Kenyans are baffled by the mind-boggling statistics of the devastation of AIDS. But a lot get lost in statistics. For the World AIDS Day, ArtMatters.Info publisher OGOVA ONDEGO brings our readers human faces behind the statistics. AIDS is more than statistics to residents of western Kenya. It is the greatest threat to their survival. Here, AIDS has decimated parents and spawned numerous orphans. And the church, which has for a long time been opposed to any discussion of sexuality, is now beginning to act.
Atieno is seated quietly on the floor of her classroom verandah. Although she can see her classmates playing on the field and she looks at them longingly, she cannot join them. Clad in a blue tunic and white blouse uniform and child-like innocence written over her face, Atieno, with her left cheek resting on the palm of her left hand, is waiting for the bell signaling the end of the mid-morning school break to go so she may return to class. The lanky girl has fresh wounds and dark scars on her neck. She tries to hide the marks with her school sweater. A short distance away, in the sprawling Kondele neighbourhood of Kisumu town, a mother is in anguish. Not having seen her daughter for a decade, 62-year-old Nyar Asembo has come to Kisumu to find out why she never comes home. She never saw her during the funeral of her brothers, she explains. But misfortune never comes singly for Nyar Asembo. Her only daughter is dying
With a distant look on her face and a voice quaking with emotion, Nyar Asembo is a study in despair. As she watches the last of her six adult children dying of AIDS, tears flow freely down her wrinkled cheeks. “Unlike in the days gone by when children took care of their elderly parents and buried their remains when they died, we no longer have any one to bury us as the roles are being reversed,” she says. Holding the hand of yet another grandchild she will have to bring up on her own, she wonders loudly where she will get the strength to raise the 12 school-going children left behind by her offspring. She silently fingers her rosary and crucifix as if seeking divine intervention.
In the neighbouring Vihiga District, Jane, an eight-year-old Standard One pupil is in and out of hospital more often than she can remember. “I suffer from chest and stomach pains and can hardly play with my friends before running out of breath and slumping on the ground,” she says, haltingly. “I don’t like hospitals because of the painful injections and unpalatable drugs they administer to me.” She nevertheless hopes to become a doctor. If tomorrow comes. She is HIV-positive. Children’s officers in the area say the plight of orphans has reached a pandemic level. “Some children don’t have known relatives and so have to be cared for by neighbours,” said Kennedy Anchina, then children’s officer for Nyando and Kisumu districts. “Kaloleni and Ondiek estates in Kisumu town have formed committees to assist these children in difficult circumstances.”
Another children’s welfare officer said many children are out of school and on streets as beggars, prostitutes, and labourers. Sources at the Kisumu City Education office say many children are dropping out of school to fish, cut sugar cane, perform domestic work and beg for a living. In order to educate the desperate children, Kisumu now has nine informal schools through which children learn the 3Rs of education: Reading, wRiting, and aRithmetic. The institutions are Dunga, Pand Pier, Dago Nyamasaria, Nyalenda, Obunga, Kotetni, Overcomers, Kanyawegi, and ULCM Church. Most of these are run by churches, which are increasingly changing their former hard-line stance on sexuality.
“The church should be in the forefront [in sensitizing society on AIDS] as it has the solution for AIDS through the gospel,” says Gunnar Ostrem, a Norwegian evangelist attached to the Free Pentecostal Fellowship in Kenya (FPFK). “Mere campaigns on behaviour change,” adds his wife Hanne Ostrem, “are not effective as people need divine intervention to change.” Until their departure from Kenya last year, Mrs Ostrem was the coordinator of the FPFK HIV/AIDS Awareness Project. Social workers say many children are infected with HIV but that it is difficult to ascertain the number as no HIV tests are ever administered. Moreover, traditions and customs do not allow families to reveal the cause of death of people. And certainly not when it is the dreaded and stigma-attached AIDS.
Astonished at the estimated weekly loss of Sh1.4 billion (about US$17.5 million) in human resources that Kenya was making in 1999, President Daniel arap Moi declared AIDS a national disaster and announced emergency measures to counter it. They included the establishment of a national AIDS control council, and the introduction of HIV/AIDS awareness curriculum in schools. The President had directed the national broadcaster, Kenya Broadcasting Corporation, to begin free AIDS awareness broadcasts and ordered chiefs to mobilize their communities in discussing AIDS. He also called for the age of consent for all Kenyans to be set at 18 in order to fight child marriages rampant in parts of Nyanza and Rift Valley provinces. The head of state also called upon courts to mete out stiffer penalties against rapists and declared it a crime for any one to knowingly infect another with HIV.
He appealed to Kenyans to abstain from sex for at least two years and announced that the government was importing millions of condoms to be used by any one who could not control their sexual urges. Although little was ever done as anticipated by the President, it was reported last Sunday that the infection rate in Kenya is declining. In Kenya, a country which is losing 700 citizens daily in a Darwinian perversion–the elderly weak outliving their younger and most productive counterparts– AIDS is putting many children among thousands of the walking dead.
Western Kenya is a microcosm of how AIDS can spread in a densely populated area with extreme poverty and promiscuity and the socioeconomic fallout of a pandemic described by social worker Florence Akiso as ‘worse than a disaster.’ James Okech, a taxi driver in Kisumu, says poor women looking for income with which to feed their children are forced to sleep with promiscuous fishermen in return for fish. “Many of these women’s husbands live and work in towns like Nairobi and Mombasa and come home only once or twice a year,” Okech says, adding that in such an arrangement the partners are tempted to jump into risky extra-marital affairs thus exacerbating the HIV infection and plunging children into the vagaries of poverty.
