Monday, May 18, 2009

Isiolo Youth Against Aids and Poverty

I have just had the pleasure of visiting Isiolo, a few hundred kilometres North East of Nairobi in the Eastern Province. From the time I got on the bus to Isiolo, it felt like being in a different country. The bus was filled with people who look different, sound different, play different music and chew miraa all the time. As you leave the more fertile central areas of Kenya, which consist of green fields of intensively farmed crops and rather less green horticultural polytunnels, everything becomes a bit more dusty. Eventually, there are a lot of dry plains, dotted with steep volcanic hills and thorny, low level trees and bushes.

And when you arrive in Isiolo, you really are in a different country. You have left the people who mostly think of their 'tribes' around election time and meet people whose lives are affected by tribal disagreements on a more regular basis. There are still abandoned houses and farms from the last serious land, property and livestock disputes. Many owners have left the area, often for the cities, especially Nairobi. The area is a tough environment for people to live in and to gain a living from. It is mainly pastoralist, although some people are now trying to diversify and depend less on herding animals.

I went to Isiolo to visit a group of people I met, by accident, in Dar es Salaam. They run a voluntary counselling and testing (VCT) centre in the town. We exchanged notes about Kenya, HIV and various other matters. The people invited me to visit and I did. I was met off the bus and taken to the home of some of the IYAP (Isiolo Youth Against Aids and Poverty) members, where I was to stay for my time in the town. I have been to the houses of various other members and been fed and watered thoroughly. If I hadn't already developed an ugali (and beer) belly this would have been a good opportunity (although I drank no beer there).

IYAP's VCT is located in a region where, for cultural reasons, sex is not talked about. Not that that is so unusual in East Africa, but people are even less likely to talk about sex in more Northern regions than in other areas. Clothing, behaviour, manners and lifestyles are less influenced by Western values than they are in the cities and even other rural areas. So the VCT often has to go out into the community to mobilise people, raise awareness about HIV and about the availability of counselling, testing, support and treatment for those infected.

There have been limited mobile VCT facilities available in Kenya for some time but they don't seem to penetrate the most isolated areas. In fact, I have only seen specialised mobile units in urban areas where there are already fixed facilities. But IYAP organises what are called 'moonlight' clinics as well. They go to isolated areas at night and people can turn up in the cover of darkness. It sounds like a desperate measure. But in isolated areas, most people know all of their neighbours. There is little opportunity to visit a VCT clinic without many other people knowing that you have been there.

In fact, all over the world there are people who are naturally shy about the possibility that everyone in the neighbourhood could end up knowing what they are doing. I don't tell everyone I know when I've been for a HIV test and I don't think my friends and acquaintances do, either. But in many parts of East Africa, the very admission that you may be at risk of being infected with HIV can have serious social consequences. People from the area do not openly associate with sex workers. Sex workers themselves are neither talked to nor talked about by many. They are outcast, regardless of the fact that they may have become sex workers because of circumstances beyond their control. As for their clients, they always seem to be above reproach.

But not all things are so different in Isiolo than in many other parts of East Africa and probably many other countries. Sex is a difficult subject in Ireland, where I come from and the UK, where I have lived for many years. Few people talk frankly about their sexual experiences to anyone and everyone. Few would expose their private lives to the censure of all those around them, friends, family, employers, peers, neighbours, etc. And why should they? People are entitled to privacy, even if they live in closely knit communities.

Isiolo, and Eastern Province in general, are home to some of Kenya's poorest people. Together, Eastern and North Eastern Provinces have long been marginalised while Nairobi and Central Provinces have seen most of the benefits of economic growth, and even the large amounts of donor money that comes into the country. This is not to say that there are no poor people in the well off provinces. On the contrary, the majority of people are poor, even in Central and Nairobi. But people in Eastern Province feel they have been overlooked and forgotten. And I think they are right to.

IYAP is one of several organisations in the area that concerns itself with poverty, poor health and inequality, some of the very things that drive the HIV epidemic. As well as providing VCT, sex information, support for those with HIV and those who are in danger of being infected, IYAP work with other local groups, such as women’s' groups, giving them advice and support, helping them raise funds and advocating for their interests.

It is difficult to please everyone when doing this kind of work. Some religious leaders see the sexual behaviour of their people as a religious matter. Politicians see community based organisations and NGOs as either for or against their interests. Older people see young people as in need of education and experience; they don't think they have anything to learn from the young. So a youth based organisation is viewed with suspicion by some. But that is what makes the work organisations like IYAP do so special. It is not easy to go against the current, especially in small and traditional community. But over time they have gained some of the respect they deserve.

The work that IYAP and other similar organisations do is vitally important for the future of Kenya and other developing countries. Let’s hope they are allow and enabled to continue working to reduce poverty, inequality, injustice, prejudice and bad health.


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