If only we had been educated that HIV isn’t a curse, my family might still be with us
Last week, you may have seen me in the ITV1 documentary Corrie Goes to Kenya. During the show, you will have seen Kenya through the eyes of the four Coronation Street actors who visited us, and will have noticed the culture shock they experience in my country. You’ll have seen the surprise and sadness in the eyes of Brooke Vincent at the sight of children running barefoot around the slums of Mombasa. You will have watched Sue Cleaver’s journey to the villages where HIV+ mothers are facing the combined challenges of disease, poverty, stigma and gender violence. And you will have seen me talking about my HIV status.
In my village, HIV infection was once synonymous with a curse, sin or a death sentence. Facts about HIV were less understood than myths and misconceptions, and people expected divine miracles rather than seeking treatment. This was a place where the rate of infection amongst stable couples was greater than that of commercial sex workers due to the stigma associated with condom use.
It was in this area that I began to dedicate the last seven years of my life to educating people about HIV. I joined S.A.F.E. in 2007 after being diagnosed HIV+. My story is typical of many: I had a wild youth, but didn’t realise I was HIV positive for many years. I got recurrent TB, but it was only after my wife died of pneumonia that I got tested. I had a CD4 count of 144 and weighed just 42kg (under 7 stone). I was 34.
When I was first diagnosed, I thought my life was over. I was scared of disclosing my status and being discriminated against. I saw only death in front of me. But I am rare in Kenya as I went public about my status quickly. Within two months of diagnosis, I was putting all my efforts into educating others by offering my testimony at hospitals, with HIV support groups and in my community.
I remember the first time I saw my colleagues – S.A.F.E.’s actors – on stage. S.A.F.E. uses humour and theatre to topple the mountains of stigma, until what remains is a level ground for absorption of HIV knowledge in the community. I knew right away that this was the only medium that could bring the desired change to the community. The message that I was trying to put across to my community was being delivered far better through their play.
Now, in my village, the people are educated and know about HIV and how to avoid getting it. But this is not the case everywhere, as the sad stories shown in Corrie Goes to Kenya reveal. The developed world and the most informed people in Kenya might understand basic messages about staying safe, but thousands of children who are HIV positive are still lying sick at Coast General Hospital because this basic information did not reach their mothers in time.
Three weeks after the filming of Corrie Goes to Kenya, I visited my rural home and found my mother had gone for the burial of one of my cousins, Ngala, who had died of HIV. Ngala’s story is a tragically familiar one. Ngala was married and was blessed with a baby and he had constructed a good house and had bought a motorbike for a passenger transport business. But his infant son became sick and died, then his wife, Pamela, followed. Pamela had tested HIV positive at the antenatal clinic when she was pregnant and Ngala was also eventually diagnosed as HIV positive. They were all enrolled in a P.M.T.C.T (Prevention of mother to child transmission) programme, but they did not adhere to the treatment and every effort made to prevent the child from HIV transmission was fruitless. The child died a year later of HIV related complications. It took less than a year for the last member of the family- Ngala – to be buried.
S.A.F.E.’s quest to save lives among Kenya’s poor and marginalised communities is what drives us. It’s what keeps all our staff away from their families for weeks on end when we’re on tour. This is the push that propels all three S.A.F.E. teams to spend long and gruelling hours in research, design, rehearsal and performance of plays that touch the lives of so many people.
The stigma you see us working to overcome is the reality of life for many Kenyans, but it does not have to be so. The Coronation Street team came and saw how difficult the situation is, how important S.A.F.E.’s work is, and how challenging it is to reach these communities. I hope Corrie Goes to Kenya will encourage people to join Sue, Ben, Ryan and Brooke in helping us to deliver information and services. You can join the likes of Sir Ian Holm, Daniel Craig, and Alan Rickman – some of our patrons – to make sure that S.A.F.E.’s work can continue. You could help us to reach that dying mother at Mtwapa access services, and you can help to wipe away the stigma and discrimination in other villages, as was possible in my village. Maybe if this basic education had reached my cousin and his wife in time, they would still be alive.
The second episode of Corrie Goes to Kenya airs next Friday, 24 August. For more information on S.A.F.E. and Corrie Goes to Kenya, please visit www.safekenya.org.Tagged in: Contraception, Corrie Goes to Kenya, discrimination, HIV, S.A.F.E., stigma
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