Thursday, July 26, 2007

Voluntary Counseling and Testing by Caitlin

The prick of the needle, the drop of blood, the ten minute wait that feels like an eternity...

My time spent working at the VCT (Voluntary Counseling and Testing) center at Egerton University has been both challenging and rewarding. I’ve been tested daily by questions posed to me by students and other local community members that come to the VCT seeking to gain knowledge about HIV and their statuses as well. Many clients have asked about the reliability of condoms and I was surprised to hear students talk of rumors of condoms being laced with HIV and containing pores for the virus to travel through. Other students have asked me if the United States manufactured AIDS to suppress Africans. While I had heard this rumor in the United States, I didn’t actually think that anyone believed it to be true. As a VCT counselor, it is my job to dispel such myths and encourage clients to protect themselves from the disease by using condoms or practicing abstinence. However, I often find myself wondering if the students I talk to trust my advice. After all, I am younger than most of them and I am white; I come from the country where they believe AIDS was created. The hardest part of my job has to be revealing to a person that he or she is HIV-positive. The number of HIV-positive cases I have dealt with have been very few, but I was quickly introduced to the reality of HIV in Kenya during my first week on the job. The young student who found out she was positive sat quietly with her head down as I showed her the results of her test and talked about her future. I was expecting her to cry, but she did not. I tried to tell her that she could continue with school and lead a normal life, but it is hard to tell that to someone who has been diagnosed with an incurable disease. Despite the challenges, however, my work has been just as rewarding. Every time a client gets an HIV-negative result, I breathe a sigh of relief along with the patient. Being able to answer questions and provide support for people leaves me with a feeling of accomplishment at the end of the day.

Friday, July 20, 2007

From the Perspective of the Kenyan Chicken Little
Life as a chicken in Kenya, although almost inevitably short, is arguably more fulfilling than being a chicken in America. For starters- who of you Yankee chickens can say you have ever ridden on a bus? I’m here to clear up any confusion and state once and for all that life is better for us chickens in Africa. And here is why:
1. We get unlimited access to kilometers and kilometers of land, unfenced and unbound. We can run around at will, chase uglier chickens and eat whatever trash or wild grasses are available—the world is our buffet. And Americans talk about “free range”! We even show our appreciation by our melodious clucking, starting around 4 am every morning right outside the houses where people are sleeping.
2. Silly American Tourists think its funny to chase us around outside and take a lot of pictures of us. We must be celebrities. Watch out Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan.
3. We get the luxury of riding in buses (as I stated before) called matatus. Sometimes women put us in their shopping bags, along with other delicious smelling fruits and fresh vegetables from the local market. Our legs are bound so we don’t run away, and although that is slightly uncomfortable, I believe they just value us so dearly they couldn’t deal with the immense sadness that would follow if they were to lose us. After all, there are many strangers that also ride on the matatus and we would not want to get lost!
4. Like little children, women carry us under their arms. What other life-stock can claim that they have actually been carried by the people that own then? A cow cannot claim that; they are only tied to a fence post to graze all day and whipped if they miss behave. A pig cannot claim that; most of the farmers that deal with pigs wont get near enough to touch them—can you imagine someone carrying a dirty, smelly pig? And donkeys definitely don’t get that same treatment. They slave away, carrying buckets of water and pulling heavy carts for many kilometers.
5. Our babies grow up to be much stronger and tougher than you American softees. They learn what it’s like in the real world from an early age, mastering the street smarts that can save them from an encounter with your average wild dog or hyena.
Now, I should probably talk about our inescapable and fated end, one that meets all chickens no matter your race or background. Children, avert your eyes because this is not pretty. But it is the fact of life. And unlike you American chickens who are killed without thought or that personal touch, we are given the decency to be slaughtered one by one, by the very hand that will eat us. Who else could ask for a more individualized and caring way to die? After all, the person who is going to eat us knows what the chicken is going through and what is going on in our minds in the final moments of life. I couldn’t ask for a better ending. That is why no matter what is said, the life of the African chicken is far more stimulating and exhilarating than that of our brothers in the US.

