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

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