Note from the Field: The Story of a Mwambuli (Teacher) in Western Kenya
Evan Von Leer
October 25, 2010
In the month of October in Kenya’s Western Province, it rains. Every day, almost without fail.
I witnessed numerous downpours while visiting Foundation-supported clinics in the towns around Lake Victoria, about 225 miles west of Nairobi. The rains caused farmers to retreat from the fields where they harvest maize, Kenya’s staple crop. The motorbikes had to stop from transporting one or two—and sometimes three—people from town to town along pothole-ridden roads.
Pastor Joseph and his wife Beatrice with their three
daughters outside their home in Vihiga, Kenya
And while many local businesses ground to a halt when the rains came, one thing that did not was the Mwambuli HIV support group I attended, led by Pastor Joseph Muhemberi.
In the local Luyhia language, the word “mwambuli” means “teacher” or “helper,” and Pastor Joseph helps counsel this group of 30 men and women who meet once a month at his house in the town of Vihiga.
Some of the group’s members are HIV-positive, some are not, but their status does not define them in this group, or in life. What does is the amount of support they are able to offer each other and those around them who have struggled with the issue of HIV.
Pastor Joseph knows this struggle from personal experience. In 2005, he fell ill with pneumonia after fighting a tuberculosis infection. His clinical officer at Vihiga District Hospital insisted that he also be tested for HIV.
Uneasy about the test, Pastor Joseph was counseled about what a positive HIV result would mean, and if the test came back negative, how he could maintain that status. Along with his wife, Beatrice Muhemberi, he took his first HIV test in early 2006. It would turn out to be his last. Pastor Joseph and his wife both tested positive.
The couple was immediately enrolled in a care and support program. Because his immune system was so weak – his CD4 count was 21-- Pastor Joseph immediately began antiretroviral (ARV) therapy. (WHO recommends that HIV-positive individuals with a CD4 count of 350 or lower immediately begin treatment. The lower the number, the more damage the virus has done to one’s immune system).
Pastor Joseph (left) gets some help moving seating outside
for a group meeting
With his health in jeopardy, he slipped into a pattern of self stigma and denial. His mood changed. His family, friends, and parishioners saw a difference in him. Luckily at this critical time, he was selected to participate in a psychosocial support program sponsored by the Foundation.
Called Zingatia Maisha (which means “carefully consider life” or “positive action” in Swahili), the program counsels those infected and affected by HIV, and was first implemented in Eastern Kenya by the Foundation with funding by GlaxoSmithKline.
Pastor Joseph was given training on how to adhere to the ARV drug regimen that he must take for the rest of his life. He learned about HIV support groups, and after feeling like the loneliest man in Kenya, he discovered he was not alone.
“After training is when I started living positively,” he told me on a rainy afternoon at his home, with his own support group surrounding him.
He started disclosing his status slowly to those around him. First to his family and close friends, who all accepted his status. They had seen him when his health was at its worst, near death, before he began ARVs. After just six months of treatment, his CD4 count had jumped to 600, and his health had turned around.
A small group of friends and family began coming to his house once a month to hear Pastor Joseph share the information he learned through the Zingatia Maisha training. How can HIV-positive people stay healthy? How can they avoid infecting other people? What foods should they eat?
The group started with seven people, and slowly gained new members and momentum in the community. Because of his training, Pastor Joseph knew how to counsel people about HIV, and how to slowly bring them into the group. He would go door to door and do home visits with people referred to him through the Vihiga District Hospital.
Freddie, a member of the
Mwambuli Support Group
In 2007, he disclosed his status to his congregation. Most members accepted his status, although some did not. Through it all, however, not one member of his parish abandoned his church, and Pastor Joseph began educating them about HIV.
Fast forward more than three years, to October 2010. Our group arrived at Pastor Joseph’s house and were greeted first by a man named Freddie, who tells us how happy he is that we have come to hear the group’s stories. We learn later during introductions that while Freddie (pictured) is HIV-negative, his wife is HIV-positive. He tells us that he sticks by her because he loves her very much.
While the sun was still shining, we met on couches, benches, and chairs outdoors in front of Pastor Joseph’s house. We learned about the “treatment buddies” program the group has started, pairing members together to encourage each other to stay on their treatment and seek medical attention when necessary. And we learned about the group’s ties to the community through faith-based organizations, schools, and other community stakeholders.
We also learned more about Pastor Joseph’s own family. He and his wife have three daughters, all HIV-negative.
Rains of Western Kenya
Midway through our discussion with the group, the skies grew dim and, like they do nearly every day during this season, the rains poured down. And while motorbikes were being wheeled under cover and the farmers were seeking shelter, our meeting quickly relocated inside. With the rain pelting the tin roofs of Pastor Joseph’s house, our meeting – and our education – continued.
Evan Von Leer is an Online Communications Officer at the Foundation, based in Washington, D.C. He recently returned from field visits to Foundation-supported sites in Lesotho and Kenya.