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My Kenya Diary Part Three: The Heartbreak of HIV

by Jane McLellan

Tuesday 12th July 2011

My third visit of the day was to a Kenyan women’s group project in an extremely poor community, where many of the women were wearing only dirty rags for clothes. I felt very passionately about this project and became determined to help them out in one way or another. The project aims to educate women, helping them learn English and maths.

They have a system which they call merry-go-round, where each week they all put 100 shillings in a pot. Then the total amount goes to one woman so that she can buy food, clothes or anything else her family needs. Each week the money goes to a different woman and this way everyone feels the benefit of each other’s help and support in a fair and democratic way.

Some of the vital ways that our volunteers can help is not only by teaching these women and improving their education, but also by helping them come up with new ways to make their own money. What they would really like most of all is a sewing machine, so they could make clothes and sell at the local market, a great way of putting their skills to good use and starting their own thriving industry.

After lunch we travelled to our last project of the day, which was a visit to another orphanage. As much as the plight of the children at the previous orphanage project had affected me, this project really shocked me, and all of the other visitors were also deeply affected by what they witnessed. The first thing we did was take a tour of the orphanage buildings. The kids sleep in tiny rooms, with overcrowded bunk beds and no duvets to keep them warm. The smell of urine from the toilets in their room was overpowering, and there was no sign of any toys or books, just rows of bare beds. The classroom where they learn couldn’t even really be called a classroom; it was little more than a shack with very few teaching materials to help the kids learn.

Every day, these kids go hungry, for the harsh truth is there is just not enough food to go around. After mealtime is over, the kids hold onto their plates, desperately hoping that more food will be served, but sadly this hardly ever happens. Nine of the children in the orphanage are HIV positive, and once a month they have to walk a great distance to get their special medication. I met them when they returned from this difficult trip, and although each one was very tired they still seemed so pleased to see me. Some even gave me a cuddle, while others just shook my hand before they showed me their bag of drugs.

Most of these kids were infected with HIV from birth, but there was one little girl, aged around ten, who got infected after birth. It is a devastating story, but unfortunately an all too common one. Young girls can be offered food, soda or even 50 shillings, in exchange for having sex. When I looked at this vulnerable little girl, my heart just broke. It’s hard to accept that this happens, but sadly this little girl is not alone: Due to her desperation and vulnerability, she is now HIV positive. The only consolation is that she is at least safe and living in the protection of the orphanage. There’s no better reason for making sure we get some dedicated volunteers out there as soon as possible to help change these children’s lives.

We all left this orphanage feeling so sad and with heavy hearts but seeing sights such as this only makes me more determined to support this worthwhile project by sending out volunteers and making donations. The volunteers will be able to help teach, feed and play with these wonderful kids as well assist with cleaning duties and any other activities that the staff may need help with. It really can make a huge difference to the day-to-day lives of these kids, who have already been through so much in their short lives.

When we got back in the car to leave, I felt very emotional, both shocked and saddened by what we had seen. The project staff asked me what my plans were for the evening and asked if I fancied joining them for dinner. After what I had experienced, I didn’t fancy going straight back to my hotel to be on my own so I accepted their invitation. They took me to a Rumba bar, where there was live music and dancing and I had fun watching it all and relaxing. After a couple of Tusker beers, we left and walked to a nearby restaurant, where I tried some traditional food, a yummy chicken and banana combo.

After dinner we were all tired so they dropped me back at my hotel and I went to bed reflecting on the dramatic events of the day. I knew that the following day was going to bring me into contact with other orphanages and projects that would keep having an impact on my Kenyan experience and open my eyes to some even more shocking realities…

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