23. AIDS Is No Match for Kwamo
November is rainy season in Kenya, which means that the ruts in dirt roads become filled with soft, thick mud, and only the most rugged vehicles get through. Fortunately, our caravan over the country roads of Homabay County, Kenya, was composed of four-wheel drive vehicles. Still, we had to abandon one automobile to the mire during our journey to Kwamo.
I was traveling through the communities surrounding the eastern shore of Lake Victoria with Chip Lyons, EGPAF president and CEO. We were joined by Kenyan health officials and EGPAF staff who work with the hospitals, clinics, and dispensaries in this area, which has been especially hard hit by the AIDS pandemic.
On this day, our aim was to meet a group of nurses working miracles in their modest village. Kwamo Nursing Director Esther Achieng and her dedicated team have driven the mother-to-child transmission of HIV to zero among HIV-positive pregnant women who enroll in treatment. This is an astounding accomplishment for a region with one of the highest prevalence rates of HIV in the world — more than 25% of adults.
I was excited to meet Esther, and I was especially looking forward to meeting the young people of Kwamo who participate in a psychosocial support group organized by EGPAF. I had come to Kenya to empower youth to be leaders, educators and agents of healthy living.
Rain was on the horizon when we reached the turn-off for the Kwamo Dispensary. Pulling through the gates, we heard a soft chant, which became louder as we proceeded. A collection of mothers, peer counselors, and nurses were gathered in front of the dispensary, welcoming us with a song of strength and joy. Esther stood tall at the center. I could see how proud she is of the work her community is implementing.
Esther and her team are engaging their community with a holistic approach to health. This is incredibly important, as HIV has not been the only cause of infant mortality and maternal death. These nurses, caregivers, and local public health officials have worked together to overcome HIV, malnutrition, malaria, diarrhea, and birth complications — and the results stood before me now as the healthy mothers and children of Kwamo.
After spending a few hours touring the dispensary with Esther, learning about their tools for increasing capacity and tracking mother-baby pairs, I was ready to have a heart-to-heart conversation with the young people who had assembled.
Sitting with the teens under a tent on a hillside looking over the Kwamo Valley, I shared my story of growing up with HIV. In many faces I saw a reticence to talk about living with this virus. So I started asking questions, engaging my new friends in a fun exchange—and with heavier questions as well. Slowly, defenses dropped, and we found ourselves discussing HIV confidently and comfortably.
Here I was halfway around the world connecting with a group of beautiful young people as though we had known each other for years. Discussions like this are a key to success in overcoming HIV and AIDS—as well as the stigma that too many people living with HIV face. The youth of Kwamo are learning to speak up about their experiences, cultivating a generation of advocates who support themselves and their communities.
After our meaningful discussion, Chip and I headed back to our vehicles and the muddy ruts leading out of the village. Bouncing and splashing through the lush countryside, I reflected on the Kwamo Dispensary, along with the other EGPAF-supported health facilities we had visited.
Meeting people like Esther and young people of Kwamo gives me clearer vision of the value of the work of EGPAF. Yes, we are saving lives, and yes we are reaching communities around the world—but our most amazing function is creating effective programs that are replicable and sustainable—and that empower local communities to take ownership of the fight to end pediatric AIDS.
Jake Glaser is an EGPAF Ambassador, HIV/AIDS advocate, and the son of EGPAF Founder, Elizabeth Glaser. Jake recently visited EGPAF-supported programs in Homabay County, Kenya — where more than 25% of the population is living with HIV. He turned 30 this year and is living positively with HIV, carrying on his mother's legacy, and was an inspiration to young Kenyans living with HIV during his November, 2014 trip.
Because an AIDS-free generation is not just a dream, from November 24 through December 26 we are highlighting 25 ways that EGPAF, our partners, and every-day people are helping and/or can help make it a reality. Pediatric HIV/AIDS is solvable, but we can't do it alone. Each and every one of us has an important role to play.