Team Member Volunteer Chronicles: Kenya #1


Thanks to Lisa Slater from contributing this blog post.

I could tell you about the jet lag, the food, the environment but all of that would not be true to the reason I stated on my application to the Whole Foods Market Team Member Volunteer Program to Kenya. I said then, and after today I feel even more now, that my mission is to serve; to serve not simply my team members but the greater mission of Whole Foods Market and its partners around the world.

So this blog is devoted to a single individual, Emily Jane who works at L.I.F.E. Line, the on the ground facility of Comfort the Children International, a Whole Foods Market Team Member Volunteer Program partner.

She is, among the many things she does, a community mobilization officer, who also does HIV testing and counseling both at the CTC and in surrounding communities; a human rights worker; and the coordinator of the GAPA project (Grandmothers Against Poverty and AIDS), which enlists grandmothers to take care of HIV orphans, while simultaneously providing the women with skills to support their families through a revolving, micro loan program. She is also a mother, a grandmother, a trained teacher, and the recipient of a four year scholarship to university where she intends to study pharmacy and community outreach.

Before coming on the trip, we were advised and encouraged to engage and communicate before anything else. These were wise words as we listened in Emily’s office with its turquoise blue walls decorated not only with a poster of the CTC core values, but also a poster that exhorts “Women’s rights are human rights.”

The main trucking routes east to the port of Mombasa and north into Uganda run through Maai Mahiu. It is a rapidly growing town of 40,000 and the epicenter of HIV transmission in Kenya, due to several factors: the lack of access to employment for women; a large IDP (internally displaced persons) population; and poverty forcing many women as a last resort, into the sex trade.

In Maai Mahiu poverty is overt and overwhelming. Emily frequently used the word “overwhelming” to underscore the depth and breadth of the problems the community faces from HIV transmission to teaching men how to use condoms; from teaching HIV positive people how to take their meds, eat properly, and generally maintain their health so as to avoid opportunistic diseases, to keeping young women in school. And these are just a few of the issues she discussed; there are many more that are tackled by CTC.

Despite the challenges, however, she is optimistic. Since the inception of the CTC mother-child transmission program, she believes that in the near future this is a problem that will be solved.

In fact, she believes “a problem shared, is a problem solved,” and used this to describe a tragic situation where a friend of hers failed to share her condition, and recently died. She was diagnosed with HIV AIDS, received medication, and regularly kept appointments with the community outreach workers, but refused to tell anyone in her community that she was ill. Instead, she relied on the prayers of clerics who assured her that prayer was the only way to a cure.

To emphasize the length to which this woman went to keep her infection a secret, Emily emptied two paper bags stuffed with unused bottles and boxes of medication found at her house. Her friend was so afraid of the stigma that HIV still brings that she made sure she kept her appointments, leading even the community workers to believe that she was taking her medication. By missing an appointment, it would have invited a visit to her house, thereby alerting her neighbors that something was wrong. By her death, she left an 8 year old HIV son now to be raised by relatives. By not sharing her problem, not only was it not solved, it created more problems.

On a more optimistic note, Emily described how Maasai women cannot do anything without the consent of their husbands. When Maasai women come to CTC for health counseling and return to their villages, they share with their husbands what they learned on their visits. As a result, the husbands themselves have started to call for health information: a problem is shared, is a problem solved.

Although every story Emily told moved us to tears, perhaps the most wrenching was her own: diagnosed with HIV, she was ostracized by her in-laws and her husband who tried to disinherit her of land she owned. She is where she is today, in her life and in her position at CTC, she says, thanks to the help of others. She found ways to retain the land and free herself from her husband. Through her struggle to assert her human rights, she became a free woman. This experience, she says, is why she works to help women and families in dire need.

She shared with me a recent dilemma: a mother of 5 went into labor at home. It was the weekend and Emily was supposed to be off work. But when the distraught woman called her, Emily weighed the possibility of not responding and the woman dying leaving 5 orphans that would have to be looked after, or taking a half hour to get the woman to the hospital and at least give her a chance of survival. She drove her to the hospital and saved the woman’s life. The decision was clear and immediate, in her mind.

Now a single parent with an 11 year old boy and a twenty year old girl who has a two -month old child of her own, Emily believes that she connects well with the people she serves because she understands their suffering. She shares her life story with them to make them feel less alone and to see that there is hope for a better life.

We asked how we could help. CTC has a single van that is used by the multiple arms of the organization, each of which is involved in several initiatives requiring either transport and delivery of people and things. Not only is it difficult to coordinate who gets the van and when, sometimes it means extra  long days for CTC employees. Emily frequently does off-site AIDS screening and gets dropped off in the morning only to have to wait until late in the evening for the van to pick her team up. Another van would greatly assist the organization to have a wider reach.

Another need, perhaps more easily and immediately filled is to supply funds to buy young girls basic hygiene supplies, the lack of which keeps them from school during their periods. Missing school leads to falling behind, dropping out and eventually finding work in the sex trade. Anything that can be done to keep the young girls in school is critical.

It has been, to say the least, an emotional day. It has also been an unforgettable day; a day that has changed many of us.

If you would like to help, visit CTC International online to donate or volunteer.