- See also USAID article on KENERELA+
Kenya Network of Religious Leaders Living with HIV and AIDS is a national organization that mobilizes and links religious leaders living with and personally affected by HIV and AIDS for mutual support, empowerment and Capacity building to fight for the reduction of Stigma and Discrimination and to advocate for enhanced prevention and care.
ANERELA+ KENYA is directly linked with ANERELA+, the African Network of Religious Leaders Living with or Personally Affected by HIV and AIDS. ANERELA+ was formed in November 2002 by group of Christian leaders who met at Mukono in Uganda to celebrate Canon Gideon Byamugisha’s 10 years of living openly with HIV. ANERELA+ was formed with the aim of helping religious leaders in Africa who are living with or personally affected by HIV and AIDS to live openly so as to become agents of change by breaking stigma, silence, discrimination, inaction and misaction within the religious sector. The ANERELA+ founding members unanimously adopted the slogan: “HIV is bigger than the Church but it is not bigger than God”. ANERELA+ with its headquarters in South Africa is a well-coordinated organization whose mandate is to oversee and coordinate HIV and AIDS activities in the African.
ANERELA+ KENYA was officially launched in June 2005 at an HIV/AIDS International Forum to Discuss Stigma in the Religious Sector held at the Panafric Hotel in Nairobi, Kenya under the chairmanship of Canon Gideon Byamugisha. The then minister of Information and Communication Hon. Raphael Tuju and the Anglican Church of Kenya prelate, the Most Reverend Benjamin Nzimbi, among others, graced the event.
ANERELA+ KENYA has an Advisory Board in place with 11 elected members from different parts of the country. They have been mandated to oversee the implementation of ANERELA+ KENYA activities through the secretariat, which is led by the National Coordinator.
ANERELA+ KENYA values compassion and gives support without judgment with respect to others’ faith and doctrines. They also seek to serve and speak out when the rights of people living with HIV and AIDS are violated.
The Vision of ANERELA+ KENYA is to see a nation where stigma, shame, denial, discrimination, inaction and mis-action (SSDDIM) are non-existent; and where religious leaders living with or personally affected by HIV and AIDS are witnesses of hope and forces of change in their congregations and communities.
The goal of ANERELA+ KENYA is an improved environment in which those infected and/or affected by HIV and AIDS (PLHIV) are free from stigma and discrimination, have access to prevention, care, support and treatment services.
ANERELA+ KENYA REPORT
ANERELA+ Kenya has grown from its original 44 members (during its launch in 2004) to nearly one thousand and has founded 25 local support groups The network has gained national recognition and inclusion in key policymaking bodies, cultivated strong champions at both the national and community levels, and stimulated active responses to HIV in faith communities. As a result of ANERELA+ Kenya’s efforts, religious leaders in Kenya are beginning to speak out openly about their HIV status, something that was virtually unheard of just a few years ago.
2. Capacity building
3. Formation of Support Groups
4. Congregational Care Units
5. Distribution of IEC materials
6. Call Centre Services
ANERELA+ KENYA has also encouraged religious organizations and churches to come up with their own HIV policies. At a ANERELA+ KENYA advocacy workshop, several Muslim religious communities, The Presbyterian Church of East Africa and the Anglican Church of Kenya shared their HIV policies and their policy development process. Later, the Ecumenical HIV and AIDS Initiative in Africa (EHAIA) shared its HIV policy guidelines with ANERELA+ KENYA. The network has used the guidelines to help religious organizations draft HIV policies. As a result, some of the churches have seen the need and place for HIV/AIDS related policies and such include the Gospel Evangelistic Churches of Kenya and other groups are in the process of drafting similar guidelines.
