On Saturday we visited a pediatric support group, which was the perfect way to end an incredible six weeks. Over the past 42 days we have tried to understand what it’s like to be living positively with HIV, and we have observed many training sessions about transmission prevention and reduction. We have met and interacted with over 100 people who are living positively with HIV. But something about Saturday was different from every other day. We were amongst 50 children, most of whom have been HIV positive since the day they were born. Some of them come to the support group to get the love and nurturing that isn’t available at home. Some come just for something fun to do on their Saturday. Some come to learn about HIV and the importance of taking their HIV drugs. But most importantly, they all come just to be kids.
The children are split into two groups: those who know that they’re positive, and those who don’t. We were immediately drawn to the small faces of the children in the group who don’t know they are positive, so we sat down and joined them. We got there during story time, and shortly after we arrived, it was coloring time. Each child was given a picture to color in and one crayon. As the coloring began we became aware of the crayon trading system, one that seems so simple but was so powerful for me to observe. When a child wanted a different color, he or she would find someone who wanted to switch colors. This system was in order until each child had a very colorful, beautiful drawing. There was never any crayon stealing, arguing or pushing. After coloring time, we brought out the container of bubbles we brought, a guaranteed crowd-pleaser. The fun continued as the children took turns blowing bubbles, jostling over whose turn it was. At the same time, a game similar to dodge ball broke out with children whipping a ball back and forth at each other laughing and screaming. We also brought around 500 stickers that were gone within the hour. Children formed a line in front of me, requesting stickers all over their faces. Most popular were the star sticker earrings, which became the fashion statement of the day.
This day helped me realize something I have been reflecting on for the past six weeks. In the U.S. we’re always looking for a complex multifaceted solution to issues. The more layers we try to address, the better. I’ve heard many times that the answer can’t be so simple and that there has to be an in-depth level of critical thinking to solve any problem. Last fall I remember learning that one of WOPLAH’s main goals is to improve the lives of people living with HIV. I then learned that their main area of focus is income generation. In my head I thought, that seemed like too simple a solution to address an issue as huge as the AIDS epidemic. From the 89 people that we interviewed over the past 6 weeks I have come to realize that it can indeed be that simple. Income generation not only provides a family with money, it also instills a sense of pride and self-worth. People living with HIV are no longer seen as worthless members of the community, they are gardeners, goat-rearers, and most importantly, normal human beings. They have a voice that needs to be heard, and through WOPLAH’s activities their voice is given validity.
Then comes the issue of how on earth do you give hope to children who have been HIV positive since birth? How do you show them that they too are valuable members of society, even when their parents tell them that they don’t want to pay school fees and provide food for their children who are just going to die of HIV? In the U.S. it would probably involve intense counseling, family interventions, and the result would be a child who might feel even more different than they did originally. In Kenya a few brilliant people have found a much better solution. You bring these children together, and you let them do what any other child wants to do. You tell stories, you blow bubbles, you play games, and you trade crayons. Maybe you stick in some lessons about drug adherence, but most importantly, you teach them how to become self- empowered. And you make sure that the day a child’s parents tell their child that he or she is HIV positive, that child has a group of peers to confide in and who know exactly what he/she is going through. You make sure that these children know they are not alone, and they never will be. It is reassuring that there are people like Carol, the director of this pediatric support group, who make sure no child is alone in this fight. Further, I’m leaving Kenya knowing that there are people like Edwin who dedicate their lives to making the lives of HIV positive people more full. Everyone in this world deserves to feel like their life is worth living, and WOPLAH is making incredible yet simple strides towards making this a reality in Western Kenya.
It’s very easy to get caught up in an experience and not realize the extent of what you’ve done until it’s over. As I sit on the plane looking through the 4,000 pictures we collectively took in 6 weeks, I’m realizing how incredible our experience really was. As I finally get around to posting this, I’m sitting in my room back at Colorado College, and Kenya seems further away than ever. A phrase I often heard was “karibu tena”, meaning welcome again. And to that I say, “tuonane”, see you soon, Kenya.
|Missing you already Edwin!|
|Look at the determination on that girls face|
|Stickers solve everything|