Under the African Sun Part 1

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Under the African Sun Part 1

By: Darryn DiFrancesco | International Co-op Student
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Darryn DiFrancesco, Communication student from SFU is volunteered in Lenana, Kenya as an HIV/AIDS counselor and educator for the Global Volunteer Network. In this article, the first in a series, Darryn discusses her first impressions of volunteering in Africa.

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Sophia Barongo, my supervisor

Jambo everyone!

Well, it's been just over 3 weeks since I've arrived in Kenya, and I've had the opportunity to do some traveling around East Africa before starting my volunteer placement. I drove through the plains of the Maasai Mara and saw just about every animal under the African sun, I walked the streets of the old coastal city Mombasa, and swam the turquoise seas of the Indian Ocean off the coast of Tanzania's serene and picturesque tropical island, Zanzibar.

And now I am back to reality.

I arrived back in Nairobi on Saturday June 30th, and began my volunteer placement as an HIV/AIDS counselor and educator with Global Volunteer Network on Sunday. I had initially requested to be placed in a rural setting, but the organization felt that there was a real need in the urban slums surrounding the city. Thus, I was placed in a one of many Kenyan slums, a small community called Lenana, which is about 30 minutes, north east of Nairobi.

Before arriving to the slum, I had anticipated the traditional "slum"image - streets of dirt and garbage, tiny shacks with dirt floors and tin roofs, and a flood of children and dangerous-looking individuals.

Kevins Umbrella Group

Beach of Zanzibar

I found all of this to be somewhat true - except I felt almost no sense of danger. Instead, people eagerly walked up to me and shook my hand, welcoming me to the community and thanking me for coming. It was a pleasant surprise.

I am living in a fairly nice apartment with a host mum, a woman named Margaret who runs a children's centre and who is a pastor at one of the (many) local churches - almost everyone in Kenya is Christian. She is a friendly, lively woman who loves chatting with the volunteers, which is a good thing, considering that there are 4 of us in the home.

That is me, Carmella from the US, "M" from the US, and Jessica from Australia. We share a room with 2 bunk beds. We are extremely lucky - we have electricity, hot water for the shower as well as a flushing toilet - things rarely found in slums, let alone in the majority of Kenya.

Our apartment is a 2-minute walk from my work placement, Tumaini HIV/AIDS Care Program (tumaini meaning 'hope' in Swahili), which is situated in a local school, both of which are run by a fantastic, inspired, and incredibly humble Kenyan woman named Sophia. The school has about 365 students aged from 3-14, most of which are needy children - orphans, children affected by HIV/AIDS as well as those suffering from poverty and hunger. Many of them cannot afford to pay their yearly tuition, which is only about $265, and includes 2 meals, snacks as well as all of their supplies.

Despite this incredible need, the children are truly beacons of light.They are so sweet - many of them ran up to me the first time I entered the school, touching me, shaking my hand, and waving hello or calling out, "How are you, how are you!?". My first day there, I literally found myself surrounding in a flock of tiny black children and babies, each pushing his or her way to the front of me for the chance to shake my and or touch my arm hair (they have a strange fascination with it, since they have almost no hair on their bodies). We spent some time walking into each of the classes, where we were greeted with a song and dance from each group of students. They are incredibly well-behaved and attentive, and they are so eager to learn.

Under the African Sun

At the Tumaini HIV/AIDS Centre (I'll call it "the centre" from now on), there are about 12 women who are regular members. They come to the centre for counseling, peer support, encouragement, education, as well as health advice. The volunteers who were here prior to my arrival actually implemented a jewelry-making business for the members. They had recognized that one of the most common problems for the women was paying for the rent, food, and for their children's tuition, especially since 50% of them have had their spouse die of AIDS, and because many others have been abandoned by their husbands, who decided to leave when they learned of the women's HIV positive status. The jewelry-making business has been successful so far and has given many of the women hope for caring for themselves and their families.

Hearing the women's stories was heartbreaking. Husbands who were unfaithful infected many of them, and a few of them even have HIV positive children. The first thing they asked when I came was to help them find a way to tell their children that they have HIV.  Many of them lack knowledge about the disease, and find themselves stigmatized, and feeling negative energy from the community, who condemns them as "prostitutes" because they have HIV. We really hope to shed light on the disease and to reduce the stigma in the community.

Jessica and I have been working to develop a plan for a monthly "seminar" event as an information/Q&A session. We hope to attract community members - and in particular - the men - who seem to be a neglected group in most of the HIV/AIDS education and support work that is carried out here. We have recognized the crucial role of men as spreaders of the disease in African culture - a quote from Stephen Lewis echoes in my mind: "For many women, the most dangerous place is in the home". It is a scary reality and one that we can only hope to change sometime in the far, far future.

For now, however, the best we can do is provide a little encouragement and information for the people in the community who seek to understand and cope with the disease. The information is so important, but one thing that I've found has come up time and time again in Lenana is the importance of love - of these children, of infected individuals and of people in general. Lenana may not have much, but I can say without a doubt that this community has more love in it than I could ever imagine.

On that sentimental note, I'll sign off...

With love, of course.

Darryn

Beyond the Article

Posted on March 07, 2011