City by the Lake

Over the past 10 years, I probably haven’t spent more than a month in the city by the lake, and if you asked Cornel, he would say I dislike Kisumu. The heat and mosquitos don’t agree with me. But the truth is, so many of my breakthrough moments have happened there. I solicited a prostitute there for our first documentary; I’ll never forget Ann and her story. I met Pamela there- the woman on our first trip whose story almost single-handedly inspired the creation of CARE for AIDS. Three years later, she was admitted into our program. I met Norah, Cornel’s mom, near Kisumu. She continues to be a living example of the power of orphan prevention.

My heart is also heaviest in Kisumu. The stories are more graphic, tragic, and heart wrenching than most places we work. Mothers lose three or four consecutive babies without seeking medical help because they believe they have been cursed for dishonoring their family. Men marry or inherit multiple wives and you see HIV sweep through their family and children. Corrupt pastors have traded truth for lies.  Like the one who swindled one of our clients out of her life’s savings for a sugar cane investment and never repaid it. There are some dark things in Kisumu, but our staff and the churches we partner with are a marvelous light in that community.

As we take some time this month to shine a light on the amazing people and stories from Kisumu, I have to share one of my favorite home visits during my time at the Nyalenda Baptist Center.

This is David. David was recruited into the CARE for AIDS program with a CD4 count of 4. A healthy level would be 800+. This means he had no ability to fight off possible infections. He weighed about 70 lbs. His life was over, but Monica and Elias (counselors at the center) didn’t accept that. They came to his rescue. His recovery was slow, but he began to gain weight and increase his CD4 count. He also heard about a savior named Jesus, and he trusted Him for the first time. With this new life came a new countenance. He couldn’t stop smiling. The love he had for Monica and the love he had for Jesus was so radiant. He still couldn’t walk all the way to church on graduation day, but he insisted that Geofrey come and pick him up on his motorbike, which he happily did.

If you wonder about the urgency of our work, think about David. He was as close as a man can come to death, but through God’s power and the work of our team, his life and eternity were redeemed.

Friends in Kisumu, your work is not unnoticed or forgotten. You face incredible trials and unspeakable hardships, but the impact you are making is unbelievable. We remember you in our prayers often. I can’t wait to be with you next month. May God continue to bless you and encourage you as you do this amazing work.

Dispatch From Kisumu

July 15, 2016

Kisumu is different from Nairobi. There are less people, less traffic, and less rush, and more time for community. It’s on Lake Victoria, so there is a slower, more relaxed way of life as is typical of waterfront communities - and there is a lot more fish in the diet. The culture of the area is influenced by the major tribes, Luo and Luya, and even in the city things feel more traditional and conservative than the more modern and westernized Nairobi can sometimes feel.

CARE for AIDS has been in Kisumu since 2011. We started out in the city under the leadership of Cornel, who grew up in the region around the lake. Eleven centers later, the leadership of the region has been passed on to Geoffrey Otieno. 

I sat down with Geoffrey over a cup of coffee yesterday morning to hear from him how things are going in Kisumu. 

Geoffrey, let’s start with you before we talk about the region. When did you start working with CARE for AIDS, and how did you hear about it?

In 2008 I was working at Brackenhurst, near Nairobi, and met Cornel. He told me about CARE for AIDS.

I started working or CARE for AIDS in 2010. I was holding a certificate in HIV/AIDS. Initially, I was working to help Cornel looking for church partnerships when CFA was first planning to start working in Kisumu. He was taking the lead, but I knew a lot about Kisumu and had connections, so I was helping a lot.

Aren’t you related to Cornel?

Yes. I’m his brother in law. We call each other brother-in-love (laughter).

So, you started working with Cornel to make church partnerships in Kisumu, you had some training in HIV/AIDS, and some program management experience.  What has changed since then?

A lot has changed. Personally, I am finishing my undergraduate in sociology and communication and this is a a result of working with CARE for AIDS. Also, my leadership ability has grown tremendously. With Cornel, I helped start three centers in 2010. Since 2011, I have been at the helm, and today we have 11 centers, with 22 center staff, and 5 administrative members (including myself). We also have an internship program that was formed in relationship with three universities in the area.

What’s your relationship like with Cornel since he is your boss and also your … bother—in-love?

(Laughter) I see him a lot as my mentor. I hardly see him as my relative. Neither do I see him as a boss. Obviously, I acknowledge his leadership - especially, his firmness in communication that has helped reinforce the vision of CARE for AIDS to the partner churches and all the new staff. But his leadership style is one the encourage friendship and is really empowering. He equips others to lead.

That’s awesome. I’ve experience that with him, too. So, Kisumu is now one of three regions in Kenya that CARE for AIDS works in. What makes Kisumu different from the other CFA regions (Nairobi and Mombasa)?

 I can talk of two things. First, statistics. Kisumu has high prevalence rates for HIV. Nationally, as a county, we are the 4th with per capita HIV cases.