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Matatu buses…Hakuna Matata? I think not.
Considering the terrorism of Nairobi matatu bus drivers by Mungki gang members, we were not tempted to take the cheapest and most common form of Kenyan transportation. On many occasions as we walked to the girls’ home or through Nakuru, a matatu would whizz by us at hair-grazing distance. Our uncomfortably close encounters with matatus and their notoriously bad driving made them seem all the more dangerous. When our friend Mary asked us to visit her HIV positive friend who lived in a small village outside of Nakuru, we decided that an opportunity to meet such an amazing woman should not be overshadowed by our reluctance to travel via matatu.
The trick is firstly, getting on the right matatu and secondly, not getting conned into paying any more than the locals. As we stood waiting at Egerton’s gate, matatu drivers leaned out of their moving vehicles, beckoning us with shrill whistles and loud banging on the metal doors. Mary guided us onto a small twelve passenger van that had cracked blue leather seats and an interior that was just as dusty as its exterior. Although Kenyan law prohibits matatus from overloading, the most profitable drivers have a knack for cramming in more passengers than double the carrying capacity. After twenty minutes spent looking for more riders, we finally headed out on the long road to Nakuru where we would then connect to Kabazi.
Both thrilling and frightening, we bounced along narrow, “paved” roads at neck breaking speed playing chicken with every vehicle we encountered. Taking my gaze from the window, I suddenly noticed other passengers scrambling to fasten their seat belts. Thoroughly alarmed, I craned my neck only to see a huge truck headed towards us. Previously unaware I even had a seatbelt, my fingers urgently dug along the dirty seat searching for the seatbelt strap and clasp. After I fastened my seatbelt, I was aghast to find that it could have easily accommodated an additional person sitting on my lap. Just as a four lettered word crossed my mind, the matatu suddenly jerked off the side of the road and stopped next to two policemen. Much to my embarrassing relief, the hasty seatbelt clicking was apparently due to an approaching routine seatbelt check. Of course, this safety regulatory check was a bit of a joke since most drivers can bribe the officers to pass. Immediately preceding the check, the seatbelts were unfastened nearly as quickly as they were put on.
The rest of our matatu trip proved less traumatic. At Nakuru, hawkers swarmed the matatus with their unusual wares (candy, handkerchiefs, socks, batteries, sausages, flashlights). The countryside near Kabazi was breathtakingly green and mountainous, interrupted by patches of dirt shacks, tidy businesses, and farmland. The matatu ride had given us an adventurous taste of Kenyan life, a cheap tour of beautiful countryside, and a rollercoaster experience to be always remembered. And most gratefully, the matatu delivered us home in one piece.

The Importance of Living Positively

This past weekend, Angela, Addie and I traveled with our friend Mary to visit an HIV-positive woman named Faith. Mary, who is also HIV-positive, met Faith when she came to visit her sister, an employee at Egerton. At the time, Faith was having a hard time dealing with her status and Mary was called upon to act as a friend and counselor. Mary told us that the purpose of our visit was to encourage Faith to live a “positive” life. It seems that since being diagnosed with HIV, Faith has lost the will to live and consequently, her health has been deteriorating ever since.
On the long matatu ride to Kabazi (Faith’s hometown), I was unsure of what to expect. Although we have seen many roadside towns as we’ve traveled through Kenya, we had yet to venture through the streets of one of the towns or enter into anyone’s home. When we reached Kabazi, we were greeted by one of Faith’s sons. He led us barefoot through the muddy streets to his home. This town was clearly one of the most poverty-stricken areas that we have visited thus far. People discard their waste right outside their doors where donkeys, chickens, and sheep feed off the piles.
When we first met Faith, she was sitting on a stoop in front of a wooden turquoise door. From Faith’s emaciated and tired expression it was immediately obvious that she was not in the best of health. Inside Faith’s home, I was shocked by its simplicity; consisting of two tiny rooms, there was barely enough space for us to move. A single tiny window lit the house and there was no electricity or running water. During our visit, Faith told us a little about her life – she is a single mother of seven kids. Last year she was diagnosed with HIV and has been on ARVs for about half a year. She is also currently being treated for TB. Unfortunately, however, the medication often makes her nauseous. We couldn’t help but wonder whether or not Faith’s upset stomach was due to improper nutrition. Faith’s troubles were further compounded by the fact that she is too weak to hold a regular job. It was hard for us to fathom that the problems Faith faces on a daily basis are typical for the million plus Kenyans living with HIV. Although we couldn’t provide Faith with a cure for her disease or poverty, we hope that we brightened up her day with our visit and in doing so have encouraged her to continue to live positively.