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Kenya: Keeping track of the reality of AIDS

30 September 2013 – The Church affirms the humanity of people with HIV by offering them care and support and, above all, a place where they do not feel judged. This is what Florence Anam believes; Florence is a young Kenyan woman who is HIV-positive and who has worked with several national AIDS organizations.

Florence shared her views during an event held on 6 September, at the Catholic University of Eastern Africa in Nairobi, to launch a book published by Paulines Publications Africa and AJAN, AIDS: 30 Years Down the Line – Faith-based Reflections about the Epidemic in Africa.

“The first place we turn to is the Church,” Florence told guests at the launch. “The Church has been more than just a source of spiritual nourishment for people living with HIV, it has been a source of care, of support groups, a place where we can go and not be judged or stigmatized. It is a place where everything is real, because we are all human, and this is the most important thing.”

Florence, who is currently the advocacy officer of the National Empowerment Network of PLHIV (NEPHAK), welcomed the book because it documents many examples of what the Church is doing in the struggle against AIDS – “we don’t often hear about this”. And remember: “If it’s not documented, it never happened!”

Explaining what she liked about the book, Florence singled out its consistent focus on the individual. “The writers have used real life experiences to amplify the fact that beyond medical and epidemiological interventions, AIDS is about people. Any programming intervention needs to focus on people and the environments in which they live. People living with HIV should at the centre of the entire approach to AIDS.”

Florence said she was “elated” by the launch of the book because information was critically important for people living with HIV, especially those newly diagnosed. Information about AIDS has not always been so easily available, she said, recalling the time she was diagnosed, eight years ago, and had unsuccessfully sought reassuring data.

The keynote speaker at the book launch, Prof. Mary Getui, who is chairperson of the National AIDS Control Council in Kenya, said the passage of time had brought much more openness in the way the pandemic is tackled.

But time has also encouraged another less positive trend: “Time has given us mileage, and we need to be appreciative of this, but it has also made us complacent,” said Prof. Getui.

“We are at a stage where we are taking things for granted. Attention has shifted. We know but there are many things we don’t know about AIDS. This is tricky because if we become complacent we could miss very strong realities.”

Fr Agbonkhianmeghe E. Orobator SJ, one of the co-editors of the book and Provincial of the Jesuit Eastern Africa Province, also sounded a note of caution about the danger of complacency: “Thirty years later, AIDS remains a dangerous crisis. Perhaps we talk less about it now but AIDS is still with us. And we are all either infected or affected.”

Fr Orobator said that while the book being launched showed there had been progress in the struggle against AIDS, this should not lull us into a false sense of security and “send us to sleep”.

All the speakers at the launch were clear in their conviction that AIDS still poses enormous challenges, among them persistent stigma and discrimination and the dependency on diminishing external donor funds. “Eighty-five per cent of Kenya’s funds are from elsewhere – when the taps are closed, what is going to happen?” asked Prof. Getui.

One of her foremost recommendations was “thinking critical and inventive thinking”. This is arguably the forte of the AJAN book. Fr Paterne Mombe SJ, the Director of AJAN and one of the co-editors, described the book as a “rich and stimulating conversation”, which reveals the multi-faceted response necessary to deal with the challenges posed by AIDS.

“The contributors show us that taking a linear approach to AIDS – focusing on one aspect alone – will never be successful. Addressing AIDS is not only about sex, just as it is not only about providing medicines. We need an approach that is holistic and wide-ranging,” said Fr Paterne.

“This ‘conversation’ shows how far we have gone but also how far we have yet to go. It is but a step on the way in a long process to defeat AIDS, to have no more new HIV infections and to bring ‘life to the full’ – the vision of AJAN – to people infected and affected.”

Go here to read more about AIDS: 30 Years Down the Line – Faith-based Reflections about the Epidemic in Africa. To order, write to Paulines Publications at distribution@paulinesafrica.org

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