I trace my paternity to Homa Bay, the county with the highest HIV prevalence in Kenya as at 2014 according to data from National Aids Control Council (Nacc). You can check the full report with the statistics for the other 46 counties here for 2015. Expectedly,not much has changed. My work as a journalist has made me relate to Luo Nyanza much more than a daughter of that land. In 2014, my boss and a team of journalists worked on a pull out marking 30 years on AIDS that you can read the 12 pages of the report here. Homa Bay is part of the former Luo Nyanza—Siaya, Migori and Kisumu- which contributes to more than half of the total number of HIV positive people in Kenya.These are boring, albeit heart-breaking, statistics.
However, there is a group that has remained ignored in the conversation on AIDS in Nyanza: the orphans left behind by the virus. Nacc’s 2015 report states that there were 661,119 AIDS orphans. That is a third (31 per cent) of the total 2.1 million orphans in Kenya.Since the aforementioned four counties also lead in prevalence (all people with Aids over the years) as well as incidence (new infections every year), and the deaths it is safe to assume that they may bear the greatest number of AIDS orphans in Kenya.Even global bodies such as UNICEF have conducted studies on the vulnerability that these children face and called for a little more effort in securing their wellbeing and the numbers are rising globally.
Let me put a face to those statistics for you as I tell you about three beautiful children in Rongo, a small town in Migori County. One day my auntie, who is a teacher in a primary school there, packed so much food I asked her whether there was party she was going to. She said she was taking the food to some three young children who never ate and it was exams time. They needed the food to concentrate. On a Saturday, when resting at home and telling stories, these children came home to her to pick flour. I did not need a degree in psychology to notice just how beat up, tired and drained these children—12,6 and 5— were. When I heard their stories, my heart broke. Their parents died in Nairobi in 2014, after which they were brought home to their grandmother. Their granny was too weak and poor to care for them. For that reason, the first born boy has had to grow up so quickly to look after his sisters. My auntie told me that teachers took part in feeding them, but the help was never consistent. Nobody knew what they ate in their home over the weekends, whether they were warm and it never seemed to bother anyone because there are so many of such kinds of stories in Nyanza.
I heard of, and know, these youth who dropped out of school to work as house helps where they were taken advantage of and violated so cruelly even by relatives.Others became pickpockets and sometimes faced the wrath of the public as they stole to survive.I applaud the efforts that have gone into HIV management in Nyanza. Organisation such as Family Aids Care and Education (Faces) headed by my friend Dr Patrick Oyaro have gone out of their way to make the lives of Aids patients bearable. They have provided Antiretroviral therapy, treated and counselled them.However, once the patient dies, the circle ends. This is where the community should step in. It is really annoying that people have watched as these children become pawns in the villages, robbed of their innocence especially when they have no one to stand for them.
Not once, but many times, we have witnessed NGOs and “well-wishers” use these orphans to attract donor funding as these kids live in squalor in homes that even pigs would not be comfortable in. Underfunded and ill equipped children’s departments in counties have not been able to protect them. The only crime they have committed is being born to impoverished communities and losing the only cover that would have kept them safe.
Taking care of Aids orphans is not only an act of compassion or a God given duty for us, but also a public health strategy. These are the children who get sexually active in their early teens, get infected and infect their peers as well, and we all gasp when the statistics for teenage HIV infections are high? Kisumu, Siaya, Homa Bay and Migori have hit the media umbrage for the outrageous things they do with their monies. In the auditor general’s report released in April this year, three of these counties were listed among the 11 that exceeded the Sh124,800 monthly sitting allowance for members of county assemblies(MCAs). Migori(Sh164,729), Homa Bay(Sh148,200), Kisumu(Sh144,089) outdid themselves! Yet, you would be surprised how many families that have survived on as little as Sh3,000 a month.That is enough to feed a child and just ensure that at least they have a roof over their head, and a safe place where they can play and just be children. We spoil our children, work so hard to give them more than they need. Why do we think the other children whose only crime was to be orphaned have needs different from ours? If you can, give them phones as you do your children, but a hungry child just needs some food served to them in love, a warm place where they can sleep. They would be eternally grateful for a shirt to cover their backs they would not care whether it was new or not. They would feel loved too if you asked them how school was and remembered their birthdays. All that which you feel your child needs, is what these orphans desire as well.
Whenever I raise these concerns, Kenyans especially those charged with the duty to take care of these kids drop escapist statements like “Let us fix the system”, “we need a multi-pronged approach for this, money alone will not solve it”. I appreciate the truth in these statements, but should the children wait until the system in Kenya get fixed so that they can get food in their bellies, go to school or be safe from abuse? As we fix the system, shouldn’t we at least keep them healthy physically and emotionally until then? County governments in these four counties need to step up and take care of its future by protecting children who have become casualties in a world adults have created.