ANERELA+ Kenya National Consultative and Advocacy Workshop for Religious Leaders held on 5th and 6th June, 2008
Mainstreaming of HIV in Bible Schools Education
Within the same period under review, a one sensitization workshop was held at the Great Commission Bible College on 7th of April 2009. 23 students/pastors attended the one day workshop which was on basic HIV/AIDS facts as well as stigma related issues. Among these, 2 were female and 21 male and 13 of them took up HIV testing, 1 female and 12 male. A meeting was held with the management to encourage them to mainstream HIV/AIDS education in their curriculum which the management gladly accepted. 50 copies of 15 different books were donated to the college library to start off the process, as other meetings were planned to see the realization of the mainstreaming process. This is a pilot project, which can be replicated in other Bible Institutions so that as pastors graduate they come out being all round even on this are of HIV education. Technical support is needed from Christian Aid and other like minded organization on curriculum development.
Great Commission Director giving vote of thanks after receiving books donation from KENERELA+ for the Library to assist in mainstreaming
2. CAPACITY BUILDING ON:
- Community Mobilization, Stigma & Discrimination Reduction (TOT)
- Training on Palliative care including TB
- Monitoring and Evaluation and Reporting
- Network Capacity Assessment Tool
- High level Advocacy training for the civil society organization
- Training on proposal writing
- Training on GIPA
- TOT on Non Palliative Care Workshop
- Training on Men Involvement on HIV/AIDS
- SDD Reduction Retreat
- Community Mobilization For Prevention, Care, Support, And Treatment (TOT)
- Treatment Literacy
An Overview Of The Outcomes From The Trainings:
Following the training of ANERELA+ Kenya members on community mobilization for prevention, care, support, and treatment, participants used their new skills to facilitate a weeklong training for 34 support group leaders from Thika district and Nairobi. The training was designed to help the leaders gain the skills and understanding necessary to help their communities come together to address HIV and HIV-related stigma and discrimination. In the course of the workshop, several religious leaders shared their personal experiences with HIV. Their stories moved many participants to seek VCT. At the close of the workshop, leaders shared their resolutions for future action. Their individual resolutions included promoting condom use, communicating their knowledge and skills to other pastors, welcoming PLHIV who disclose their status instead of banishing them from the church, and starting support groups in their churches.
ANERELA+ Kenya has trained 104 members of support groups on mobilization and stigma and discrimination reduction at the grassroots level. As a result of these trainings, a 170 religious leaders have sought VCT services for the first time and committed to joining campaigns against stigma. With project support, ANERELA+ KENYA also held additional trainings on advocacy; community mobilization; OVC and HIV-related policy development; community mobilization, palliative care, and tuberculosis; and stigma and discrimination reduction. Several of these trainings were training-of-trainers (TOTs), after which participants went on to train others. 168 ANERELA+ KENYA members and other religious leaders across all eight provinces have been trained on community mobilization, palliative care, tuberculosis prevention, and treatment literacy. The trainings focused on underserved districts and areas of concentrated need.
ANERELA+ KENYA members also benefited from other trainings from our partners like the national-level trainings on monitoring and evaluation, institutional capacity building, leadership and governance, advocacy, networking, greater involvement of PLHIV (GIPA), strategies for increasing male involvement in the HIV response, and proposal writing and resource mobilization.
Stimulating Congregational Responses/ Congregational Care Units
Network support groups have taken the lead in advocating for stigma and discrimination reduction and increased access to care, treatment, and support. The network has been particularly active in supporting orphans and vulnerable children. Religious leaders’ new engagement has triggered increased congregational response to HIV, including greater uptake of VCT, more support for OVC, and the formation of post-test clubs and support groups. ANERELA+ Kenya’s work has helped make VCT more accessible. Some churches and mosques are now allowing VCT services to be housed in their facilities.
ANERELA+ KENYA, however, has been able to reach some of these areas. In Lamu, for example, a local sheikh has become a powerful champion of the network. Using the training he received from ANERELA+ KENYA, he designed a pamphlet on HIV based on quotes and principles from the Koran. He has been using the document to reach out to other sheikhs and encourage them to become more engaged in the fight against HIV.
Support given to OVC
Some religious leaders taken up the challenge of taking care of OVC in their small ways ( at least 4 have re -Reported starting feeding programmes)
- Linkages have been established by some with government bodies and referrals are being made
- Psychosocial support being provided by some religious leaders during their monthly meetings
- Reports from some groups that some of the orphans who were withdrawn and dejected are now feeling a sense of belonging and opening up.
