she prefers to work (she’s a tremendously hard worker). Today, after the incident when she passed out she admitted she hasn’t been sleeping and that when she’s not busy her mind is flooded with thoughts that she can’t turn off.

I feel so sad for my colleague and friend. I hope she rests tonight. I hope she finds peace somehow in the midst of such devastating tragedy and sadness. I keep asking myself: “What is my response, as her manager, as her colleague, as her friend?” I’m grateful for her neighbors and Nuru colleagues who’ve already responded – by taking her to the doctor, caring for her children, delivering paraffin to her home for her oil lamp and batteries for her radio which lulls her to sleep, saying prayers and encouraging her.

I picture her and me on our long walks together hiking through up hills and through villages talking about what makes a good leader and leading amongst a male majority. Then, us laughing together on a break today between training sessions – her teaching me how to properly tie a kitenge (brightly colored Kenyan fabric) into a headdress. Then, me kneeling beside her limp body on our front lawn.

How should I respond? I appreciate what one writer, James A. Autry suggests in his book The Servant Leader: “The sicknesses or disabilities of employees…should be addressed technically by the policies of your organization. In addition, I believe you should do the normal human being things you might do for a friend or family member, the things that seem easy and natural: offer support, send words of comfort and encouragement, and so forth.” That certainly resonates with me.