So, it’s about 1:30 Sunday morning and I’m awake. Can’t sleep. May as well use my time productively because lately just laying here, trying to force myself back into REM hasn’t been effective.
Last week flew by, definitely the quickest week in Kenya to date. It was great. We spent it in Loitokitok with the Math/Science Secondary Education trainees and had sessions on HIV/AIDS on Mon-Thurs, which was Thanksgiving. Then PC gave us Friday off and even provided the funds for an Ameri-Kenyan Thanksgiving Dinner. I’ll start with my newfound knowledge about HIV and AIDS in Kenya, which I think everyone will be interested in.
Currently, the prevalence of AIDS in Kenya is hovering around 7%. It has decreased, but it is steady. This percentage sounds good, right? The catch is that 7% of those tested are positive for AIDS. Getting tested is not mandatory unless you are pregnant. The prevalence varies from region to region throughout Kenya considerably. Kenya is divided into 7 provinces: Nyanza, Rift Valley, Central, Coast, Eastern, Western, and North Eastern. The area with the highest rates of AIDS, ~14%, is Nyanza. This is where most volunteers are placed, including myself. Prostitution is a major contributor. This is something that I’m extremely interested in, because new light has been shed on this topic (for me, anyways). It’s such a taboo thing, so negative and to be honest I have always just thought prostitutes are whores trying to turn a buck, usually into drugs. I will jump back to this later, but for now, the HIV/AIDS discussion… In the Nyanza region, which surrounds Lake Victoria, women are forced into prostitution frequently to earn their food. It’s called sex for fish, and it’s really depressing. Fishermen here are men and women need fish. Also, (Zach, share your knowledge/opinions with me here) circumcision is not traditionally practiced in the Nyanza region and uncircumcised men are more likely to carry HIV/AIDS. There is a push for male circumcision in the region for this purpose. Side note, this is also a region where female genital mutilation (FGM) takes place, which has nothing to do with HIV/AIDS or actually anything beneficial to the human race whatsoever.
Anyways, the rates are generally higher along the major road that dissects Kenya as well. This road stretches from Mombasa (big city on coast) to Uganda, very close to Lake Victoria. There are a several reasons for this. For one, tourists are very common in Mombasa, which feeds the prostitution industry. Truckers frequent this road, and are known to support the prostitution industry as well. As I mentioned, in the Nyanza province sex for fish is common. The amount of traffic along the road is the main issue here, though.
In Kenya, AIDS is more prevalent amongst women – and again, this is only amongst those who are actually tested. Another interesting fact is that nearly twice as many women get tested as men, including non-pregnant women. Men generally do not go get tested.
About testing: people can get tested for free at VCT – which I believe stands for Voluntary Counseling and Testing clinics. These are spread out everywhere in Kenya. It’s a simple blood test that takes about 15 minutes, and if positive there are two more different but similar tests to confirm. While you wait for your results, options are discussed with you. If your test is positive, you are referred to the next doctor or counselor for follow-up. Medication is sometimes necessary, and if that is the case it is also provided for free. Thanks Americans!
We met with a lady who was advocating for equal treatment for teachers with HIV/AIDS. She herself had HIV and continued teaching and started this organization. It’s pretty impressive and has serious rules that protect individuals with HIV/AIDS from being stigmatized in the workplace. Serious measures follow if they are discriminated against, and the organization helps relocate + teachers to accommodate their medical needs. It was refreshing to hear positive stories.
We had HIV/AIDS sessions every day, and near the end of the week we actually went to a VCT and watched one of our trainers get tested. Next to this VCT there was a little shop, called FRIFAT – Friends Fighting AIDS Together. Here, women with HIV/AIDS make little crafts, mostly jewelry, and all profits went straight to the women. Little things like this are around Kenya, but this was my first experience and it’s just really refreshing to see positive things when you hear so much negative.
