Patriarchy still hurting women with HIV in South Nyanza,Kenya

It has been a while since I published an article here on my blog or the paper that I work for. I’ve been working on a project that has so many sources from whom clarification has to be sought, so many studies to give different views to a cultural issue….I am drained of material and emotional resources. 

Be that as it may, this assignment took me back home to the rural area where I trace my paternity: Kenya’s South Nyanza, a small village called K’anyidoto in Ndhiwa Constituency. By the way I am typing from a phone so forgive some spelling mistakes you may encounter.

As a journalist, I have to always make a concious decision not to use my experiences to cloud my judgement and perception when I am discharging my duties. So right now, seated here going through the footage of what I did in the day, I can’t help but compare (at least mentally) what it meant to spend portions of my childhood here and what it is now for the women who live here. I’ve reached one conclusion:Being a woman in this community is difficult. Yes wait for it. Those patriotic Luos are about to ask me to produce a study to back up my claim. As if statistics are supposed to rubbish the experience of one woman. The irrational ones will tell me I’ve lived around the Kikuyu for too long that I compare the Luo to them. If only the prevalence of HIV, and incidence too, weren’t so high in this region! (About 25 per cent in Homabay County, Kenya Aids Indicator Survey)

Regardless of what oppositions I may face about what I am talking about, I have every right to talk about this right here, right now. Contrary to what I look like and talk (all deadlocked, tattooed and cursing sometimes) this community taught me about being a homemaker.

Even now that I came, I did not need to be reminded about where to go get the traditional vegetables, how to slaughter chicken and make a meal for a 12 people in less than an hour on a three-stone stoves. Here meals are served on a huge table, prepared without the luxuries of cooking oil or tomatoes but boy aren’t they sumptuous! There are secret recipes that you would never know unless you grew up here. The women who taught me and any other girl who grew up here may not even appreciate the complex process of the things they’re able to produce in less than an hour…Mo moleny(some edible oil made from milk cream), Chak mopuo(natural yoghurt). Nyuka abagi, (fermented porridge), mok bel arega (wheat flour that you kneel on a traditional mill and make with your hands)… If I were to list the nutritional names for them I’d publish a book.Oh and it’s interesting how the meals are categorised… The one for the breastfeeding woman…the food to give to a man that underperforms in bed…You must also remember the process of serving the food and it’s surprising that today I still let the man wash his hands before me as my culture dictates even though I believe in equality. It also shocks me that I’d keep a man company until he finished his meals, then and only then would I go wash my hands. So I am not relying on studies published in some peer reviewed journal to make my inference.

When I come here they call me Nyar K’onyango (a daughter of Onyango’s clan). And as I begin my conversations with my people, I find reason to justify the confrontational way with which most Luo women have to deal with issues. At a home in Kamenya village, a husband hid his wife’s antiretrovirals. He thought she had become too proud since she joined the Aids support group. At the group, she was told eating cassava is good for their health. She went home to try out a different menu. When the meal was served, he asked why they’re having corn meal made of cassava flour and maize, she had started responding: “ne opuonjwa e chokruok..” (we were taught at the group…) No sooner had she mentioned the group than the man landed on her with blows blaming the group for rearranging the order in his house. It was appalling to me that the husband was a high school teacher with adequate knowledge to know about what good nutrition is. That is when he hid her ARVs.

Knowing what discontinuing her medication meant, she reported to the chief. She’d tried reporting to her parents-in-law the first time this happened last year but the process of reconciliation had taken too long she’d feared for her health. At the chief, she was reminded about the need to “take things slowly” to know what language “soothes her husband’s heart”. A meeting was organised by the elders. A week later. Her husband did not show up. When it finally took place (which happened to have been the day I was here) the woman was warned against “not consulting”. She was cautioned against “taking family matters to strangers”. I listened from behind the room hiding behind the papyrus reed mat that separated the rooms because I wasn’t allowed to come to where elders talked.

Here,a woman needs to “talk nicely” and beg for such basic needs that are rightfully hers and a benefit of the people in that community. Why should a woman beg to be allowed to take drugs for diseases that are a public health concern such as Tuberculosis and HIV? I always questioned the Kenya Demographic Survey 2014 data where women said they couldn’t access healthcare because “they had not been given permission”. I asked Mourine from Ligodho why she hadn’t gone to have her ca checked since she is positive and is well aware of TB being infectious at the first few weeks. She answered: Wuon parwa owacho ni abiro dhi next week (The head of my thoughts said I’d go next week). She could cycle to the facility actually. Remember the knowledge of HIV here is nearly 100 per cent. This society knows what is at stake. 

This is a community that teaches women to put men on a pedestal and still punish them for being so obedient. While growing up, I saw my mother get really physical to defend my sister and I on issues such as the need to consult (for months) on whether my sister would go to the school she was admitted to. Not that they will pay anything for her fees. It’s just that you’re women and you can’t think on your own. This is the community where widows and orphans are robbed of the little they have been left as the society watches in silence.
Hiding of ARVs is one thing but there are rumours that I have heard of acts bordering on criminality that women have to put up with.

While progress has been made on women’s rights, we need to make noise about some of the issues that happen to women in rural south Nyanza as people hold “meetings to reach amicable solutions”. We need not have a discussion about why women shouldn’t be taking their ARVs given to them by the government for free. It’s not pride it’s a public health concern.


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