'My heart is in both places': Akron doctor operates clinics in Kenyan village, Sherbondy Hill

·4 min read
Dr. Benson Bonyo poses for a portrait in his private practice in Akron on Wednesday.
Dr. Benson Bonyo poses for a portrait in his private practice in Akron on Wednesday.

Dr. Benson Bonyo’s little sister died of dehydration when she was under a year old.

It was a tragedy, but one Bonyo’s small, West Kenyan village of Wanjaya knew all too well with a startlingly high infant mortality rate of 60%.

“It was something totally preventable,” he said. “And there are many, many other people there that needlessly suffer.”

In Akron’s Sherbondy Hill neighborhood, Bonyo sees striking similarities to Wanjaya. Though the towns are more than 7,500 miles apart, similar issues plague the populations: poverty, high infant mortality rates, transportation problems and lack of access to medical care.

Bonyo made a commitment to helping the people in both his homes. Though his sister’s death was a catalyst for his medical career — one that would span two continents and aid communities in Kenya and Akron — his deep investment in the Akron community, inside and outside the office, has kept his mission alive.

Using resources in Akron to make a different in Africa

Before Bonyo opened his Akron practice, he launched his nonprofit, Bonyo’s Kenya Mission, in 1994. At that time, local nurses traveled across the village to provide free, in-home care before they opened an office in 2005.

Now, the 21-bed clinic is open 24 hours a day with live-in staff support. The team works to provide free care to everyone in the area, providing prenatal and infant care, treating and preventing HIV/AIDS and a multitude of other services. They also provide free food and proper nutrition for patients.

“I saw so much suffering, so much death,” Bonyo said. “Every step of my life, someone was giving me a hand. I wanted to give back.”

The rural village has between 20,000 to 30,000 residents, but it serves people from other towns who travel seeking medical care.

Bonyo regularly fundraises in Akron. His most recent fundraiser was an event hosted at the Akron Zoo’s Pride of Africa section, including performances from Kenyan musicians and dancers.

“This is the best way I can help people: use the resources I have here to make a difference there,” he said. “My heart is in both places.”

Over the past two decades of operation, the clinic has worked to reduce infant mortality rates by 20-30% and decrease maternal deaths and HIV/AIDs infections and more.

“I’m very proud of what we’ve been able to do over the last few decades,” he said.

Working to eliminate health disparities in Akron

Bonyo would like to see a similar decline in Akron — a city marked by high infant mortality rates as compared to other U.S. cities at 8.52 deaths per 1,000 births as of 2020.

Black babies are at an even higher risk with a 9.67 deaths per 1,000 births, as compared to 7.92 for white babies.

But health disparities in this community go beyond high infant mortality rates. Bonyo said he sees lots of problems associated with drugs and alcohol, gun violence, health risks associated with unemployment and a lack of insurance and more.

“Life is not easy for these kids when they’re 18 and about to graduate,” he said. "There are a lot of obstacles in the way."

After completing his residency at Summa Health in Akron, Bonyo intentionally chose to open his medical practice on Vernon Odom Boulevard, straddling the bounds between Sherbondy Hill and West Akron. Sherbondy Hill is a primarily Black neighborhood with one of Akron’s lowest average household incomes at $30,204, according to city data.

Dr. Benson Bonyo smiles as he discusses his mission clinic in Kenya on Wednesday in Akron.
Dr. Benson Bonyo smiles as he discusses his mission clinic in Kenya on Wednesday in Akron.

“My goal was to find an underserved area,” Bonyo said of his office at 1569 Vernon Odom Blvd., which was built in 2005, the same year his clinic opened in Kenya. He first opened his Akron practice at a nearby building in 2001. “I want everyone to have access to health care — whether they have insurance or not.”

But his aid goes beyond medical care. In addition to assisting his 6,000 patients in Akron, he does community outreach in the Sherbondy Hill neighborhood and surrounding areas. He frequently does motivational speaking to kids about the importance of staying in school, in addition to providing funding for people wanting to pursue their GED.

"He's a really open, hands-on doctor," said Donald Williams, a retired resident living in West Akron who has been going to Bonyo's practice since the early 2000s. "He's helped me in a lot of ways."

Bonyo works to be personable and accessible to his clients, whether they can pay or not.

“Many minorities do not seek help until it’s too late,” he said. “There’s a deep mistrust — particularly with African American males — in medical institutions rooted in experience. It has to be a holistic approach addressing these social issues. One cannot be fixed without the other.”

This article is part of the Akron Beacon Journal’s mobile newsroom, currently located at the Odom Boulevard Library branch in Sherbondy Hill. 

Reporter Abbey Marshall is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms. Learn more at reportforamerica.org. Contact her at at amarshall1@gannett.com.

This article originally appeared on Akron Beacon Journal: Akron doctor operates clinics in Kenyan village, Sherbondy Hill