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KENYA: PROMOTING HAPPY COUPLES

These days, one of the buzzwords of AIDS programmes in Africa is “mainstreaming” – addressing the causes and effects of AIDS in all areas of development work and, for the Church, in its pastoral, educational and other ministries. In a creative initiative that reflects this trend, parish programme Uzima is hoping to strengthen couple relationships in Kangemi, a very poor settlement of Nairobi. Uzima, an AIDS care and prevention programme, is part of the Jesuit parish of St Joseph the Worker. Read more from Br Alain Ragueneau, Uzima counsellor:

“Human relations are the loss of all illusion,” wrote a philosopher. Living together under the same roof has always been a challenge, and with the rapid evolution of our societies, this challenge has taken on new forms. On the one hand, the ideal of life as a couple is upheld, and on the other, there have never been so many couples splitting up. I am convinced that with some support, many couples will be able to live a better and more joyful life together.

Here are some reflections from our neighbourhood of Kangemi, where I’ve lived for the past 11 years:

Mary married when she already had a daughter; she had become pregnant while still at school – the fate of more than 10,000 girls a year in Kenya. As often happens in such cases, relations between the daughter and stepfather were strained. This was a source of tension for the couple that eventually split up.

Rita is HIV-positive. When she learned this, she left the health centre with one idea in her mind: since she was condemned to die soon, let it be immediately with her two children. Rita led her children to the fast lane and started to walk slowly across, without looking at the trucks and cars, but all three arrived safe and sound on the other side. When her husband asked her why she had gone to the health centre, Rita didn’t reply. She never talked to him about her HIV test and, when she started to take antiretroviral drugs, she put them on the table without saying anything. It was only two years later, when her husband fell ill, that Rita proposed they go together for an HIV test. Both were positive and they could finally talk about it. Many live together but sharing is limited.

Bob is a young married man who lives in town. It was when he and his wife were expecting their first child that Bob learned, to his amazement, that his wife had tested HIV-positive. He then discovered that she had already had a child. People may think they know one another but what do they know of the other’s past, family, workplace or home?

Twenty-five-year-old Rose says: “I’d like to marry but I’m scared; even if I find a very good man, after some years, he’ll start looking at other women and I’m afraid of getting HIV.”

To live together happily, there are 1000 compromises that need to be made, 1000 questions to answer. Traditional cultures have sought some of the answers, be they related to children’s education, work, relatives, sexual life or inevitable conflicts to be resolved. For many things, people don’t need to find their own way, it’s enough to follow tradition and, when problems arise, there’s always a sister or an uncle to confide in or the advice of the council of elders to resort to. However, we shouldn’t hark back to an entirely blissful past; we know well enough that women have all too often been treated like minors subject to the dictates of men.

In this century, half the inhabitants of Africa will live in towns, far from their extended family, in a multi-religious and multi-cultural society. The number of children will drop, being a single mother will become an accepted option, mixed couples, with spouses from different ethnic groups, will become more common and, for many educated young women, a career will be nearly as important as the family.

The concept of life as a couple is evolving. But right now I have the impression that girls don’t want to live a marriage like that of their mother while boys don’t feel that distant from their father: girls and boys don’t have the same dreams. After working hard with women to give them a more equal place in society, now men and women need to work together for fairer relationships between them. Uzima hopes to be able to start offering couples weekends of sharing and formation, support groups for five to six couples each, and formation for couples that will accompany the others.

The great prophets we need in our modern world are happy and open couples, ready to share their experiences with those who are younger and to show through their life that it is possible to love one another in a deep, lasting and joyful way.

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