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Long but worth it….keep reading….
I’m taking a gap year before starting school at Barnard in the fall of 2009, volunteering in Kenya with AIDSRelief, an organization focused on treating HIV and lessening its transmission. More specifically, I’m working with the Continuous Quality Improvement team. This group of three, and myself, travel around Kenya to its 25 AIDSRelief clinics, assessing the quality of care provided to HIV patients and finding ways to improve both the quality of treatment and the efficiency of the clinic. I’m based in Nairobi, but spend half of each month elsewhere.
Upon arrival to Nairobi, I could easily have been overwhelmed by the strong diesel fumes and body odors. I was jetlagged and hungry and it was way too early in the morning, so driving through the crowded, dirty streets, I might have thought the city was all kinds of ugly. But as those last nostalgic images of the US got lost in the shuffle of things, I began to see the real beauty of the city. Every street has vibrant flora and beautiful architecture, and the Kenyan people are beautiful – you can see their smiles in their eyes. Not to mention, I was (and still am) awestruck by the sky. It’s incredibly vast and somehow captures the most beautiful colors, even on the dreariest day.
The scenery is gorgeous, but that’s not to say the city doesn’t have risky areas. Kibera, the largest slum in Nairobi, is home to about a million people. The shacks they live in are made of dirt and corrugated tin, have little or no furniture, and only one toilet shared amongst hundreds of people. There is a great deal of unemployment and violence in Kibera, and only 9 months ago, after the controversial presidential election, there were massive riots and killings between tribes. I visited one home in the slums of Naivasha, a community about an hour outside of Nairobi, and felt like I had been laminated on to a page of National Geographic. It was a home about 6 feet by 10 feet with a dirt floor, corrugated walls and roof, and a few pieces of furniture. Everything was caked with dirt and old food, and the smell reminded me of the time after Hurricane Katrina when New Orleans was in ruins and had a specific smell of loss that is so hard to describe. The inhabitant, an elderly woman with HIV, had developed a Kaposi’s sarcoma growth in her throat and could not pay what would be the equivalent of about $200 for surgery to remove the growth. Lucy could barely swallow water, much less her ARV drugs. We couldn’t do much to help her and a few weeks later I heard news that she had passed away.
It’s those bone chilling experiences that leave me really feeling like I’ve have seen a part of the world that cannot even begin to be compared to growing up in a city in the US of A. It’s also the little things, like the way people walk along the side of the road regardless of the lack of a shoulder. Or the way the traffic zooms along at top speed and people just run right on across the road without so much as a glance at the oncoming cars. Or the way little children on the street come up to me and hold my hand, saying, “Hello! How are you!” and either do not understand my response of “I’m fine. How are you?” or do not care and go on to ask “Pesa? Pesa?” (“Money? Money?”).
Speaking of contrast between Kenya and the US – I happened to be in Kisumu during the US election week. Barack Obama’s dad’s hometown is Kogelo, a tiny village right outside of Kisumu, Kenya’s third largest city. That sure was a week for the books. I heard people celebrated in the streets on November 4th back in the states, but here in Kenya, Obama was the reason for everything. Vendors were selling Obama paraphernalia to, supposedly, make money for all sorts of causes (orphanages, hospitals, etc). The newspapers ran only stories of Obama from cover to cover. The prime minister declared November 6th a public holiday. That wasn’t even a holiday in the U.S.! Oh, and when you heard tell that people were dancing in the streets here in Kenya, you heard right. For days people were shouting and wailing for Obama, songs about Obama were constantly on the radio, and people could not stop talking about him. (In the days before the election I only ever met one Kenyan McCain supporter! He was probably a Kikuyu… haha! Obama’s family is Luo.) People seem to believe Barack Obama’s entry into the Presidency will solve many of the problems in Kenya. While Obama may not be able to directly solve Kenyan problems, many Kenyans do see his election as a sign that it IS possible to start with nothing and work hard to get everything you want. However, I have heard skepticism about whether this will set a true example for how elections can run smoothly. People here in Kenya were extremely excited about the US election, but many seemed unsure if it could carry over to their own politics.
Politics are tricky here. So much is based on tribe versus tribe. Kenya’s two largest tribes are the Kikuyu and the Luo. Each tribe, with their own beliefs and traditions, does not want to be inferior to the others. Each is wary of the other, and, aided by corruption, this inborn tribal loathing ends up causing problems.
One of the other biggest problems here is the great deal of stigma attached to having HIV. I am volunteering in a public health setting, so I hear about this very often. People are not disclosing their HIV status, and more and more their families and partners become infected. It is thought of as such a negative thing in some communities that people infected feel ashamed, hide away, and don’t get treatment. There’s hope, though! The health system is trying to create a more community based HIV treatment system, with community support groups, home visits from community health care workers, etc, etc. Based on the concept that “it takes a village,” the new system breaks the idea that HIV is a stigma and just turns it in to something that we need to work hard to prevent!
That’s stigma in a nutshell for you. Speaking of nutshells, or just shells in general, or peels, really – fruit here is way too good! It is legitimately ripe – none of those enzymes, spray-on preservatives, or hybrids. I’ll be spoiled when I go back to the States, that’s for sure. Who’d have thunk?