Under the African Sun Part 3

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Under the African Sun Part 3

By: Darryn Difrancesco | International Co-op Student
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Darryn Difrancesco is currently volunteering as an HIV/AIDS counselor and educator with Global Volunteer Network, located in one of many Kenyan slums, in a small community called Lenana, approximately 30 minutes, northeast of Nairobi.  In this article, the third of a series, Darryn shares her frustrations of corruption and denial.   

Boy

Boy up for sponsorship

Habari,

I'm back with another e-mail, saying even more and knowing even less.

Last Saturday we held the "real" seminar. The other girls that are volunteering with me spent the preceding week(s) planning for their trip to Tanzania, rather than for the seminar, so the end-result rested on my shoulders, since I was going to be the only one of us present on the day. (Any resentment you sense here is not imagined.)

I've planned events with both successes and miserable failures in the past, so I was a bit nervous about the outcome, especially given that the event was to take place in a brand new culture. Fortunately, it was a huge success. We had exactly fifty people attend!

More than that, everyone was thrilled to be there and the feedback I got was that so many people had had their questions answered. Several people, both men and women, came up to me afterwards, thanking me for facilitating the seminar. One woman even said to me: "You changed people. The people who are leaving here are different people than the ones who came this morning." The seminar and the smiles of satisfied individuals was incredibly moving and empowering, and for the first time since I've been here, I really felt that I had fulfilled part of my own goals and duties.

My heightened mood and optimism took a dive when I came into work on Monday. Sophia had noticed that there was one woman in particular who had not been at the seminar, but who probably should have been. Not only is she HIV positive and in total denial, but she was about ready to burst with baby the last time Sophia saw her. Hearing this, I recognized the situation could not be much more urgent. (Mother-to-Child-Transmission [MTCT] is one of the primary modes of transmission of HIV, mainly through childbirth and subsequent breastfeeding. A hospital birth in which ARVs and other drugs are used can actually reduce the likelihood of a baby's contracting HIV from its mother by up to 60%).

Seminar

The attendees of the seminar! (Africans don't smile in photos)

We went directly to the woman's home. The woman’s son, a student at Sophia's school, was out of class and working out in the yard. He let us into the home, where the woman's husband came to greet us. We sat down in the tiny home: a 10 x 6ft room holding table, a radio, and a few couches of ragged cushions that reeked of urine and mildew. Sophia and the husband conversed awhile in Kiswahili, as the man had difficulty with English. After a few minutes, Sophia turned to me and said, "She has already given birth, yesterday." My eyes must have widened because Sophia continued quietly: "In the home." I remember sucking in a deep breath and feeling a wave of sadness/pity/frustration come over me.
(Is there any real word to describe that feeling?)

The husband called the woman out into the room. She entered a few minutes later, child in hand. She passed the child to Sophia. The woman seemed weak and shaky as came in. Her face was covered with spots and boils, and as she entered, her eyes darted around the room, avoiding contact with ours. She sat down and I asked her how she was.

Mumbling a response, she began to cough, a terrible, deep cough, which rattled inside her chest. Looking at this woman, at her careful, intentional aversion to our eyes and to our conversation, I knew that she knew: she knew that she was positive; she knew she should not have had the baby at home, and she knew why we were there.

Sophia passed the baby to me, and I held the bundle of blankets in my arms, resting him on my knees, looking down at his face while he tried to suckle the air. I think my heart broke in that moment, seeing the one-day-old life of that child, knowing that because of his parents' decisions, he might not even live to 5 years.

As most of you probably know, I am extremely poor at hiding my emotions. I had no choice but to remain silent and keep my gaze on the child. As the tears welled up in my eyes I could not bear to look at the people - his parents - supposed benefactors of love and care, who had put him in the right hand of a deadly killer.

Sophia asked me if I had anything to say to them before we left. I'm fairly sure she could see all of these emotions and thoughts brewing inside of me. I mumbled quietly to her, "No, not right now," as I took a deep breath and handed the baby to his brother who had come to take him from me as we were leaving.

You might ask why I chose not to say anything. I wish it was easier to respond.  A person in denial is in denial. Nothing and no one can tell them what they do not want to hear. They may know what they are doing is wrong, but something in the brain prevents them from really "getting it".

There was no way that on that day, I, a privileged, healthy 'mzungu' (foreigner) was going to step into her house, having never even met her before (let alone discussed the topic of HIV), and tell her that she should have had her baby in the hospital, that she must get the child tested, and that she must start spending money on baby formula rather than give the child the milk from her own breasts.

Under the African Sun

It was too much, too much, too much... on so many levels. I have never really had a problem finding a way to talk to people (I'm not perfect at it, but I seem to be able to get my point across in a decent, diplomatic and caring way), but I had no solutions to this case. I still do not.

Knowing that so much damage has been done, and that I may be powerless to change the future, let alone the past of this baby boy has been weighing on my conscience. Sophia told me on the walk home that they had another baby about a year ago who died soon after birth.

That afternoon was no more encouraging. Sophia and I visited the office of a non-profit organization, which arranges child sponsorship of some of the students at her school. Some of other, non-sponsored children's parents were having difficulty paying their school fees, so Sophia was hoping that the organization might be able to supplement them.

We met with the president, "Pastor Peter", who chatted with us a while about his good deeds and his starting the organization six months prior. He was so clean (an anomaly around here) and the scent of expensive cologne drifted around us as we spoke with him. He decided to show us a DVD that the organization had put together, first pointing out the picture of the brand new Toyota SUV that he had selected as the desktop background for his brand new laptop. It was not difficult to see beneath the "Pastor" part of dear Peter. We said goodbye after a short while and went down into the parking lot, where we had the opportunity to pass by his brand-spanking-new silver SUV, sparking in the sun. Sophia told me when we left that he only sends about half of the money each month for the children's school fees (the other portion clearly going toward his acquisition of the vehicle, and God knows what else).

Ahh, but it is not all bad, sad, or making me mad. This weekend I am going on a 4-day medical camp to Naivasha, and I can only imagine what is in store...

Much love,

Darryn

Beyond the Article

Read about more International student experiences.

Find out more about the International Co-op program.

Posted on March 07, 2011