Back to the prostitution stuff. This just really opened my eyes to gender inequality and the fact that prostitution isn’t necessarily a decision one makes, sometimes it’s a matter of survival. I think that a lot of people probably already know this, but it was news to me. And I want to thank Aunt Renee here, for the book she sent me called Half the Sky. It’s all about gender development and struggles for women, particularly in developing countries. In Kenya, it’s a big deal. I could write an entire blog post about it, and might, when it’s not nearly 2am. But anyways, women in Kenya are not even nearly equal to men. Females are generally much less educated than males are. There is a PC group called GAD – gender and development – which is making big changes with young women in Kenya, fighting to educate girls. Here, it is a matter of education. Girls miss a lot of school, for various reasons. They have to help take care of the family, take care of siblings or sometimes parents with HIV/AIDS. It is often their responsibility to gather firewood or water, to cook and clean. They miss school when they have their period because here, pads are expensive and not always available. When it comes down to money, sending the boys to school is more of a priority than the girls, even though primary education is considered to be free right now. In classes, girls sit in the back and rarely answer questions or volunteer to participate, and there are considerably less females in classes as the level gets higher. Women who are uneducated have fewer options and become more likely to be forced into prostitution to provide for their families. It is the females responsibility to take care of the family and without an education, options are limited.
So, off of that for now. About my region! I haven’t really told you much about the area, but we learned a little bit more about our native tribes and such last week. As I mentioned, I will be living in the Nyanza province which is surrounding Lake Victoria on the western border of Kenya and Uganda. The Luo tribe is native to my area, and they were initially herders who migrated into Kenya from Uganda, following the river in search of free land for their animals. Generally, Luo’s are very, very dark and the men are what we would consider to be of the football player’s build – tall and thick. Traditionally, when a boy became a man, six of his lower teeth were removed, and he should not cry when this took place. Although I’m not exactly sure what the initial reason for this was, it was suggested that it was for administering medication when after getting lock-jaw (tetanus). Not sure, but no one really had an answer. It makes you a man.
Men here are not traditionally circumcised, but there is a push right now for HIV/AIDS prevention. Polygamy is acceptable and common. Luo people are known to be extremely friendly and welcoming, but also have a reputation for being competitive. Men are expected to pay a dowry for their wife, according to Luo tradition. In fact, it is so important that if by chance a Luo man is marrying a woman from another tribe, he is expected to give a reasonable dowry (usually paid in cattle) to her family. Evans, one of our trainers who is Luo, told us a story about his cousin who was marrying a woman from Uganda. They were unable to trace where exactly she came from, so they just rounded up the cattle and dropped them off in the general area from which she came! Just released them, into the streets, because it was expected and it is a way of obligating the woman to you. After paying the dowry, she is bound to you.
Also, weddings can take place in a church or be “traditional.” Most choose traditional, because if you get married in a church it is much more constricting. You can technically only have one wife, but that’s only if you get married in a church. The rest of them can be married traditionally and you don’t break any laws. The wives live in separate houses on the same compound. There is an interesting, specific layout for the polygamist compound. The main house with the husband and the wife is at the center, with the door facing the gate. Then the other wives have houses on either side of the main house, and their doors face the road – NOT the gate. Then the firstborn son has a house that is next to the wives houses, with doors also facing the road and not the gate. Same with the other sons. Interesting.
Once the son gets married, he lives in the house on the compound with his wife until they have children, then they go make their own compound. When a couple separates, they are still married. If they got married in a church, it can get complicated and legal stuff happens, but if it’s traditional I guess it’s not as difficult. Divorce isn’t common here, like it is at home. Also, it is not final until the dowry has been paid back.
The Luo music is amazing! I will have to find some to recommend for you, because it is like a reggae blend with lots of drumming. Dancing is pretty popular in the area as well, but I think dancing is a big deal throughout Kenya, not just in Nyanza. Speaking of dancing, on Thanksgiving the PC had a dancing and drumming group come perform for us! It was amazing; I have a picture and even a video that I will upload if I have the time.
There is more to share, but I can’t think of it all right now. I will try again soon. Ask questions if you think of any, I like hearing feedback ☺