Archives for March 2016

Patriarchy still hurting women with HIV in South Nyanza,Kenya

It has been a while since I published an article here on my blog or the paper that I work for. I’ve been working on a project that has so many sources from whom clarification has to be sought, so many studies to give different views to a cultural issue….I am drained of material and emotional resources. 

Be that as it may, this assignment took me back home to the rural area where I trace my paternity: Kenya’s South Nyanza, a small village called K’anyidoto in Ndhiwa Constituency. By the way I am typing from a phone so forgive some spelling mistakes you may encounter.

As a journalist, I have to always make a concious decision not to use my experiences to cloud my judgement and perception when I am discharging my duties. So right now, seated here going through the footage of what I did in the day, I can’t help but compare (at least mentally) what it meant to spend portions of my childhood here and what it is now for the women who live here. I’ve reached one conclusion:Being a woman in this community is difficult. Yes wait for it. Those patriotic Luos are about to ask me to produce a study to back up my claim. As if statistics are supposed to rubbish the experience of one woman. The irrational ones will tell me I’ve lived around the Kikuyu for too long that I compare the Luo to them. If only the prevalence of HIV, and incidence too, weren’t so high in this region! (About 25 per cent in Homabay County, Kenya Aids Indicator Survey)

Regardless of what oppositions I may face about what I am talking about, I have every right to talk about this right here, right now. Contrary to what I look like and talk (all deadlocked, tattooed and cursing sometimes) this community taught me about being a homemaker.

Even now that I came, I did not need to be reminded about where to go get the traditional vegetables, how to slaughter chicken and make a meal for a 12 people in less than an hour on a three-stone stoves. Here meals are served on a huge table, prepared without the luxuries of cooking oil or tomatoes but boy aren’t they sumptuous! There are secret recipes that you would never know unless you grew up here. The women who taught me and any other girl who grew up here may not even appreciate the complex process of the things they’re able to produce in less than an hour…Mo moleny(some edible oil made from milk cream), Chak mopuo(natural yoghurt). Nyuka abagi, (fermented porridge), mok bel arega (wheat flour that you kneel on a traditional mill and make with your hands)… If I were to list the nutritional names for them I’d publish a book.Oh and it’s interesting how the meals are categorised… The one for the breastfeeding woman…the food to give to a man that underperforms in bed…You must also remember the process of serving the food and it’s surprising that today I still let the man wash his hands before me as my culture dictates even though I believe in equality. It also shocks me that I’d keep a man company until he finished his meals, then and only then would I go wash my hands. So I am not relying on studies published in some peer reviewed journal to make my inference.

When I come here they call me Nyar K’onyango (a daughter of Onyango’s clan). And as I begin my conversations with my people, I find reason to justify the confrontational way with which most Luo women have to deal with issues. At a home in Kamenya village, a husband hid his wife’s antiretrovirals. He thought she had become too proud since she joined the Aids support group. At the group, she was told eating cassava is good for their health. She went home to try out a different menu. When the meal was served, he asked why they’re having corn meal made of cassava flour and maize, she had started responding: “ne opuonjwa e chokruok..” (we were taught at the group…) No sooner had she mentioned the group than the man landed on her with blows blaming the group for rearranging the order in his house. It was appalling to me that the husband was a high school teacher with adequate knowledge to know about what good nutrition is. That is when he hid her ARVs.

Knowing what discontinuing her medication meant, she reported to the chief. She’d tried reporting to her parents-in-law the first time this happened last year but the process of reconciliation had taken too long she’d feared for her health. At the chief, she was reminded about the need to “take things slowly” to know what language “soothes her husband’s heart”. A meeting was organised by the elders. A week later. Her husband did not show up. When it finally took place (which happened to have been the day I was here) the woman was warned against “not consulting”. She was cautioned against “taking family matters to strangers”. I listened from behind the room hiding behind the papyrus reed mat that separated the rooms because I wasn’t allowed to come to where elders talked.

Here,a woman needs to “talk nicely” and beg for such basic needs that are rightfully hers and a benefit of the people in that community. Why should a woman beg to be allowed to take drugs for diseases that are a public health concern such as Tuberculosis and HIV? I always questioned the Kenya Demographic Survey 2014 data where women said they couldn’t access healthcare because “they had not been given permission”. I asked Mourine from Ligodho why she hadn’t gone to have her ca checked since she is positive and is well aware of TB being infectious at the first few weeks. She answered: Wuon parwa owacho ni abiro dhi next week (The head of my thoughts said I’d go next week). She could cycle to the facility actually. Remember the knowledge of HIV here is nearly 100 per cent. This society knows what is at stake. 

This is a community that teaches women to put men on a pedestal and still punish them for being so obedient. While growing up, I saw my mother get really physical to defend my sister and I on issues such as the need to consult (for months) on whether my sister would go to the school she was admitted to. Not that they will pay anything for her fees. It’s just that you’re women and you can’t think on your own. This is the community where widows and orphans are robbed of the little they have been left as the society watches in silence.
Hiding of ARVs is one thing but there are rumours that I have heard of acts bordering on criminality that women have to put up with.

