Daniel Kraemer (pictured above) has just spent five months at AJAN House in Nairobi as part of his program as a Jesuit novice. He shares his experience.
I came to Kenya with a limited understanding of the AIDS pandemic in sub-Saharan Africa. I shared in what I think is a common misconception, outside of Africa and AIDS-ridden areas of the world; that the great improvements in the medical field require less need for engagement in the struggle against AIDS. I thought that after 30 years, AIDS was now better controlled in Africa and that treatments were more easily accessible for those infected. I assumed educational information and safe practices were available to all. I was not aware that being open about having HIV could still be surrounded by so much stigma and marginalization. And I have come to realize with new clarity the extreme difficulty of achieving solutions for an AIDS-free world after decades of corruption, poverty and tribal conflict.
I have been living in Kangemi, Nairobi, for the past five months. Stationed at the coordination office of the African Jesuit AIDS Network (AJAN), I have been undergoing what is called the Long Experiment, as part of my two-year Novitiate program with the Jesuits. This ‘experiment’ allows for immersion into a new environment. It is an introduction to the life of ministry a Jesuit will be available for and missioned to. As well, it is an opportunity to discover ways in which to address social injustice and inequality in our world.
At AJAN, I learned that there has been a lot of progress in the struggle against AIDS. It has been consoling to learn of so many organizations and institutions throughout sub-Saharan Africa that respond daily to the needs of those affected by the pandemic, those who suffer and are disenfranchised. However, there is still a long way to go before communities have what they need to be rid of AIDS. While here, I’ve seen an unsettling trend of people outside affected countries, uninterested to support; a global community disconnected and compartmentalized. I hope and pray that this changes.
Here in Kangemi and in another larger slum called Kibera, I have learned a great deal about some of the issues surrounding HIV and AIDS. Especially surprising is the strength of the stigma that still exists. With stigma it remains difficult for some to find work, to be accepted by a community, or even to want to go out during the day. Another big challenge is education: primary school education is no longer free in Kenya, as it was until recently, and the challenge to pay school fees is often too great, especially for single mothers.
I have been touched deeply by a particular group of women living in Kibera; all of whom live with either HIV or AIDS. This group was discovered by a small Christian organisation called Mirror of Hope (MoH) that is now supporting them to improve their quality of life. Income-generating activities and meetings, monthly support-group gatherings and frequent home visits are a few things that are currently happening to ensure the sustainability of better living.
I have been lucky to assist MoH with their work. It is the incredible resilience each one of these women displays that strikes me most. Especially the single mothers who care for five or more children by selling fruit on a small roadside stand in the heart of the slum. Some have lost their husbands to AIDS, their children, their siblings, their parents. Each day they wake up to the uncertainty of not getting enough money to support their families. During the rainy season, their single-room dwellings usually take in water at night and the dirt pathways used to get around in Kibera are sometimes impassable.
Even a single variable of the many unpleasantries these women face each day would be more than enough to send many people I know into utter despair. Yet each time I meet this group, they greet me with a smile and a handshake and welcome me into their homes as if I were family. They laugh together, sing and dance together, support each other and persevere. They find new and creative ways to generate income and support their families. But deeper than that, they carry something that is often lost in the more affluent places I’m used to: hope and gratitude in its truest form.
It has been important to acknowledge that most of what I am doing here is the ministry of presence. I have had far more to receive and learn than what I have given or taught. Those things I will hold onto all my life. I have been witness to people that not only know how to live positively with AIDS in extremely difficult conditions, but with positivity for life. And to them I say thank you, thank you, thank you.