Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Kuja maji, kuja!

This morning we woke up to a scene we have come to know, love, and associate with our new home: roads of red, African dust that blows up in clouds of dust that coat us head to toe in a layer of filth. Tonight on the other hand, as I write this blog post, I am incredibly happy to say that the sound of much-anticipated rain is providing a sweet, melodic background to the usual buzz of the house. We interns are pleased to say that we played an irrefutably vital role in the bringing of this liquid hope… but I’ll get to that a little later.
            We started the day by accompanying Edwin to a reflection meeting of 11 leaders representing different HIV/AIDS support groups. In Mumias, when a person is identified as HIV positive, they are incorporated into a hospital support group where they are educated on how the virus causes AIDS, what it means to live with a threatened immune system, and adherence to anti-retroviral therapies (ARTs). In addition to learning this important information, they  are welcomed into a community support group where they will be included, accepted, and loved for the rest of their time. These support groups are, in every sense of the word, a family. Members remind each other to take their medication, give each other tips on how to eat nutritiously, and most importantly, provide undying emotional support. As Steven, the chairperson of Khaunga support group that we visited a couple days ago said, “birds of a feather flock together, and we are so lucky to have found our flock.”
            The meeting started off high energy with singing, dancing, and clapping: a wonderful custom that has come with every meeting we’ve been invited to thus far. The attendees, who had all been recently trained in public speaking, then took turns discussing each of their personal achievements. Most of the stories included personal tales of one-on-one interactions with members in the community who were either too afraid to get tested or did not find it worthwhile to get treated. In each of these stories, the individual investment of the support group leaders provided these people with a drop of hope, sending out ripples of resilience, strength, and ultimately self-acceptance. The Ambassadors of Hope were able to bring these community leaders together and provide them with a resounding voice that has reached countless people living positively in Mumias. They also identified common challenges that include: fear of knowledge of status, aversion of condom use, scarcity of female condoms, and fear of disclosure.
            After lunch we went to visit one of the leaders we had meet at the meeting, Ruth, for an Ichengo support group meeting. This time we were allowed to sit back and observe how a normal meeting goes, or at least as normal as possible with a group of mzüngu visitors present. Today’s topic was partner and family testing and the setting was evocative of an outdoor classroom. We were all seated in a circle as Ruth walked around with a picture of a couple being tested for HIV and asked “the class” what we saw. Hands shot up. At first we were a bit perplexed by the ease of the task assigned to grown men and women. We did not know whether this was for our benefit or truly for theirs. Ultimately, though, it represented an inspiring sense of humility to me.  These men and women were taking the time out of their doubtlessly busy schedules for an activity at which most people back home would scoff. The core belief of this group is that everyone is both entitled to and has the responsibility to get HIV tested. To them, this is not an individual fight with a virus; it is a community battle against an epidemic.
            A perfect example of this sense of unity is a practice we observed at the support group called merry-go-round. Each meeting, every member puts 20 shillings into a bowl. All of this money then goes to a different member each week and this member is free to use the money as a sort of microfinance, for example to buy seeds for a garden. This demonstrates a sentiment common back in the United States: “the whole is greater then the sum of its parts,” and a word in Kiswahili, moja, that means both ‘unity’ and ‘one.’ The cultural value of unity is something that we have witnessed over and over again and Kenya, and is something we will all take home with us to apply to both our personal lives and growth as members of a global health movement.  
            After the meeting, we visited yet another kitchen garden full of kale, cowpeas, corn, and other local vegetables. We had been hearing throughout all of these visits that Western Kenya has not been receiving nearly enough rain, and that the crops are suffering because of it. After hearing over and over again about the importance of the gardens in providing affected families with nutrition and income, we were devastated to hear about yet another major struggle. It reminds us all how multi-factorial health is and how reliant it can be on things that are completely out of our hands. So we looked up into the sky, raised our hands above our heads with fully-fledged spirit fingers and did the only thing we could think to do, started chanting, “kuja maji, kuja!” Come water, come!

Ruth explaining one of the most important of the 13 outlined messages: partner testing 

Ichengo support group 

Molly and Ichengo members participating in an educational activity 

Two Ichengo members showing off their kitchen garden

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

GROWing Hope

Four years ago, thirteen dedicated people from various health related fields and facilities in Mumias came together to form WOPLAH, Western Organization for People living with HIV/AIDS. The founders of WOPLAH call themselves the Ambassadors of Hope. After one week here and two days in the field, I think we are just beginning to understand the significance of this name. In the past two days, we have met with a support group, visited a school for children orphaned by HIV, visited and worked in kitchen gardens, and joined Edwin on a home visit to deliver medication to a patient. As we have moved around Mumias with the Ambassadors, we have seen and heard over and over again that their message is truly one of empowerment, love, and hope. 