- Communities where these activities were not being provided before are getting involved which is a good indicator of sustainability of projects undertaken of supporting orphans
Emergency of new feeding programmes and increase in number of old ones has been noted. In Laikipia, Sipiri area a new programme is taking care of 240 orphans now;
A Reverend’s Change of Heart Changes His Community
The story of Reverend Paul Nderitu, one of ANERELA+ Kenya’s newest champions, illustrates the importance of KENERELA+’s work and shows how changing the heart of one religious leader can change the future prospects of an entire community.
Rev. Nderitu, founder of the Entire Restoration Miracle Center church in Laikipia district, participated in a KENERELA+ workshop HIV/AIDS and OVC Related Policy Development and Advocacy in Nairobi, July 24–27, 2008.
Before the workshop, Rev. Nderitu says, “I was a voice that really stigmatized people who are HIV-positive, because I thought that HIV was a sinner’s disease. So, whenever I preached, unconsciously, unawares, I was preaching in a way that really made people feel bad, made people who were affected or infected with HIV to feel that we don’t have love for them.”
The KENERELA+ training caused Rev. Nderitu to change his attitude dramatically. “I became a totally, a completely different person,” he says. “Because I now believed… Previously, I had not seen a pastor who was positive who was willing to say ‘this is my status.’ But when I came [there], I found bishops and pastors who said, ‘I am positive and I’ve been living positively.”
While this was not Rev. Nderitu’s first HIV training, it had a much greater impact on him than past trainings. “In this one we were really taught and trained what HIV is…And then I changed my attitude,” says Nderitu.
He emphasizes the importance of learning from his peers. “Especially because I saw my fellow reverends there…I completely changed from within. I went back and I was serious. I wanted to start HIV/AIDS and OVC interventions in my area.”
When the Reverend returned to Laikipia he founded two OVC programs, one in Sipili division and one in Marmanet. One supports 124 OVC, while the other supports 60 OVC. The programs provide home-based care, nutritional support, counseling services, life skills development, palliative care, educational care and support, and general care and support to OVC.
When he and his partners began their work, they were shocked by the overwhelming number of OVC who came forward. “We were residents,” he says,”but we never thought there were so many OVC.”
Although only recently launched, the two programs have already
- Carried out HIV awareness campaigns in market places and schools.
- Provided financial support enabling four OVC to enter secondary school.
- Held HIV and OVC mobilization meetings with bodaboda bicycle taxi operators.
- Spoken on HIV-related stigma and discrimination in pastors’ fellowship and other churches.
- Organized and facilitated one-day HIV/AIDS, OVC, and stigma reduction workshop targeting pastors and church leaders.
- Laid groundwork for facilitating HIV trainings for sex workers.
- And organized a successful stigma and discrimination reduction campaign.
The projects have mobilized resources from within the community to support their activities. Community members have contributed small amounts of money, foodstuffs, or clothing. When all else fails, Nderitu and his partners dig into their own pockets. At first, community members questioned the new initiative’s ability to succeed.
“They would ask, ‘do you have donors?” Rev. Nderitu recalls. “We tell them, ‘No, we will do it ourselves, from within. We will try to get money.’ ‘From where?’ Here.’ They could not imagine… most of them disbelieved, but now they know it is possible.”
In February 2009, Rev. Nderitu conducted seminars on HIV and OVC support in Laikipia. The pastors responded by launching their own community-based organization, the Interfaith Forum on OVC, HIV/AIDS, Peace, Reconstitution, and Social Democracy (INFOPRESD). The new group is composed of 62 pastors and church leaders from Laikipia. Four other local groups are in the process of registering through the area Social Development Agents.
On February 28, 2009, KENERELA+ partnered with Rev. Nderitu’s groups to organize a stigma and discrimination reduction campaign in Laikipia. The campaign brought together 62 church leaders and pastors from different denominations. On the day of the campaign alone, 37 residents accessed VCT, many for the first time.
