Returning from Kenya this week having spent two weeks in Nakuru, a small town northwest of Nairobi, surrounded by a beautiful lake of the same name, I was left feeling both uplifted by the people and seriously challenged; nothing could have prepared me for what I was to experience. The purpose of the visit was a field trip up to a home-based care programme for HIV/AIDS sufferers. The population of Nakuru is approximately 400,000, 25% of who are HIV positive, a staggering figure by any standards. This coupled with 75% unemployment is a server challenge to a community and something about the people left me feeling that we in the west have much to learn from their dignity, humility and courage in the face of such extraordinary suffering, which has been created by the cruel combination of both AIDS and poverty, one fueling the other in an endless, merciless cycle of destruction.
This project, run by a Franciscan Missionary Sister for Africa and a team of twenty volunteers from the community, some of who themselves are HIV positive, operates in the poorest slum areas where the shanty huts of cardboard and galvanized steel open to the elements and surrounded by latrines, have no sanitation, electricity or running water, and where vermin running across the floors and walls are not a rare sight. These horrific living conditions are open prey for the opportunistic infections associated with AIDS.
As the team moves among the huts, providing nursing care, psycho-social support and nutrition, the gratitude from these stoical people is staggering. Day follows day in a relentless race against the havoc wreaked by the most devastation disease humanity has ever known, which in its totally untreated state, is harrowing for its victim, something that we in the west know little about.
Experiencing humanity at this level is a humbling experience. I was left feeling that the survival of these people in this circumstances is largely dependent on accessing inner resources that the average individual does not access in a lifetime. This super-human struggle for survival is manifestly taking its toll.
Our failure to heed the alarm bells and to act is a moral outrage and will go down in history as genocide by apathy. Despite all this and the loss of so many of their people, the Kenyans’ spirit is indomitable, resisting despair in the hope that eventually things will change, showing no signs of anger at the indifference of the west and its abysmal failure to address the policies that are strangling their country, rather, at every door smiling faces, bright eyed children, many of the orphaned, just wanting to play and a welcome that would bring tears to the eyes. At times, the scale of human tragedy was so overwhelming I had to turn away.
In its sixth year, this project, which operates out of a disused forty-foot container, has four principal components: Medical care; Education; HIV support group and orphan care and support. The first day saw the arrival of a group of approximately sixty adult clients, all HIV positive and some with AIDS. They talked openly about how they contracted the virus and with frankness that was alarming. Later they sang and danced, the more extroverted helping the others and those with sight leading those who had been blinded by the disease. They had nutritious meal made by the volunteers and chatted. Some sought counseling for extra support whilst other prepared a mixture of grains provided by the programme for all to take home. For many, this is their food for a week.
The following day I listened to the “Education for Life” team in action. This team visits schools and businesses, introducing attitude and behavior change programmes. Within this programme, issues such as male dominance in African society and the subsequent powerlessness of women, multiple partners the secrecy and taboos relating to sexual practices, tribal rituals leading to cross-infection and many other issues are addressed. This is an extremely important part of the programme given that in countries such as Uganda where infection rates have fallen dramatically, education was deemed to be the principal contributing factor.
On the final day of the visit there was a party for the children whose parents have succumbed to the virus. Approximately seventy orphans arrived, some having been collected by a volunteer if they were too unwell (due to the virus) to make it on their own.
Support at many levels is given to these children and adolescents involving them in decision making where at all possible. When feasible, school fees are paid in an effort to maintain the child in the educational system. One thing that is guaranteed to bring tears to an African child’s eyes is if they have to answer ‘No’ to the question, ‘Do you go to school?’
While all these programmes are taking place, medical care in the homes of the sick continues daily. These are three teams of nurses and care-givers visiting different areas bringing care. This ranges from antibiotics and analgesics to IV fluids and basic home care nursing including local health remedies.
This is a wonderful programme started by one Irish woman who brought on board an entire African team, for the most part youths who very much wish to be the solution to the African Crisis not the problem.
One of the images that will remain with me from this trip was the vision of an eight year old boy leading his father from a dark dank bedroom to seat him on the couch. This man had full-blown AIDS and had been rendered visually impaired by the disease. The little boy then led me into the bedroom where his mother Rose lay motionless, in the final grip of this deadly virus. Suddenly I became aware that his baby sister Harriet, who was in my arms, was also positive.
The conditions in which they were living became a secondary consideration. The primary was the unfolding tragedy before my eyes.
There are some positive signs emerging, principally the Kenyans' determination to articulate their own problem and to seek a solution from within their country with or without the assistance of the west. They no longer wish to be passive recipients of others’ charity. It is extraordinary that the notion of sharing poses such on overwhelming threat to the developed world and yet there is so much to be gained for everyone.
For further information or donations to this project the address is:
Sr Patricia Speight, C/o The Franciscan Missionary Sisters for Africa, 34A Gilford Road, Sandymount, Dublin 4