Today we went with Edwin, the director of WOPLAH, on a home visit to a HIV+ woman to deliver medications. Edwin started the visit by saying “We love you and we care about you” and introduced us with, “These are our visitors, who are here because they also love you and care about you and care about your life.” The woman welcomed us warmly, and Edwin’s words brought tears to her eyes. It was a powerful experience to accompany Edwin as he delivered this simple yet meaningful message and to see how it impacted Mama Rosa, who thanked us for visiting and invited us to come again when she is stronger. During the months we spent preparing for this trip, and during the past week we have been here, I have been thinking a lot about the concept of coming all the way across the world in an effort to help other people when there are so many similar issues close to home. Moments like the one we experienced in Mama Rosa’s home remind me that the real value of our visit here is in the relationships we are building with other people. In simplest terms, maybe our visit is about caring- caring about people all around the world, some of whom we will meet and some of whom we will never meet, but whose lives deserve to be loved, and who deserve access to all basic human rights, including health care.

After leaving Mama Rosa’s, we walked to one of the kitchen gardens that is being established with the money raised by GlobeMed this year. At the garden, we prepared rows and planted tomato seedlings.  The garden is one of fifty that WOPLAH has helped establish in order to provide families with a stable source of nutrition. We had the chance to visit another garden in the Khangua area yesterday. Andrew, who is a member of the support group there, showed us his garden that he established this year, where he is growing kale, peas, bananas, pumpkins, and other vegetables. When we visited with an HIV support group on our first day here, one of the main challenges they identified was nutrition, which is critical to strengthening the immune system, and also plays a big role in mitigating the side effects of the Antiretroviral drugs used to treat HIV/AIDS. The goal of kitchen gardens like Andrew’s is to make sure people living positively with HIV do not have to be stressed about how they are going to provide themselves and their families with their next healthy meal.

In the short amount of time we have been here, we have learned so much about the work the Ambassadors of Hope do. As we head off to visit another support group today, we are looking forward to meeting and building relationships with more people who have been impacted by WOPLAH’s  message of care, love, and hope. 


Molly and Edwin planting tomatoes in the kitchen garden. 

Rory in her natural habitat!

Andrew, one of the kitchen garden beneficiaries. 

Yusuf and Patrick (from left to right), two Ambassadors of Hope. 

Coming Home

            As we got out of our packed “matatu” taxi and into the streets of Mumias, it felt like we had arrived home. Having been to the East Africa Forum and experienced Kampala, I was ready to return to our own community and begin to put what we had learned into practice. Most importantly, I was excited to see the people with whom we already know we are going to form incredible friendships with, and be the faces of this experience.
            In our first moments back at the compound we were greeted by our family of Luyhia children and their parents. Immediately after passing through the heavy reddish, rusted, wrought iron gate, we were surrounded by questions of how we liked Kampala and the common, “How are you, I am fine.”—both question and answer in the same greeting. To this, I could genuinely respond that I was fine too, and thrilled to see all of them again. Completely exhausted from the weekend, we spent the afternoon lounging on the ten overstuffed sofas and arm chairs that fill the living room of our house, every so often welcoming a visitor from the family and telling them about our trip.
            Between visitors, I worked on my precarious attempt to keep a journal, and found myself thinking a lot about our role here in Africa. Not necessarily just at WOPLAH, but in Mumias and with everyone we meet. Of course we are here for a partnership with the Ambassadors of Hope and to support their initiatives, but perhaps more fundamentally to support other people. Whether working with Edwin, our boss, or playing with the children of our adoptive family, it’s their welcoming spirits and our enthusiasm that is building the strongest foundation for both our GlobeMed team here in Mumias and the development of us as people. Thus, the following day, as we traveled to the neighboring village of Khaunga with Edwin, I was most excited about who we were going to meet and our combined ability to inspire confidence in one another.
            In Khaunga, we met with 25 members of one of WOPLAH’s community outreach programs- an HIV/AIDS-positive community support group. Beneath the trees in the courtyard of their community health center, we sat on benches in a big circle and began the meeting with introductions, a traditional welcome us, and then a translated question-answer session for the next couple hours. As the conversations began, I was pleasantly surprised by the success of the Kitchen Garden initiative that we’ve been funding throughout the year, and began to understand the relevance of such a project. Furthermore, I felt truly excited to know that our presence is really going to help by innovative suggestions and further exploration of their community needs.
            The Kitchen Garden initiative was started to provide supplemental income and healthy food to families affected by HIV/AIDs. Through hearing their stories, we learned that getting such healthy food is crucial in maintaining their strength, thus enabling them to make enough money to feed their families, and recourses to pay for basic expenses such as school fees. This said, despite the initial success of the project, there is a lot of room for growth. In response to being asked about stories of personal challenge, one woman answered with the story of her discovering that she was HIV positive and being left by her husband, his other wife, and ignored by the rest of her family. Hearing this woman share that, “even when I have a sickness as simple as Malaria they stay away from me because they want me to die.... But this is my only problem”, I could not help but be amazed by her strength. In fact, I was shocked by the determination of people throughout the group. At the close of our discussion one of the Ambassadors of Hope, Joseph, stood up to say, “I love your life so you have to make sure your love your life...On behalf of the Ambassadors of Hope, we have hope. You will live. We want to make your life feel like you have life. We hope when these visitors leave and return again later they will find you healthier that today.... Ambassadors of Hope, we are together with you, and care for you, and love you.”
            After hearing this kind of inspiring leadership, and Joseph’s honesty about the severity of this life-threatening disease and the hardship faced by those infected, I was even more affected by their ability to find such hope. I was also impressed by their joy in the face of such struggle. For example, students from the local orphanage joined us at the close of our meeting to present a dance that included educational skits on HIV/AIDs prevention. As they performed, many of those who had just been telling us their stories joined in with the kids, yelling out in accompaniment and dancing into their group. We gradually realized this was not just a tradition of tapping the lead singer on the head and returning to their seat, but that they were placing a coin as they did this. We followed the example and each of us danced into the circle, attempting to keep rhythm and place a coin on the singers’ head as well, being laughed at the whole time. Being able to connect with this community so previously foreign from our own was exactly what I hope to continue to experience in the coming weeks.
            I’m going to hand the floor over to Sarah for the next post, but we are thinking of all of you here in our Kenyan cottage (plus the goat that just ran through the living room!).