Rev. Nderitu acknowledges that the new groups are facing challenges. Unreliable transport and the unstable security situation in the district make providing home-based care difficult and sometimes dangerous. At the same time, the district is experiencing drought and famine, which are threatening the OVC feeding program. With many residents needing support to feed their own families, it will be difficult to find donations. The success of the program has generated increased demand for services, but the resources have yet to catch up. Resource mobilization will be a key focus as the work moves forward. Despite these challenges, the programs are continuing to grow, and their impact is being felt.
Reaching out to the Youth in Congregations (Case Study)
Kenya Church of Christ National Annual Youth Conference
The annual youth conference for Kenya Church of Christ took place on April 23-26 2009 at the African Inland Church’s Grace Academy center in Kisii Town. One hundred and fifty youths and supporting adults attended the conference.
The following topics were covered at the conference:
- The youth and evangelism.
- “Let nobody despise your youth”.
- The youth’s role in the church’s response to the HIV/AIDS pandemic.
- How can a young man keep his ways pure.
- Youth and modern society.
- Gender, Culture and Christianity.
The facilitator, a member of ANERELA+ Kenya shared with youths through the support of ANERELA+ Kenya secretariat and the office provided too Information, Education and Communication materials. The following was the outcome of the meeting as reported by the facilitator:
My lesson was on Friday afternoon and it started with a Bible Devotional message from Matthew 5:13-16 “We are the Salt and the Light of the world”
The youths participated in an interactive session on basics of HIV (myths, facts and modes of transmission, etc). One thing came out clearly: our youths are eager to learn and get involved in HIV & AIDS activities but they lack forums where the subject is spoken in a youth-friendly and stigma free manner.
One cute remark I got was when a young man wanted to know whether a mosquito can transmit HIV. “Why can’t it yet it can bite one person and before it wipes its mouth (proboscis) it can bite a second person while still wet with blood from the first bite?
My lesson on sexual prevention strategies included:
- Risk Avoidance: by abstaining from sex before marriage, being faithful to one partner in marriage, delay of first sexual relationship, knowing ones HIV status including voluntary premarital testing.
- Risk reduction: through correct and consistent condom use and early detection of STIs. The issue of condom use sparked a heated debate. The youths wanted to know whether the subject should be discussed at church meetings. Details of the faith challenging questions are captured below.
- Empowering the youth with information and comprehensive knowledge on HIV & AIDS, empowering the girl child with negotiation skills
The safest way to prevent sexual transmission of HIV is to abstain from sexual intercourse until you are married, and then to ensure faithfulness to one another, while protecting one another, knowing one another’s HIV status.
Important Faith Challenging Questions
- Should Christians have sex outside or before marriage? The answer was a big NO.
- Are Christians having sex outside or before marriage? The youths answered with mixed reactions, with some of the youths saying those who do so are not Christians. Finally a consensus was reached that yes, erring Christians are having sex outside or before marriage.
- Should Christians use condoms when having sex outside or before marriage? A bigger number said NO.
- Does condom use fit within the Biblical perspective? The answer was NO.
- Should Christians use condoms for prevention of HIV infections? Ironically YES!
- Can Christians contract HIV when having sex outside, before or within marriage? YES.
Emphasis in conclusion:
Sex before or outside of marriage is sin – with or without condoms, protected or unprotected, whether it lead to pregnancy or not, leading to STI or not and whether people ever get to know about it or not.
Stigma and Discrimination
We looked at the pictures of stigma and discrimination at church and family set ups. The youth shared situations experienced at family and church.
When one speaker failed to show up on Saturday afternoon, I was asked to take the lesson on Gender, Culture and Christianity, with an emphasis in on crosscutting issues of HIV & AIDS.
The youths appreciated receiving the WCC publication booklets on HIV and AIDS.
- How the Immune system works
- Understanding the immune system
- Sexually Transmitted Diseases
Call Counseling Services.
Report Of Pilot Project On Mobile Phone Based Counseling Help-Line.
