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Meeting with KENWA


September 2001

Most of governmental agencies or UN organizations turned down my request for the appointment. On the contrary, KENWA immediately accepted my request. However, at the start of our discussion, I observed that they were suspicious of my intention for the visit. After they briefed me about their organization in their office, which was at the second floor of the workshop, they were suspiciously looking at me, posing various questions one after another, "What do you want from us?" like to inform the people of Japan of what is really happening here. I said "I want to make more people aware of the situation." "If so, please send us what you write," they said. They were suspicious of the purposes of their visitors. This is understandable. Most of the visitors had never come back to them. They visited the office and requested for the information. But KENWA had never heard from those visitors after their visits. This is not the place where you visit to satisfy your own curiosity. It should not be like visiting a game park.

I seemingly succeeded in convincing them of my intention. Rosebuko, one of their members, took me to the home-visit. She led me deep into the Congosha Slum. The sun was harshly reflecting. Justin was living in one of tenement houses lined along narrow alleys. The smell of sewerage hung in the air. Justin, whose husband had died of AIDS last year, lived here with her three children. Two of them were in school while one child had been dismissed because Justin could not afford the school fee. She observed bloody phlegm and stayed in the bed. The members of KENWA regularly visited her to encourage her as well as to bring a little food for her.

Rosebuko regrettably told me "I wish we could give her something more nutritious."Here being sick directly led you to the starvation. Women got sick. Then, they lost jobs. Consequently, they would die of not their sickness but starvation. KENWA started in 1998 with the 32 HIV-positive women. Now the number of members increased to 2,000. 75% of them were single mothers, working as commercial sex workers to bring up their children. Their husbands either had already died of AIDS or, if they were not contracted with HIV, they had already left families. Wives, who were left behind, were required to be solo breadwinners. Prostitution was the only means left for them to earn a living. In the Kenyan society women's social position was weak. If children got good grades in school, husbands were praised. If children had bad grades, wives were criticized. Women were also blamed that they were spreading HIV/AIDS. Police arrested women of prostitution but never male brokers. In Kenya, people living with HIV/AIDS (PLWHA) had been discriminated. Once found HIV- positive, their scholarship would be immediately cancelled. They would be denied the access to micro credit. They would be dismissed from work. Nothing would be different in a hospital as well. After observing some symptoms, if they visited public hospitals, they would be condemned why they had had a sex. No proper treatment could be expected. They would be told that they would not be worth medication (because sooner or later they would die) and be chased out from the hospital with cheap drugs such as aspirin.

I was full of sorrow with what I had seen and heard when Rosebuko took me next to a drop-in-center. The center was packed with women and some of them overflowed from the entrance. This was the place where women could feel at home as well as where women could consult each other and learn about HIV. They got together today to welcome me. Nothing was formal. We enjoyed together with singing and dancing. This was the Kenyan way to welcome a guest. They were clapping hands and dancing together in a circle, in which I joined. No matter what happened, once they started dancing, nothing would bother them. Here was Africa.

I asked Ms. Asunta Wagura, the director of KENWA, why she had started KENWA. She invited me to her office and showed me one newspaper article. The headline said, "Son is my only living hope." She has been HIV-positive for the last 13 years and she publicly acknowledged her HIV status seven years ago. At that time, her family was fiercely opposed to her to do so. In Kenya people hardly discussed about HIV/AIDS. Considering the social stigma attached to HIV/AIDS, you need to be extremely brave to declare your HIV status. Did not only you but also your family must prepare for its consequence. Nevertheless, you need to start with expressing about yourself in order to get a support from those who were in the same situation.

Rosebuko is also one of them. It was seven years ago when the regular medical check-up found out that she was infected with HIV. Immediately her office sacked her. Then, five years ago she declared her HIV status. She expressed some positive aspects resulting from the declaration. Schools invited her to deliver a speech to students, which offered her some income. In KENWA one nurse and one accountant were paid while everybody else was volunteer without any salary. However, not every member is resorted to prostitution. Some of them are now involved in AIDS prevention education, which enabled them to earn some income. The education session became more convincing when lecturers' messages were based on their own experiences.

The Kenyan Government has promised that 60% of HIV/AIDS-related budget would be allocated to prevention education. It claims that the education will facilitate the modification of the behavior of youth. However, it will never be easy to change the behavior of the people, especially when it is related to their sexual conduct. The voluntary testing is also encouraged. The counseling before and after testing is also guaranteed. However, unless the treatment is assured after the testing, people will not be encouraged to undergo the voluntary testing. Without treatment, the testing could end up just the pronouncement of death sentence. It would be never enough to emphasize prevention only. The rights of PLWHA should be respected. Prevention activities must be organized with the strong involvement of PLWHA. Prevention, Care and Treatment should be promoted together, which has been claimed by a number of HIV/AIDS activists. Now I am finally and fully convinced of it.


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