According to Mrs Ostrem, prevention may be the only weapon against AIDS. However this cannot happen without people changing their sexual behaviour and habits. Hence FPFK has embarked on a major HIV/AIDS awareness in the Western and Coastal regions of Kenya where the spread of HIV is fastest. “Our aim is to curb the spread of HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted infections (STIs),” says Peter Thuku, the project leader.
FPFK, he says, “is integrating the gospel with prevailing challenges posed by the scourge. The pulpit is therefore being used not just for delivering sermons but also to cause awareness on sexuality.” He says the church can no longer remain silent in the face of the threat posed by unchecked spread of AIDS. “We rae forced to disseminate AIDS awareness messages through evangelism crusades, film screenings, seminars, drama, music, and sporting activities,” he says. In declaring AIDS a national disaster in 1999, President Moi observed that, “AIDS is not just a serious threat to our social and economic development, it is a real threat to our very existence.”
This statement by the head of state, Thuku says, gave the church added impetus to campaign more aggressively against AIDS. But this has done little to prevent the spread of AIDS in Siaya District which now has more than 6000 orphans. Compassion International, too, is grappling with the dilemma of AIDS. Consequently, it has conducted a survey on the prevalence of HIV/AIDS to ascertain the effect of the scourge on their child sponsorship projects and come up with intervention measures. The findings reveal that there are as many people dying of confirmed AIDS infection as those suspected of dying of the same scourge. However what is more frightening is the fact that thrice as many people are suspected of being infected as those who are confirmed to be ailing from AIDS.
The ratio of children living with HIV/AIDS and those suspected to be infected with the virus to that of children sponsored by Compassion is three to one. Parents die leaving their children to infected guardians who die within a short time leaving them traumatised. For example after AIDS swept away the parents of Atieno and those of her two cousins, the children are now dependent on their ailing elderly and widowed grandmother. Atieno has four siblings. As her mother was dying with AIDS, Atieno was forced to care for and this could be how she got infected. This could also explain why she is in Standard Eight (grade eight) and not Form Three (grade 11) at the age of 16.
“I feel sick and tired most of the time,” she says, perhaps explaining why she is not joining her classmates on the playground. “I always wish I were as healthy as my classmates so I could play with them.” But she hardly knows a day of good health. Despite her plight, Atieno wakes up at 5.30 in the morning and attends to domestic chores like fetching water and cleaning the compound before struggling to get to school at 7. In a low, almost inaudible voice, Atieno appeals to Compassion Kenya to sponsor the education of all her siblings. “They are as needy as I am as we live in the same house depending on our poor grandmother,” she says, tears welling up in her eyes. It is unclear whether her tears are of self-pity, pain or the fear of being declared ungrateful for looking the gift horse in the mouth and ‘demanding’ too much from her benefactors.
She says her grandmother sold the only milk cow they had in order to seek specialised treatment for her. Many development workers interviewed in Western Kenya recommend that compulsory HIV/AIDS screening be administered to both sponsored children and their parents or guardians to enable groups like Compassion and World Vision to deal effectively with the scourge. But Otieno disagrees saying that would be against his organisation’s policy and vision. “Our mission is to release children from spiritual, social, economic and physical bondage. Life is sacred and we are duty-bound to serve the child as ours is a calling rather than a career or profession.”
Compassion, Otieno stresses, “should be a safe haven for the child against disease, poverty, thuggery and other vagaries of life according to Luke 18:16.” But despite such love and brave words, AIDS is still a mind-boggling dilemma. “When parents of a sponsored child is diagnosed with the disease, we usually find it not easy to know who to focus on-the dying parent or the siblings whose future is uncertain,” he says. “The dilemma is that for a child to thrive, the family environment should conducive and this can hardly be the case where siblings and parents are in pain.” The Kenyan landscape is littered with AIDS orphans without any source of income. While many are in the streets in the urban centres, the few lucky ones are with good Samaritans or ailing guardians.
If financial assistance, medication and high value nutrition were availed to the children and their parents, they may live longer as they will be equipped to fight off opportunistic infections. This will also help children who are caring for their ailing parents and guardians to cope better as they will be assured of a livelihood. Compassion, for instance, spends at least Sh3 million (about US$37,500) each month on the medication of the children they sponsor. They plan to administer drugs and high value nutrition diets to ailing sponsored children and their parents or guardians. Compassion staff and partners have already undergone training in the handling of people living with HIV/AIDS, Otieno says. Chrisant Odongo, a social worker in Kisumu, says that three quarters of children recently admitted into the sponsorship programme in the project he runs are HIV-positive and that most of them are AIDS orphans or that their parents and guardians are living with AIDS. Although the future looks bleak for most orphans, many of them are nevertheless hopeful that the sun will rise tomorrow.
While 12-year-old George Omolo and Gideon Otieno are aspiring for service in the police force, Bernard Omondi would like to become a pilot. Eleven-year-old Joash Omondi, on the other hand, wants to become a surveyor because, he explains, “my late surveyor father had always urged me to follow in his footsteps.” To realise their dreams, Omolo and Otieno have joined the scout brigades in their schools. “I now know how to match, administer first aid and can build a tent. I can hardly wait to match before the Presidential dais in my smart ceremonial police uniform during national holidays,” Otieno says.
Although AIDS is destroying lives in Kenya, almost no one wants to talk about it. Some people have adopted a fatalistic attitude arguing that people still die even if it is not from AIDS. However the reigning silence and ignorance are making HIV infections to soar, stigma to harden and the chasm between knowledge and behaviour to widen to the detriment of children whose dreams for a better world may be unrealised without divine intervention. If children like Jane, Atieno and Otieno are to see their noon tomorrow, then urgent intervention strategies must be devised. And this will not come cheap. Jane died a week after this interview
People “caught in homosexual behaviour should be hanged immediately,” suggests anthropologist Prof Ocholla-Ayayo. ”