In line with its objective of reaching to and supporting religious leaders living with or personally affected by HIV/DS, ANERELA+ is studying the possibility of establishing a call center. As a necessary prelude to the process, a help line using a twin-sim mobile phone manned by a qualified professional counselor was initiated. This report covers the operations of the help-line fro the period from June to August 2009.
Distribution of Information About the Service
Information about the service is being distributed in several ways
- During all ANERELA+ meetings – These include seminars and workshops that bring together religious leaders
- Word of Mouth – ANERELA+ staff and the counselor are involved in disseminating the information both in formal and informal settings.
- Leaflets/Brochures – The counselor initially designed and distributed leaflets introducing the service and giving the details of the telephone lines. These were distributed to leaders in several churches in Nairobi. ANERELA+ has since printed brochures, which have been widely distributed through the fora already mentioned.
Calls to the Lines
The quarter under review saw the first call, directly related to the counseling services made; unlike earlier where calls were being made geared towards getting more information on HIV/AIDS. Four other such calls have been made and the counseling services provided accordingly. All the four clients have continued to receive support through the counseling line and other available means.
The Statitisctics are as follows:
- Of the four clients, two are male and two female religious leaders.
- All are HIV positive individuals.
- Two are from Eldoret, one from Nakuru, and one was from an unidentified location
- All received information about ANERELA+ through outreach meetings and other meetings
As it can be seen from the statistics, the response to the service has been low and thus difficult to measure its success through numbers. However, counseling is about touching individuals, one at a time. To this extent a measure of success has been achieved. One client, who has been abandoned by all his relatives including his wife, contemplated committing suicide. By divine arrangement, the counselor called before he accomplished his plan. In the counseling session that followed, he revealed his plan to the counselor and although he is still deeply pained, is willing to give life another chance.
Another client is a single mother (lay Leader) supporting thirteen children. These include her own children as well as those of her close relatives who have all died from the disease. She is herself positive and due to stress, her CD4 count has fallen to 101, despite the fact that she is on ARVs. The counselor has connected her with an organization that could educate one of her children who is in class eight and it is hoped that the child will be supported.
- The Mobile Phone Challenge: The mobile counseling unit is faced with the usual problems of mobile phone telephony. These include calls coming in when you can really answer them i.e while driving, in a noisy place, in meetings etc. Usually the calls are answered as soon as is practically possible and many have been wrong number calls or are not reachable. One can only hope that the callers of this last category one not trying ‘one more thing’ before they cause harm to themselves!
- Discomfort with phone counseling: One client was unwilling to discuss on phone, insisting that she needed a face-to-face conversation. Attempts to reach her after the initial call have proved impossible. This may indicate a possible discomfort or just inability of some individuals to accept on-phone counseling.
- Help beyond counseling: The clients are usually very needy and are hoping that the organization can assist in other ways beyond the counseling support.
- The project has religious leaders as its target group but so far, the uptake of the service has been low. More sensitization therefore needs to be done among this group. It appears that they only pass the information to their congregants but not make use of the service themselves.
- Networking: There is need to establish links with organizations in various places to which individuals can be sent for further help.
The HIV pandemic continues to ravage communities in Africa at an alarming rate. No one is spared, including members of religious communities both clergy and laity. For a group that is supposed to be conscience of the society, stigma is expected to be a major challenge and it probably has contributed the most to the uptake of this service. The noble task undertaken by ANERELA+ should therefore be sustained in order to provide an opportunity to support this important segment of the population.