- Rory
The health clinic where the HIV support group took place

Edwin speaking at the HIV support group

The lead singer of the children

Monday, July 22, 2013

This Weekend: The East Africa Forum

          This past weekend, the GROW team traveled to Kampala, Uganda for the first annual GlobeMed East Africa Forum. Edwin (WOPLAH’s Executive Director), Caleb (Ambassador of Hope), and Kenneth (WOPLAH intern) accompanied us. The forum brought together 14 GlobeMed partner organizations from across East Africa, as well as nearly 45 GROW interns currently working and living with their partners.  The weekend gave the partners a chance to network and establish relationships in order to support each other, and for GROW interns to share stories, advice, and encouragement.

                                Kenneth, Edwin & Caleb reppin' CC at the East Africa Forum.

        Our trip to Uganda on Thursday went smoothly, and we arrived in Kampala for dinner with the GlobeMed network. On Friday morning, we heard about the power of community from Charles Matovu and Steven Malinzi from Kitovu Mobile AIDS Organization. The two talked about the need to strike a balance between supporting a community while allowing the community to maintain its autonomy.
        After lunch, we saw a panel discussion that offered perspectives on partnership. Ash Rogers, a panelist from The Segal Family Foundation, had a great analogy to describe a successful partnership. She explained: If you are walking to Kampala, and get lost and do not know where you are going, if I give you a motorbike, you are not going to get there faster. You are just going to get lost faster. The GROW team realized that we must share a common vision with WOPLAH in order to have a successful partnership.
        At the end of the day, we received a second key take-away from Maya Cohen, GlobeMed’s Executive Director. Reflecting on the day, Maya explained that the early years of partnership are about building trust—the basis of which is kept promises that prove that both sides of the partnership have each other’s best interests at heart. When wondering why we are doing fundraising and hard work all year, we will be able to remind ourselves that the work is for the beneficiaries, but it is also for the sustainability of our partnership with WOPLAH.
        Finally, this weekend was special for our GROW team in that it marks the beginning of our internship at WOPLAH. For most of the GROW interns that we met this weekend, their internships with their partner organizations were coming to an end. We were able to talk to interns and get advice and insights that otherwise would not have been available to us. We realized from conversations with other GROW teams that it is key to understand the structure and organization of our partner early on in the internship. This means asking more questions than our partners probably ever want to answer.
        Sorry for the long post, hopefully this proves just how valuable the weekend at the East Africa Forum was for the GROW team. Now we are back on the home-front in Mumias, and we had a great day visiting a HIV/AIDS support group. More to come from Rory tomorrow!

Partners, GROW Interns & National Office staff together in Kampala, Uganda.
Ken, Caleb & Edwin together with the GROW Team!