Stigmatized          Cast out        …

Dago support group

Ruth on the right. Linda from Diakonia Compassionate Ministry on the left

Stigmatized          Cast out

        Shunned                           Misunderstood


                       Worthless        Shamed

Such are the words used to describe what it felt like to be HIV+ in 2006.  Little was known about HIV/AIDS, myths abounded and Kenya was infested with fear. People were afraid of being tested—for the stigma and shame of being HIV+ was great. People who had the “skinny disease” were cut off from families, essentially disowned. Some who were allowed to remain with families where shut up in places as dire as a chicken coop. Women became widows, and had no means of support. Some became so desperate they sold the only thing they could—their bodies—in order to put food in the mouths of their children.  And the disease became an epidemic.  Nearly a generation of people died of AIDS, leaving close to a million children orphaned.

I entered this world in 2006 to work with deaconesses and pastors of the Lutheran Church in Kenya. The church, like the country was seeing too many of her members die on a daily basis. The church, like the country was in need of education to combat the erroneous myths of this disease. The church, like the country was struggling with how to provide help and mercy to those in need.

Change began in small but courageous ways. We met in Dago, a rural area in Kenya, under a large tree for shade.  HIV+ women and men, mostly widows and widowers, gathered together to support each other. They dared to speak out about their HIV status. They reached out to others, encouraged people to get tested, and created an environment that began to tear down the walls of ignorance and prejudice. They did this at great risk to themselves and their families, but understood that in order for things to change, they must be willing to come forward. They also understood the church as a place of mercy (or they hoped it would be so) and worked within the church to bring healing to those in need—both HIV+ folks and those who were not infected.

One of the gifts of returning to Kenya year after year is reconnecting with those I love and admire. Ruth is one such woman. I met her that first year in Dago. She was one of the original members of this support group. A tall woman with a regal countenance, she commanded the group with her honesty and her courage. Ruth continues to reign with her grace and beauty, as was evidenced by a return visit to the Dago support group this trip.

In collaboration with the For One Another Foundation, we brought thirty-five water filters to this group. We were greeted with singing and dancing that erupted throughout the afternoon.  HIV+ people, with their compromised immune systems, understand the risks of disease from drinking dirty water. Cholera, typhoid, giardia, and parasites will sicken even the strongest person. For HIV+ folks, such diseases can be deadly.

When the river water was poured into the bucket and ran through the filter, the men and women were so overjoyed to see the dirty river water, brown in color, change to clear water right in front of them. In most groups, people will try a sip of the water and pass it around to others. Not in this group. Each person drank a whole glass as if they had been in the desert for days. “It’s so sweet!” one person said. Another one said, “I can’t wait until I have to take my ARVs (meds for HIV) tonight so I can drink a big glass of water.”  Smiles, hugs, and songs of gratitude ended our time together.

Ruth, now a twenty- year survivor of HIV, is doing well in body and soul. She is more beautiful than ever and retains her zeal and compassion. I pray that I might I might be instilled with her courage and mercy.


via Always Mercy

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