Mobilization of Religious Leaders
In order to mobilize religious leaders and work on the membership drive, ANERELA+ Kenya has been carrying holding open days in all the regions in the country. The open days entail provision of onsite VCT serices and counseling services as well as referral mechanisms for those in need. We engage ANERELA+ membership in the various regions to mobilize religious leaders to a etral point, then local resource persons as well as ANERELA+ members get involved in discussing issues surrounding stigma, VCT uatake and HIV and AIDS. So far we have carried out 14 open days in various parts; Nairobi (Kibera, Huruma, North Kariobangi), Mombasa, Kibwezi, Kagundo, Nakuru, Laikipia, Eldoret, Keiyo, Nandi, Thika, Kiambu and Kisumu. We have been able to reach out to 1,537 religious leaders through the open days. Membership forms are usually distributed and we have been able to get 47 new members, and follow-up of is being done as we plan for a treat January 2010. From this group too 566 have taken up VCT and received their results. (A case study of one of the open days held in Kibera attached)
Retreats for Religious Leaders
One major retreat has been held so far; and two retreats have been planned for in the next year. The retreat brought together 38 religious leaders drawn from both the Muslim (40%) and Christian (60%) Communities.
Some of the key faith leaders during ANERELA+ Kenya retreat held in January 2009
Testimony from a Woman Clergy
Being the only child in our family and after the death of my husband, it was very hard for me to move on because my parents-in-law did not want anything to do with me for reasons well know to them. My husband died in December 2002 leaving me with three children aged 4, 6 and 8 years and nothing to live on as we had sold most of the items in our house due to his illness. I had to look up for a way to bring up the children since my father was not very supportive because my husband had married me the “come we stay” way. I went to the hospital where my husband had been admitted hoping they will consider my situation. The hospital was very supportive for the time my husband was admitted there. They even paid my late husband’s bill.
Little did I know that they were trying to pass a message to me.
I went to the interview and I passed all of them except one, the HIV test! The doctor told me my blood was dirty and they would not approve me to work in the institution. I never knew anything like this would happen to me because I had never fallen ill at any given time. With no knowledge or any information about HIV and AIDS, I went home with my head down. My mum who is very supportive was waiting with high expectation to hear the outcome of my interview for the job at the hospital. I did not know how to break the news to my mum that I was HIV positive. I slept in my room for three months waiting to die but that was not God’s plan for me. I stigmatized and isolated myself from everybody – my mum, my children and anybody who was close to me.
Stigma leads to shame. It drives you to denial. You deny the reality and help to cope for a short time waiting to die. All this time my mother was always on my side with prayers from church members and the Women groups.
Support, love and care are more powerful than medicine. I started seeking information from the nearby health centres and also spiritual counselling from the priest in my local church. Initially, nearby health centres and also spiritual counselling from the priest in my local church. Initially, the catechist was very stigmatizing but through prayers all things are possible. I disclosed my HIV status to my priest and started advocacy from church to church and moved further to involve other churches.
Challenges from the church: They were being judgmental and condemned instead of showing compassion and understanding. A good spiritual message does not prevent you from being infected. You cannot say “I am faithful and spiritual, I cannot get
HIV” Some religious leaders deliver sermons that discourage the HIV positive people. These leaders play double standards – preaching the gospel but holding on to cultural beliefs and practices.
The church should be open and address these challenges positively and clearly by identifying and addressing the areas of need without stigmatizing. It should practice and uphold the skills of listening, caring, acceptance, being empathetic, and confidentiality.
HIV and AIDS is preventable and manageable. Religious leaders should develop accurate messages to fight and reduce stigma and to share hope, offer hope, minister hope and not fear.
“IT TAKES COURAGE, NOT ONLY FAITH”. Let us offer our congregations the love, care and support with the power of Jesus Christ.
Beyond Stigma: The Story of Bishop James Okombo
Bishop James Okombo of the Free Christian Assemblies Church headquartered in Kayole, Nairobi declares that he is beyond HIV and AIDS related stigma. However, it has not always been this way.
Bishop Okombo learned about his HIV positive status in a most stigmatizing way. Having become a Christian while serving as a prison warder at Shimo la Tewa prison in Mombasa, the Bishop, then simply James Okombo, decided to study theology. He was sponsored by the Baptist Church which he was then attending to a Bible College while still working as a warder. After completing the certificate course in theology, he was posted by the Prisons Department to Kisii, where he also assisted the pastor in the local Baptist church. At about this time, he felt the urge to pursue his theological education further and took leave from his prisons job in order to pursue a diploma in theology.
