Monday, August 6, 2007

Candles in the Wind: Community Leaders and PLWHA Advocates

Chart-topping pop ballad dedicated to the memory of Princess Diana by the fabulous British icon Sir Elton John.

If you had asked me what “Candle in the Wind” meant to me a week ago, that would have been my answer. Now, “symbol of perseverance against extreme adversity” seems more appropriate.

Candles in the Wind is an organization on Egerton’s campus devoted to providing emotional support for those affected and infected by the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Kenya. Founded two years ago by an HIV positive Egerton employee, Candles in the Wind sought to fight the societal stigma imposed on PLWHA (People Living with HIV and AIDS) by disseminating information about HIV/AIDS and by preventing new infections by supplying university students with accessible and free condoms. Caitlin and I had the honor to attend their seminar which discussed the need for leadership and advocacy for the rights of those with HIV/AIDS.

PLWHA advocates, frustrated by the political, inefficient and ineffective nature of administrative policy makers (local and international), are speaking out for less deliberation and more life saving. The founder of Candles in the Wind bitterly admitted that, “After a while, the beautiful policy paper will end up gathering dust on a shelf. And they tell me the world is fair.” He’s right. Precious resources are wasted, people are dying, and arguments over trite details prevent aid from reaching those whose CD4 cell counts are rapidly diminishing.

The demand of every Candles in the Wind member and millions around the world is increasing accessibility of resources like ARV’s, treatments for opportunistic treatments, and preventative measures like condoms and sexual health and behavior education. At the university, free male condoms are available at the Voluntary Counseling Testing Center. However, the VCT is only open during hours when most students are in class (8 to 1). Female condoms are a virtually unheard of and a mystery to both female and male users. Myths, like “condoms from the US contain HIV/AIDS” or “If I have enough unprotected sex, I will expel the virus from my body,” are rampant due to lack of safe and responsible sex education. Condom use is stigmatized by conservatives, who preach abstinence and fidelity but don’t practice themselves. Those who choose to not abstain, lack the knowledge and resources to protect themselves. Wives, married as virgins and knowing only one partner, are unable to protect themselves from being infected by unfaithful husbands.

What is the cost of upholding religious and political ideologies that fail to protect the innocent from the imperfect? I couldn’t help but note the irony that PEPFAR, the Presidential Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, paid for the lunch and tea breaks provided during the seminar held by Candles in the Wind. At the end, we were all handed 100 shillings to reimburse attendees for transportation we did not take to get to the seminar. As I stared at the unnecessary monetary compensation, I thought of how many condoms this money could have bought. How many infections could have been prevented, how many lives could have been saved with this same money? An organization that wanted to prevent new infections but could not use the same money for condoms; just more discussion about the need for more condoms.
In the end, we donated our shillings to Candles in the Wind.

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

The Ogande Girls

One. Look for the mosquitos. Two. Catch the mosquitos. Three. Confuse the mosquitos. Four. KILL THE MOSQUITOS!

A hundred claps echoed throughout the auditorium. Young women dressed identically in white blouses, brown skirts, brown vests emblazoned with dignified school crests, and brown shoes laughed at the new clap they had just learned from an enthusiastic Egerton University student.
These bursts of laughter belong to the Ogande Schoolgirls, whose future is as sunny as their faces.

Last Saturday, we had the pleasure of traveling out to Nyanza with the Coffee Hour students to spend the day speaking to the students at the Ogande School for Girls. After spending the Coffee Hour Student forum discussing campus issues like career development, relationships, peer counseling, HIV/AIDS, security and gender relations, the students at Egerton were extremely excited to talk to the secondary school girls (high school age) about life and challenges faced after graduating from school. Some of the intense topics covered by the university students included strong study habits, time management, campus life, career development, avoiding pressure to have sex prematurely, HIV/AIDS, and hygiene. The girls in particular enjoyed the skits performed by the Egerton Coffee Hour crew. One of the skits featured two university boys who were trying to seduce a na├»ve female “fresher” (first year student). When their outrageously cheesy pickup lines (“You are as sweet as my grandmother’s porridge” and “Your beautiful anatomy teases my biology”) fail to entice the pious girl, they pretend to be God and tell her that God’s will is for her to marry the first man she sees at church the next day. Of course, one of the university boys is waiting for her at the church the next day. A second skit described a girl who got caught up in partying and risky behavior before entering the university (due to the limited spacing at Kenyan universities, there is a two year waiting period before one can enter university). The girl, who scores extremely well on her entrance exams, gets pregnant and faces disappointment from her parents as well as a compromised future. Moral of both skits is for the girls to remain “good girls” and to resist the flirtations from cunning upperclassmen.
Another presentation the girls enjoyed discussed proper usage of the sanitary napkins the university students donated to Ogande. Because some of the students at Ogande could not afford to buy sanitary pads, the girls often had to miss school for a few days each month because of the stigma and embarrassment associated with the menstrual cycle. Addie, Caitlin, and Prashant talked to the girls about the biology behind the menstrual cycle, proper usage of sanitary pads, and ending stigma about having a period. The girls were taught how to not reuse the disposable pads and given a demonstration by Prashant and Jesse. Their male gender made the demonstration highly amusing for the schoolgirls as the boys struggled with the sticky pads.

At the end of the day, we were all exhausted but extremely glad that the schoolgirls had fun and learned a little about life after secondary school.