Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The 'water-boy' who made my heart ache


This image captures the eye. It may also catch you for its beauty: A donkey in full motion and a young boy doing his best to keep up, the stick in his hand to whip the donkey if it slows down. It's a beautiful image I think, the urgency of it expressed in its blurriness. But it is this urgency that is at the heart of my ache.

On the day I visited Maiella , it became apparent long before we arrived that water was scarce in this region. Along the way to my relatives’ place, we met every mode of transportation - boda boda, donkeys, women’s backs and bicycles - carrying one or more mitungis [Jerrycans] of water. Maiella suffers tremendous water shortage.

But what really drove the point home for me was actually observing the long queues for water at the World Vision water supply point.

For now though, let’s return to the running boy and donkey. The boy [let's call him Kamau] is still wearing his school uniform. It's around 5:30pm. He just came home from all-day school only to find empty water containers waiting for him. I imagine him hurriedly strapping the donkey and heading off to fetch water before darkness sets in. He doesn't have to be told to go for water, it's his daily after-school chore after all. It's also possible that he hasn't had any water to drink as the last drop was used up earlier in the day.

So off Kamau goes, running to the water point only to be terribly disappointed. Moments earlier, I had watched as some people were turned away because the water ran out. It's hard to comprehend how you'd feel after two hours of queuing, only to leave with dry containers. With no other option, the people grumbled on their way home, to make do with whatever little water if any they had left.

Kamau on the other hand couldn’t afford the luxury of returning home. He had to go for water from the next distribution point, an hour and a half one way walking distance. He wouldn’t be back before 9 P.M, I was informed.

Standing aside while the crowd dispersed, I could only take pictures as I pondered their lifestyle. A life in which search for drinking water during the dry seasons apparently took up 3/4 of each and every waking day.

I asked around why there wasn't enough water for everyone who needed it. Obviously, the administrators could only pump water into the only available tank, which they did overnight. Some people were quick to blame the government, particularly local authorities. Apparently during the construction of the single tank, World Vision knew one tank wouldn’t cater to everyone's water needs. Yet, their application/request to build more tanks was denied. It is believed that the local authorities want the water shortage situation to continue so that they can charge higher than average for water - a corruption strategy that keeps their pockets well lined with ill-obtained cash.

So as it stands, the people of Maiella continue their daily struggle, looking forward to a short reprieve during the rainy season. It’s the only time they and their beasts of burden can take a breather while preparing for the next hot, dry, waterless season. For this season always comes.

Yet another critical area where Kibaki could have invested Kenya’s million bucks!

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Kenya: Critical areas where a million dollars might just make a difference:-

Water Provision

Esther Wambui/Photos.
A "mkokoteni" carrier sells water in Mombasa City.

I met this girl beside a well in Kilifi, where it appears she
had just about drawn the last drop.

Esther Wambui/Photos
I went to Maiella, a rural farming region West of Naivasha and I have to say that I've never known or seen such shortage of water. People spend a minimum of four hours a day walking to and from a water source. Sometimes, as this photo indicates, international aid organizations [in this case World Vision] end up doing what local/national governments should do for their citizens.

Revolting gesture or an act of kindness? You decide.

On May 30th President Mwai Kibaki of Kenya made a grand gesture. He donated one Million U.S. dollars to assist victims of the devastating earthquake and Tsunami that hit Japan in March this year.

Why is this an issue two weeks later? You may ask.

From the beginning, I admit that I thought that was about the dumbest, most insulting and revolting thing for Kibaki to do. Having only recently visited Kenya (I was watching the Japanese disaster unfold during a layover at Heathrow Airport), I know for a fact that there is so much more this money, approximately Kshs 82 million, could have done for Kenyans themselves.

President Mwai Kibaki presents a cheque of
one million US dollars to Japanese Ambassador
Photo Courtesy of Govedi Asutsa [The Standard Online]

I’ve also fished around amongst my friends and on the internet for opinion and comments regarding this donation. What do other people think?

There is minimal support for Kenya’s (read Kibaki’s) magnanimous gesture. When such support is expressed, it is in terms of pride, customs or religious belief. Pride that we Africans are for once giving instead of receiving aid, that we are generous peoples, and in biblical context, “blessed are those who give for they shall receive”.

But for majority whose opinion I sought, Kibaki’s giving away a million dollars; even in the name of post-quake support to victims is the biggest insult the president could have added to the citizenry’s injury. There is of course the obvious irony of such a poor, struggling third world nation donating to the world’s third-largest economy. While you are at it, compare this: Japan’s Gross National Income per capita at US $37,870 to Kenya’s meager US $770 (World Bank, 2009).