Soon after completion of his diploma course, he resigned from his job as a warder and joined an African Indigenous Church in his home area of Rusinga Island where he was ordained as a pastor. Soon after this the church sent him to act as Bishop of its Busia Diocese, and he was confirmed in this position in 1992. In 1996 he was transferred to Nairobi as Bishop of its Nairobi Diocese.
All was going well for him in his ministry until late 1997, when his wife fell ill after delivering a baby boy. She was admitted to Kenyatta National Hospital for several months, and the baby died in January 1998. Doctors variously told him that his wife had typhoid, fever and pneumonia. He had no reason to suspect otherwise, although in retrospect, he realized that all along some people from the Kenya Medical Research Institute (the Government institution principally involved in HIV and AIDS related research at the time) had been visiting his wife in hospital. Unbeknown to him however, rumours began to circulate among his congregants that his wife had AIDS and the information reached the top leadership in the church.
In August 1998, the Archbishop of the church called an emergency meeting in Kisumu of all the church’s Bishops at which he declared that Bishop Okombo was an adulterer and a liar, having infected his wife with AIDS and failed to confess when he was confronted by the Archbishop. He proceeded to defrock him and remove him from his position as Bishop, and personally removed the Bishop’s collar that he had placed on him at his ordination. Bishop Okombo was shocked and mortified. He had had no reason to think he was HIV positive, having been faithful to his wife for the 13 years he had been a Christian.
What happened afterwards were a series of humiliating experiences all of which made it clear that he and his family were now outcasts from the church and from society in general. First, he was thrown out of the house the church had rented for him in a Nairobi estate, and had to put up in a small mabati house kindly offered to him by one of the members of his former church. Secondly his children were then sent away from the church Sunday School because ‘their parents had AIDS’. He and his wife could no longer attend the church. Soon after, he found that word about his HIV status had spread far and wide, and his close relatives were now advising him to go home and die there. Such was the ignorance then about HIV and AIDS.
The stigma did not stop when he left the church. His former church members informed all those around him about his status. He remembers an incident at the time where after securing a casual job in Nairobi’s Industrial Area in order to feed his family, his employer fired him after only three weeks because a colleague who was a member of his former church had informed him that Okombo had AIDS. The employer, also ignorant on how HIV was spread, had informed him in the presence of the other workers that he was being terminated because he would infect his fellow workers with AIDS.
Okombo now found himself confronted by stigma on every side. He and his wife could not even comfortably go to the market to buy groceries and had to send their children. Life had become a nightmare. Fortunately, his wife was able to get a job collecting discarded food in garbage dumps to sell to the people who kept pigs.
Things began to look up in June 1999 when Okombo learned of a HIV program that was being run by World Vision. He attended the course and acquired a lot of useful information on HIV and AIDS which he shared with his wife. Together they decided to start looking for other opportunities to get more information and training in this area. By this time also, his wife was receiving Anti Retroviral Medication from MSF (an NGO). The Mbagathi District Hospital in Nairobi was also running a programme where they were regularly giving those on treatment for HIV and AIDS maize flour and some money to buy food, and his wife was benefiting from this. The same programme was also training those involved on how to live positively with HIV and AIDS, including the benefit of self disclosure. His wife soon started talking about her HIV status openly. He was at first very uncomfortable with this at first but in time also began to do the same
In 2000 some ladies who were friends of his wife and who were living with HIV came to his house and requested him to minister to them as PLWHA seeing that he was an ordained minister and was also living with HIV. At first he resisted the idea but they were insistent. This was the birth of a fast growing house fellowship that in was 2001 to become the Free Christian Assemblies Church. Bishop Okombo explains that they decided to give this name to the church from a conviction that its members, all of whom were PLWHA had at the time, were ‘free’ Christians i.e. had nothing left that to cling to and were awaiting death. This was born out of the general perception at the time that acquiring HIV was a death sentence. This message was enhanced by billboards that showed PLWHA as emaciated people at death’s door and hence exacerbated the stigma that existed at the time
The Free Christian Assemblies Church has grown a great deal in numbers and outreach since it was founded, and today has 17 branches countrywide. It now has many members who are not living with HIV, and HIV and AIDS have since ceased to be a major point of reference or focus in the church. Bishop Okombo has also been reconciled to his former Archbishop through the mediation of an Australian friend who supports his ministry.
