I had the pleasure of living and working in Kenya for 8 months in a small rural town called Ugunja, in Siaya District, Nyanza Province, western Kenya. Ugunja is the second largest town in Siaya District (behind Siaya) with a population of 6,000. The town is located on the main tarmac road between Kisumu (75km away) and Busia (45km away) on the Ugandan border, and due to its position on the only tarmac road in the district, it’s one of the fastest growing urban areas of the region. This trip to Kenya was only my second time abroad (the first being a field trip with University 6 months earlier, again to Kenya), and it has changed my total outlook on life and has led to many career and life changes on returning back to England. During my time here I worked on many issues regarding disability and food security, and one thing that shocked me over and over again was the silent killer Aids/ HIV.
In Ugunja, it was estimated by Community Health Workers that approximately 40% of the 6,000 population had Aids/ HIV and even through their assertive and continuous efforts, they couldn't see any end to the crippling problems that this disease brings. The thing that I found most strange though was that even with the unbelievably high infection rates in the area, virtually no one talks about it, even though scores of people are dying from it on a daily basis. I lost count of the number of funeral processions that past me while I was working there. If you walk along any of the main streets within Ugunja, the one industry that you will never see struggling for business is the coffin makers. Every day of the week, even on Sundays when everyone is at Church they seem to be working tirelessly to keep up with the never-ending supply of deaths, most probably related to Aids/ HIV.
Even when friends and colleagues I knew died from this, it was rarely mentioned, even in passing. Instead the person always ‘died of a short illness, which they fought bravely to the end’. Any programs fighting the spread of Aids/ HIV will only be successful in places like Ugunja if this disease is more widely accepted in the public arena. In the 2 years since I left Ugunja, over 10 close friends and work colleagues have died from this disease and I am very sure that this number will continue to grow. It is a very heartrending experience. People’s lives wiped away, some before they even had chance to live. One work colleague and friend died 2 months ago aged only 21.
Another work colleague, a young girl of 20 left Ugunja for Mombasa while I was working in Ugunja, after being offered a place at a prestigious university. She had already lost her father to Aids/ HIV, but within 1 month of leaving for Mombasa, she lost both her mothers (in this part of Kenya, men are allowed to marry as many women as they can afford to support). As she was now the eldest member and head of her family, with four orphaned younger brothers, she had to return back home to take care of everyone. Putting this pressure on a 20-year-old girl is harsh enough, but taking away probably her only chance of a good education and the chance of a future is heart breaking.
I encountered similar stories on more of a regular basis than I wanted to. Adults dying, leaving their children with no income to attend school and colleges is a regular event in this part of Kenya. People living in the Western world I am sure find it hard to comprehend the destructive powers that this disease has. It is only when you see it with your own eyes and lose people you know from it, that you see the enormous problems that Aids/ HIV causes.
From my viewpoint there are two issues that need to be dealt with before any of the current Aids/ HIV programs will have any effect at lowering the rates of infection. Firstly, within the Luo culture, the predominant tribe of the area, men are allowed to wed as many wives as they can afford to support. I am sure for many men in the Western world this may seem like heaven, in reality it’s far from it, promoting the spread of Aids/ HIV as men are having regular sex with more than one woman, and cheating here is a common occurrence. The lodgings where I lived in Ugunja doubled as the local brothel, where men would bring women, who they where cheating with behind their partners’ back. In this part of Kenya, especially with a 40% infection rate you could say this act is almost suicidal. Although I did get to hear some very amusing sounds coming through the walls at night!!
Secondly, another problem I witnessed during my time in Ugunja was the behaviour of some women. When living in the grasps of poverty, people will do anything for a few little luxuries and I was distressed at what lengths these women would go to just to get something as small as a bottle of Fanta or Coca Cola. Time and time again I would go past the local bars and see these women, most beautiful and young sharing drinks with their ‘sugar daddy’ boyfriends. Sometimes I would see these girls with two or three different ‘sugar daddies’ each week.
What I found hard to contend with, this was all happening in a small rural town of 6,000 inhabitants. When you hit the tourist areas of Nairobi or Mombasa it is even worse. I felt sick to my stomach seeing fat, ugly old (and when I say old, I mean old) men, complete with string vests and burnt red faces (they must have been English!) picking up stunning young girls at the bars. For these girls though, the money they get from a night with these repulsive men would be more than most Kenyans earn in a month. For them they do it to survive, and they will scrape to this level to do so.
In Nairobi on almost every night of the week you will see college and university students (male and female) lining Koinange Street selling their bodies in order to pay their tuition fees. It truly is sad that these students have to take part in such degrading acts to fund a high-quality education, putting themselves at enormous risks of catching Aids/ HIV.
It’s easy for Western countries to just keep pumping aid money to developing countries like Kenya to try and contain the spread of Aids/ HIV, but I think the money would be much better spent on funding community based organisations. These organisations understand why this disease is spreading specifically to their location and can be more productive with alternative programs initiated explicitly at each location. This would of course support the use of condom initiatives that are being seen throughout the country, and which are favoured by many donor countries and aid organisations.