Battling a disease like HIV/AIDS requires blunt and open discussion. That’s a challenge in a society where many people still attach the disease to stigma and immorality. But, the dialogue is growing more and more as people realize the realities of the disease. Undugu has joined with others in pushing that dialogue as they preach the ABC approach to prevent infection; A-Abstinence, B-Be with only one partner, and C-Condoms! The C part of the formula is still a controversy for some people in Kenya, but I recently met two people who are boldly stepping into the light of controversy. What they are doing is incredible, right, and critical to battling this disease. They are pioneers against a formidable disease.
Reverend Ephanuel Mugambi
When you’re an American living at the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) in Nairobi, (an extremely religious community) you often get mistaken as a Christian youth minister. It’s led to some interesting discussions at times, but one discussion with Reverend Ephanuel Mugambi of the East Kenya Presbyterian Church was especially enlightening.
The Reverend approached me just after breakfast as he thought I was a part of the recently arrived delegation of Christians from Ohio, here to establish a health clinic. He was friendly and I was alone, so we kept each other company for a bit. After we talked for a while, I blurted what I really wanted to know, “What do you teach your congregation about prevention of HIV/AIDS?” I expected one answer about A and B, Abstinence and Being with only one partner. He gave me those and also threw in a C, Condoms. I was stunned. This wasn’t the African religious community that I had heard about that opposed safe sex education or the distribution of condoms.
The Reverend had my full attention and he continued to proudly tell me just how progressive he actually is regarding the prevention of HIV/AIDS. Reverend Mugambi explained that he was among the first clergy in Kenya to address the problem of HIV/AIDS. A few years ago, along with some of his fellow clergymen in the Mennonite community, he attended HIV/AIDS training. It was there that they began preaching the use of condoms as a form of prevention.
Reverend Mugambi was quick to confirm that he still believes Abstinence and loyalty to one partner are the best forms of prevention. But, in his own words, he is a “realistic member of the clergy,” and he knows that the religious leaders in Kenya have more influence than any other group of people or organization in the country. He recognizes that his influence goes beyond those who attend his or any other congregation. His advice reaches those who have never seen the inside of a church; such is the nature of the religious culture in Kenya. So, the Reverend preaches the use of condoms for those who “don’t believe and won’t respond to A and B.”
Religious leaders in Kenya are nervous to teach something that might be misunderstood as being counter to some of their main moral beliefs. But, Reverend Mugambi is showing how to preach the realistic doctrine of A,B, and C without being a heretic. Reverend Mugambi is a pioneer and his message must be shared by other members of the religious community for the spread of HIV/AIDS to be prevented. The good news, as Reverend Mugambi explained, is that it’s catching on. The Anglicans and Pentecostals are beginning to preach the use of C also.
Phelgon, A Positive Teacher
There is a small school in a neighborhood named Gonda in the city of Kisumu, Kenya. The school only has two classes; a nursery level class, and a kindergarten level class. There are about 75 students; some in uniform, some not. The floors are dirt or concrete and some of the walls are just tin. There are no computers and no sign of books. It’s not exactly a state-of-the-art learning institution, yet it happens to be one of the most forward-thinking, progressive schools in Kenya. Why? Because many of the students are HIV+ and just by looking at them, you can’t tell which ones.
Kenya is a society where children with HIV/AIDS are the victims of stigmatization and exclusion. Schools don’t want them. Sometimes, families don’t want them. And usually, the other children don’t want to play with them. That’s what makes this school so unique. Five and six year olds with HIV/AIDS are sitting mixed with healthy students, learning together and playing together.
The school is run by a woman named Phelgon. Phelgon used to teach for one of the most prestigious schools in Kisumu. She was one of its best teachers. Then, she tested positive. When word got out, the school terminated her contract. Undeterred, Phelgon started her own school and she invited the people in the community with children suffering from HIV/AIDS to enroll in her school. Many of them did. But, the amazing thing is that many students without HIV/AIDS also enrolled. In a rare event, the parents of healthy students were intentionally enrolling their children in a school with children suffering from HIV/AIDS. This is almost unheard of in Kenya.
Phelgon is teaching her students (and the community) that it is safe to play with another child infected with HIV/AIDS. She is teaching them that there is more to a child then their disease. And she is teaching them basic lessons of acceptance, support, and respect. Phelgon is doing all of this while openly discussing her own infection with HIV/AIDS with parents and community members. She has organized support groups for those infected in the community and volunteers as a health educator preaching forms of prevention.
Phelgon is on the front line in battling the inappropriate stigma that accompanies HIV/AIDS in Kenya. It is because of people like Phelgon that the next generation of Kenyans won’t be afraid to discuss HIV/AIDS or to associate with a person with HIV/AIDS. Because of Phelgon’s work, Undugu is supporting her school and her mission to teach children the truth about HIV/AIDS.
Posted By Jonathan Homer
Posted Jun 26th, 2007