Having overcome such extreme stigma, Bishop Okombo is truly beyond stigma. He talks about his status openly and has featured in the print and broadcast media, speaking about his experience and advocating for the elimination of stigma. He is also involved in a variety of programmes that are aimed HIV prevention and management. He became involved with KENERELA (Kenya Network of Religious Leaders Living with or Personally Affected by HIV and AIDS in 2005) and says he has learned a lot through is programs. He for instance helped form and is current Chairman of NAPASTA (Nairobi Pastors Tackling HIV and AIDS), a support group of pastors living with or personally affected by HIV and AIDS. They organize group activities, visit one another, and also seek to sensitize other pastors on issues relating to HIV and AIDS. In doing this, they seek to spread the SAVE message, i.e. Safer Practices, Availability of Medication, Voluntary Counselling and Testing and Empowerment. This they feel is a more effective message than the traditional ABC (Abstain, Be Faithful and Use a Condom) strategy of preventing the spread of HIV and AIDS.
Bishop Okombo also has a personal ministry to church ushers, deacons, Sunday School teachers and other lay ministers, whom he feels must be sensitized and trained on HIV and AIDS if churches are to change their attitudes to wards PLWHA. He speaks from experience, as it was from this group that he and his wife encountered the most s
tigma. His wife Caroline has a ministry that seeks to help expectant women living with HIV protect their unborn children from acquiring the virus. His church also has an outreach ministry to discordant couples
In his view churches can do a number of things to help eliminate HIV and AIDS related stigma. These include
- Carefully watching their HIV and AIDS related messages so that these do not promote stigma
- Acquiring accurate information and skills on HIV and AIDS so as to help eradicate ignorance in their congregations
- Encouraging their members to get tested, for example by providing VCT services in places of worship from time to time
Quotes for the Day drawn from some of the ANERELA+ Kenya Workshops
“I have always believed that HIV is a curse from God for the sinners. I always condemned the people with HIV. I now repent for this view and will take a different standing to support without judging. I know am equally vulnerable as a faith leader and very shocked to hear the testimony of my fellow clergy! I will pass on this message to my colleagues in my Parish during our monthly meetings”.
“I thought HIV is for the prostitutes and never saw the need to go for testing. Today I must know my status since I have known that am not immune to the virus and it can get anyone, even a man of God!”
Pastor George of AIC Sipili.
This was during KENERELA+ open day in Laikipia West that saw participation of over 55 faith leaders from the region.
“I am one of those Bishops who have been telling other clergy NOT to marry the young without a HIV negative certificate. But today I leave this place a changed person and will no longer say those words again” – Bishop Franklin Omodo Were, Fellowship Churches of Christ in Kenya.
“If you deny the youth information, they will do exactly what you are asking them NOT to do as result of their curiosity” – Pastor Ayiera, Calvary Covenant Center Church.
“It is high time that people knew that HIV is real and not a myth” – a Muslim participant.
“Talk to your children and let them know that if they choose to do sex, then they should do it using a condom” – a Muslim participant.
A MUSLIM KADHI quoting the Quran insisted that it would be wrong to tell someone to do wrong to protect another.
(Information has been hidden from people)
He quoted what the Quran says about sexual intercourse – that a man is told to prepare his wife for the sex act. He also quoted that the Quran says that the woman is a man’s shamba (garden) and the man is free to do what he wills with her. He however ended by encouraging information that would encourage responsible behaviour.
“A person living with HIV can live longer than one without if taken care, loved and takes drugs and lives positively” – a Muslim leader
“It is not morally right to simply tell the youth, ‘Use a Condom’, but as religious leaders we should choose the language to use when talking to the youth. The issue of condom use is a controversial issue” – one Muslim leader said.