Kenya: Men’s group fights stigma through farming (by Sawa Pius, for Farm Radio Weekly in Kenya)

| November 28, 2011

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In 2007, Robert Amakobe went public and declared that he was HIV positive. He formed the Elwesero Men’s Support Group with other men who were public about their HIV status. It was a difficult time.  Some of the men’s own relatives turned against them. The reaction from the wider community was worse. Other men threatened them and wrote abusive letters. But the group continued despite the challenges.

Theirs was probably the first men’s HIV support group in Kenya. It has become an important force in diffusing the stigma around HIV and AIDS in their community. It benefits individual members as they work together to improve their health and livelihoods. And the group even raises funds to support others affected by HIV and AIDS.

Mr. Amakobe explains why he started the Elwesero Men’s Support Group: “The increased number of deaths was alarming and people did not want to relate it to HIV. They always believed in witchcraft. That’s why I went public and started bringing other men on board.”

There are now thirty members in the group. They range in age from unmarried youths, to older men of 70 and 80 years. They all live with HIV or AIDS.

The group started growing vegetables, including indigenous varieties that have nutrients to boost immunity. The group eats some of the vegetables and sells some in the nearby markets and communities.

When the group started selling vegetables, there was big resistance from the communities. Mr. Amakobe says, “People refused to buy the vegetables from us thinking they would contract HIV andAIDS. But we took the vegetables to the market and members would buy them. When some people saw this, they slowly started buying the vegetables as well.”

This has helped the group receive positive reaction from the communities. Now many people order vegetables from the group. The income pays rent for a small office. The group uses the office to offer counselling to other members and to discuss their own activities. Men who come for counselling feel free to share their problems because they find only men in the room.

Profits from the vegetables are also used to help group members who are bed ridden and to support 23 children who are orphans, or in vulnerable situations due to HIV and AIDS. The men’s group pays the children’s school fees and covers other necessities.

In addition to farming, the group supplies seeds and trains farmers on how to plant crops, and which vegetables to eat in order to boost immunity. Mr. Amakobe says with proper diet, one can live long before starting on anti-retroviral treatments. The group believes that treatment is not only about drugs, but also food, exercise, and living happily.

The group has brought more men on board by speaking in public. Some group members were trained by an organization called Society for Women and AIDS in Kenya. The training focused on getting HIV positive men to come out openly, accept their status, disclose it to their families, and then go public. Once they go public, they need to know how to deal with stigma from their families and communities. This has seen Mr. Amakobe and his colleagues move in different forums, including funerals, where they ask for time to announce their status and describe how they are coping.

The group still has some challenges. The members have a greenhouse but no water. The stream to fetch water is very far which makes it difficult for the men to carry the water for the vegetables. Sometimes hospitals don’t have enough drugs, so they have to buy them for members.  Another challenge Mr. Amakobe cites is high expectations from the community, because everyone knows them and their work. He says, “When a person gets bed ridden, but [is] not a member [of our group], they will call us saying your patient is here, come and pick him.” This shows how much the group has accomplished in a few short years. They have succeeded in changing attitudes and improving lives.