Friday, December 10, 2004

When a Muhoroni community took the dreaded HIV/Aids by the horns

(In some regions of the country, communities often consider talking about the deadly HIV/Aids scourge a taboo. However, this attitude is slowly changing as a marked campaign to give confidence to speak about the disease slowly picks up, writes WAHINYA HENRY).

For a long time, the infected and affected residents of Muhoroni shied away from engaging in any talk of the deadly Human Immuno Deficiency virus (HIV) and the Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (Aids), Both the old and the young in this region that have had their share of its painful memories of those living with the virus and the others who have long since succumbed to the malady, remained dead silent about the vice for the fear that the disease was a taboo and could return to haunt them.

But more than 10 years down the line, the attitude has slowly changed - thanks to a unique project introduced by a United States-based organization through which residents wear masks on faces to conceal their identity as they narrate the sad tales.

Now grandmothers break into song and dance wearing masks to express their sorrow in a region badly hit by HIV/Aids, courtesy of the Kiboko Projects founded in the United States . In Muhoroni, grandmothers as old as 60 years recount the loss of loved ones freely with the assistance of the masks covering their faces to conceal identity.

Their memories are laced with sadness, anger, hopelessness and high emotion.

Most speak about the loss in a manner they would never have had done.

"Through the process of making masks, they have been able to overcome timidity about a disease still considered a taboo in the region,"' notes two directors of Kiboko Projects Mark Scheflen and Jill Raufman.

Both came to Kenya on a second mission with the hope of cementing the ideals as well as link the organization with communities afflicted by the malady and a myriad of other problems.

They have been to Nakuru, Kisumu and Nairobi where they have carried out projects with communities and schools. Like last year the tour has proved that the cultural link, which the group sought to establish a few years ago, is coming of age.


"Grandmothers like most of the people we have made contact with seem to have broken their shyness over HIV/Aids. They have gained a degree of confidence as the masks gave them confidence to express themselves," observes Scheflen.

Raufman noted: "It has been quite a revelation as they grapple with the problem of raising the children left behind by loved ones," adding, "It is an experience that is going to spur plenty of interest from other communities around the world."

The Kiboko project was established with the aim of creating a new cultural bond among communities living in America , Kenya , Russia and South Africa . Scheflen had been to the country before.

He sprang up the idea to enable young people share experiences with others.

According to Scheflen, such experiences could be shared through story telling via masks, photo diaries and videos.           

He reckoned that masks, videos and photo diaries "were an ideal way to let groups and communities from these countries communicate".

This led to the first portion of the diaries project being undertaken in Kibera last year, where participants-mostly HIV/ Aids victims-recounted their experiences.

The messages were powerful and appealing. Schools, which participated in the first project, were Moi Forces Nakuru (Lanet), St Nicholas ( Nairobi ) and members of the KICOSHEP project from Kibera slums.

This year, several schools in Nyanza province were introduced to the masks project. In Nairobi , Riara Springs Academy joined the programme, in Russia , Kiboko Project collaborates with a school in St. Petersburg while in the US , several schools in Baltimore and New York are on the project.

The Kenyan experience has attracted high profiled personalities. Former world 3,000m steeplechase record holder, Wilson Boit Kipketer is among these.

They will spearhead the campaign whose main aim to address social issues like HIV/Aids, genital mutilation and drugs among the youth, and work among refugees from southern Sudan .

"We have a vision of ensuring that some of the Sudanese refugees share their experiences with the rest of the world," says Raufman.

'We want to tie them up with some of the Russians who have talked about their experiences in the Chechnya war and Americans who are returning from Iraq ," he added.

A representative of the Sudanese group in Nairobi said "this will surely give our people a forum to speak about their lives".

Through the Kiboko Project, young people drawn from various schools were entered into the National Women Aids Day Run in the city last week.

Kiboko's tour of Kenya came with a package of exhibits, the latest in the continuing series of art, educational and cultural exchange programmes.

The exhibitions included hand painted masks, photo-diaries and videos of the projects created by Kiboko Projects through organized workshops by various student groups, people with HIV/Aids, recovering drug addicts and families in New York , Baltimore , Kenya and St Petersburg , Russia .

The tour of Moi Forces Academy and schools around Kisumu was particularly captivating. Many of the young participants spoke about their hopes for the future and commented on key issues affecting their lives.