Thursday, March 26, 2009

Kisii, Part 1: "You can't break my heart..."

"...It's liquid. It melted when I met you." -Flight of the Conchords

After a week at the ICROSS base in Nairobi, I spent 6 days in Kisii, a largish town about 5 hours to the west. I spent the majority of my tiem in Kisii visiting HIV/AIDS patients, about fifteen in total between the ages of 3 and 60. The majority of them live in circular mud huts with a pointed straw roof, completely bare save a table, some chairs, and a mattress or two. Each patient is looked after by a volunteer community health worker (or CHW) that is trained by ICROSS. The CHW visits each patient (up to 28 per CHW), gets them meds and other available aid from the ICROSS office, and leads HIV/AIDS support groups. And they do all of this unpain, from the goodness of their heart. They are saints. So Malloy (one of the ICROSS Kisii people) and I accompanied some of the CHWs to the homes of their patients that were suffering the most. We checked up on them, monitored their medications, and gave them food and mosquito nets.

Talk about poverty. The patients we visisted were all bed-ridden and unable to work, and oftentimes their spouses (if they had not already died of AIDS or abandoned their sick husband or wife) had to stay home and assume the role of caregiver and could not work either. Where are they supposed to get money for food for themselves, for their children, and for any orphans they're looking after? Unfortunately, ICROSS doesn't have very many funds at present because of the economic crisis and because the Kenyan Ministry of Health "misplaced" (aka stole) money from the Global Fund meant to support organizations like ICROSS.

The outlook is pretty bleak, and some of the patients reflectesd that. Isaac fels to stigmatized that he'll only meet with Olpha (his CHW) in secret. Robert refuses to take ARVs (antiretrovirals, or HIV drugs) anymore because he's lost hope that they'll work. But then you meet people like Henry and Rodha, whose warmth, hsopitality, and hope are palpable. And it's not as if they have it easier than the other patients. Henry is HIV+ with cancer-related problems, and Rodha is HIV+ and also suffers from TB and diabetes. Both have extremely swollen legs and feet, the pain of which prevents them from walking very far from home. I think for many of the patients, ICROSS (particularly the CHWs) is hope realized, and that happens through medical suport, free drugs, blankets, the support groups, and lots of love.

But the patient that truly made my heart melt was Alice. Alice is 26 with 2 children and after having an HIV-related stroke, she is now mentally disabled. When I met her, she was sitting on a blanket outside, laughing, smiling, and occasionally drooling. It brougth me right back to L'Arche! Every time she saw me smiling at her, her face would light up, and she'd smile right back. But all was not well. The two older adults (her parents?) caring for her didn't understand her disability. They didn't know how to support her (they asked if she could take a pill for her drooling), and it was obvious that they saw Ali9ce's disabiltiy as something to be feared, as evidenced by Alice's younger daughter. We wanted to get a picture of Alice and her family, so Alice's sister went to go fetch Alice's children. But the youngest didn't come willing. The little girl (about 5 or 6) was screaming bloody murder and had to be dragged to stand next to Alice. She was terrified of her mother.

It was heartbreaking, but I was still so happy while I was with Alice and for a long time afterwards. It reminded me of the Ignatian idea that when you're discerning something, you should sit with each option for a while. If you receive life from it while you're thinking about it and if that joy stays with you afterwards, then that's the path you should take. So maybe the "working-with-people-with-disabilities" chapter of my life isn't over yet. Time will tell...

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