While progress has been made on women’s rights, we need to make noise about some of the issues that happen to women in rural south Nyanza as people hold “meetings to reach amicable solutions”. We need not have a discussion about why women shouldn’t be taking their ARVs given to them by the government for free. It’s not pride it’s a public health concern.

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Thumbi Mwangi: Disease-causing pathogens talk to each other

Last year, I participated in nominating a professional for the prestigious Aspen Institute New Voices Fellowship. My candidate did not make it. Naturally, I became curious about the Kenyan that had beaten my nominee to the price. That is when and how I met veterinary epidemiologist Thumbi Mwangi. When I read his name, I rolled my eyes and thought “People should consider us Nilotes when they chose names for their children…his name takes a ceremony to pronounce! ”

Yet meeting Thumbi Mwangi was a much needed reminder of an unwritten rule for me as a journalist: That I have to allow myself to flow with what comes in and out of my days; That I have to approach every subject with an open mind; that it is in conversations that the story directs me to what is most important, the silent voices that should be amplified because they have been hushed by the sensationalism that characterise journalism in these parts of the world.

Prof Thumbi Mwangi, veterinary epidemiologist and a member of One Health Initiative. PHOTO/WSU

I emailed him with that “selfish” he-could-be-a-story attitude. Boy didn’t he live up to it. He scared me when he told me that Rabies—gotten from a dog bite… or scratch— is 100 per cent fatal once the clinical signs start manifesting. Quoi! He also drew my attention to a subject so crucial to human health, yet so underreported: Zoonoses, diseases that come to man from animals. I must also mention that it is in the course of this meeting that I learnt about Kenya’s Zoonotic Disease Unit (ZDU),very few of such in Africa or the world by the way. After two weeks, the initial interest about why he made it to the fellowship over my nominee sublimed to the background, and the publication of a detailed piece on Zoonoses in Kenya in the Daily Nation came to the fore.

It could be modesty or shyness, but whatever it is the Professor does not like to be reffered to as “Professor”. His Twitter handle has a handful followers mostly of people pooled from his field. “Social media? Oh that is a great platform for those that have the grace,” he said. He says he likes racket games, though. That should act as a saving grace in a profile that would have fit the perfect “boring scientist” narrative. However, it is incredible that such a travelled person is so rural-bred. He was born in Kieni in Nyeri County. From St Martins Boys Hostel, he went to Njiiri School for hi O-levels and found himself in the University of Nairobi (UoN) pursing bachelors in Veterinary medicine and surgery in 2000. While at UoN, he met Prof Kiama Gitahi who is the current director of UoN’s Wangari Maathai for Peace and Environmental Studies.

Picking from his description of Prof Kiama, I gathered that Thumbi considers him (Kiama) a mentor. With a tinge of poignancy, he said: “He gave us a Continuous Assessment Test, I passed and he asked me to see him”. From that meeting, many opportunities would present themselves to the young ambitious Thumbi. He worked at Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS). Then he pursued interests in small and large animals as well as ranching to as far as Botswana, before getting a scholarship from UoN to pursue a post graduate degree on genetic and animal breeding. Another scholarship would present itself from International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI). Later, he joined Royal School of Veterinary Studies at the University of Edinburgh in the United Kingdom, his interests narrowed to epidemiology. His passion earned him a post-doctoral research opportunity at Washington State University, where he teaches and holds a position as a clinical assistant professor.

As a story teller (do we even tell stories in science?), I was most intrigued by his work during his doctoral studies. The conversation began with: “We are most interested in pathogens as a harm to people and animals, but rarely do we study how these organisms interact”. There wet my “aha!” moment. My internal dialogue was like “Wait! So protozoans and all those jaw breaking names I read in Binomial nomenclature class in Biology not only cause diseases that kill, but also talk to each other?” I need to listen to that recording again to get the scientific terms right, but I heard of how a cow gets infected with some pathogen which in turn protects it from another harmful pathogen. That is like saying if your child gets malaria, do not treat it because the malaria parasite is going to protect it from some other common disease. I know, right? Then there were organisms that we should just label as hoes. I mean how could they be able to live in so many domestic and wild animals and still be able to reside in a human body so as to make us sick.

You know what journalists lack in knowledge, they make up for with an unhealthy amount of reading. So I scoured the internet, books and outdated magazines about disease patterns. Let us start with the most basic mind-blowing nugget that the literature gave me. Did you know that 60 per cent of the pathogens that cause infectious diseases in human beings come from animals (WHO)? Then there was Thumbi’s paper published at Plos One that drew a direct line from healthy animals to happier, healthier and wealthier farmers and their families. Wouldn’t it be economically sound if farmers were taught these things?

So with all that, it is understandable why Thumbi champions One health Initiative. This is a global program where many scientists and other professionals advance the idea that human, animal and ecological health are intimately linked and need to be studied and managed as a whole unit. I think I should join  it too… to design posters to announce the latest research. So, thanks to technology, I met a scientist to ask him about one thing and I got the opportunity to be pointed to so many possible stories that could be told, all from his research.

Thumbi is a visiting scientist at the Kenya Medical Research Institute (KEMRI), a visiting lecturer at Wangari Maathai Institute for Environmental Studies and Peace where he teaches and supervises graduate students. He also works closely with ZDU.

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