And for whatever reason, let's say Kibaki had to give out that money. Shouldn't he have at least done so closer to home – for example given an independence present to our neighbour South Sudan, Africa’s youngest nation?

But from what I observed in Kenya, I can only assume that Kibaki is afflicted by a condition for which I have coined the term Elite Syndrome or ES – whereby the country’s wealthy purposely live a completely isolated lifestyle. Hidden and incubated in their mansions & shopping malls by security guards and high fences, driven in tinted glass gas-guzzlers, they are immune (or at least pretend to be) to all the poverty, hunger, disease, and utter desperation outside their gates and in their backyards.

Take a look at some pictures I took referencing these areas of concern and tell me if there wouldn't have been a better/other way for Kibaki to spend a million bucks of poor taxpayers money!!

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Misconceptions about antiretroviral drugs hampering the dream for an AIDS-free generation

30 years since the first documented cases of HIV, there are reports of major milestones in the fight against an epidemic that has devastated some parts of the world. UNAids reports that in the last decade the global rate of infections dropped by nearly 25%, while according to the World Health Organization, an estimated 6.6 million people with HIV in developing countries are now on antiretroviral therapy drugs –drugs that keep them from developing Aids and help them live longer.

But as we hail the achievements of the last decade, one very important question begs an urgent answer: “Have we done enough to expect an AIDS-free generation any time soon?” As I’ve recently witnessed, complacency related to antiretroviral drugs may be fast eating into this dream.

Participants at Toronto AIDS Walk For Life arrive
at the city's AIDS Memorial
A recent conversation with three young women in Kenya gave me a window into how far we might be from achieving that goal and left me wondering whether time has come to re-examine basic HIV/AIDS education [Esther Wambui/Photos].

I was concluding a visit there after five years of living abroad. And as it is customary I ended up at a hair salon for some braids that would take several hours to do. With so much time to pass, I eventually broached my favourite topic…HIV/AIDS. I instantly noticed something positively different. Unlike five years ago, people are no longer shy to discuss the epidemic. They have seen and heard enough about it already to become part of daily conversation. One of the women was in her mid-30s and she vehemently declared that if some guy thought to “bring” her HIV, she would personally kill him.

The other two women however, were in their early twenties and had a different tone. One said that she did all she could to avoid infection, but that accidents do happen anyway. Then the third woman made a statement that forms the crust of my viewpoint today. Unfazed by all our (ABCD*) talk, she boldly declared that medication for HIV was now available and there was no more need for all the panic. She went on to say that people should be left alone to “enjoy fear-free, guilt-free sex”.

I froze to my bone on hearing this. As a certified basic HIV/AIDS educator, I’m aware that antiretroviral therapy is an important part of the curriculum, with an emphasis on ARVs as one of a number of ways to enhance the life of sufferers. ARVs never have and do not cure AIDS or HIV for that matter.

Thus as we commemorate three decades of HIV, we need to remember the under-thirty generation, for whom the epidemic has always been a way of both vocabulary and life; a generation that didn’t have to deal with the shock-value of the emergence of an incurable disease. For them, HIV/AIDS is one of the many other chronic diseases.
Two TCE [South Africa] Field Officers give an HIV/AIDS
awareness lesson to a teenage girl

Is it time to revisit the focus of ARVs education or do we need to implement an altogether new program?

While we must continue giving hope to those already infected, we need to make sure that the uninfected know all there is to know about these drugs. Let’s have an ARV-only program. A program that tells the young that yes ARVs are there. Yes, they are available although to a relatively small and select number in poor countries. And yes, they do improve the quality of life for the infected. Likewise, I believe time has come to revisit the education of earlier years. Be forthright, open, frank, and remind people that these drugs are not a cure.

Let emphasis be placed on the ills of long-term use of these drug: The numerous side effects that range from relatively mild ones, to very serious ones that in themselves impact quality of life. Add that to treatment failure, drug toxicity and in some cases, resistance to these drugs. This in itself should disturb the unfazed, the fact that once you’re on ARVs you’re always on ARVs. That you never stop taking them, a concoction of pills for the remainder of your life!

In the fight against HIV, we always hope that everyone gets the message. But as is the way of life, some people might or probably will always fall through the cracks. I’m okay with that as long as they fall knowing that crack is a life-altering one to fall into - one that you eventually pay for with your life.

With an estimated 33.3 million people currently living with the virus, the only thing I can hope for is that the young woman is by all means an exception, not an indicator of her generation’s mindset.

*Abstain, Be Faithful, Condomize, or Do-it-Yourself.