Secondly, it is easier to move around Kisumu in comparison to the other regions which have a lot of traffic. This makes it easier for me to create a sense of community amongst the staff and the partner pastors.

One other thing, is that we have many organizations in Kisumu working with people living with HIV, that helps fight stigma, so a lot of people come out to be enrolled in the program.

How is CFA different from those other organizations?

We are the only organization that is holistic in nature. We deal with the health aspect and the spiritual aspect. The fact that we work with churches sets us apart. Every time we get together as a staff or with our clients, it’s like a fellowship. That definitely sets us apart.

What have been some challenges for you this year?

Well, we started out in Kisumu with a lot of baptist churches. Since we have one denomination that dominates, they were beginning to think CFA was a Baptist program. We have been changing the policies, helping them be more open to working with other denominations.

Did I mention managing staff? Because we have grown so much, we have a lot more staff to manage. It’s a good challenge to have.

The other good challenge is that I have nine churches on a waiting list who have come as a team or as a pastor to meet me, and who really want to join us in the ministry. This shows that we still have work to do here, and plenty of people who are willing to join us in it. Some of these churches have started HIV programs inspired by us.

What is something you are proud of for CFA in Kisumu this year?

One thing that I’m proud of is how we as an organization always think about our program, and how it can be better. One of the issues is sustainability. After nine months, what is next? It was early this year that Irene was promoted to admin level to be the regional empowerment assistant to follow up with small groups after graduation. Her role helps with sustainability, and gives me hope that we will continue to have impact and be able to measure it after the nine months.

What do you see in the near future for the Kisumu region?

I am excited to say that we will be seeing more collaboration with the local government in the future. They have been hesitant in the past to work with us, but recently government representatives have been attending graduations and launches. Also, four of our staff were invited to attend trainings and conferences hosted by the county government. So, we have started to gain reputation on that level.

That’s awesome. Keep up the good work! Anything else you want to share with the people reading this?

I want to appreciate the support we have had for the last 6 years - it’s felt like 2 years because everything has gone so quickly! We were the second region, and we opened many centers. We are still optimistic the our impact will grow in this region.

Please, continue to pray for us as we continue to pray for you as well.

One Body, Many Parts

July 11, 2016

"Some people think that because I’m serving those with HIV, maybe I’m positive too. I tell them, whether I am or I am not positive, It’s my responsibility to serve all God’s children."

On my most recent trip to Kenya this June, I was fortunate enough to meet several of the pastors that CARE for AIDS gets to work with. One story that stood out to me was that of Zachary Kariuki, the pastor at Redeemed Gospel Church in Waithaka, a slum area just west of Nairobi.

Pastor Kariuki said that when he first became the pastor at his church, it was only Kikuyu tribe members, the largest tribal group in Kenya. He started preaching the message in Romans 10:12- that there was no distinction between tribes, we are no longer Jew or Gentile, but we all serve the God of the Bible, we are one tribe. He also started telling his church members that they needed to be an active part in solving the community’s biggest problems, and that AIDS was the biggest problem that he saw in their area. Over the next year, the weekly attendance at his church went from 150 people to just a handful. Zachary said that it was a testing time for his faith, but that he was sure that God was calling him and the church to love and serve all people, not just people who were easy to serve.

Over the past 6 years, Pastor Kariuki’s message has begun to resonate with the people in Waithaka. CFA has been a big part of their reaching out to the HIV community. Zachary goes on home visits with our center staff to make sure that he is personally serving and encouraging the people in the community. He comes to some of CARE for AIDS’ empowerment seminars and even joined our June Impact Trip team in preparing and eating dinner at one of our client’s homes. His church now has over 250 members who are excited about the vision of CARE for AIDS and including the HIV community. They know that as a global church we are one body with many different parts. 

Floor Lamps

July 7, 2016

When my husband is out of town I like to redecorate our house. In the four years we have been married he has come to expect this- any time he is out of town for work or grad school it's a pretty sure bet that he will come home to a rearranged living room. This month- he was out of town for two weeks and when he came home I had changed up the curtains in the guest bedroom and moved most of the furniture in our kitchen to another room. At the end of my rearranging frenzy, there was one floor lamp that no longer had a place, so I put it in the middle of our bedroom floor. At first I thought this would remind me to donate it or put it in the basement for storage, but as the days passed I got really good at working around the lamp and eventually ignoring its presence.

I spent two weeks with this lamp laying in the middle of the bedroom floor, walking around it to do laundry, jumping over it to get to the closet- and the longer I procrastinated getting rid of it, the more it became part of the scenery and the less it bothered me.

Of course, when my husband got home he immediately tripped over the lamp. When asked why there was a lamp in the middle of the floor, I mumbled that I just hadn’t had time to deal with it. Two minutes later he had put the lamp in the basement and the problem was solved.

Lamps are not the only objects I allow myself to get used to. There are plenty of work habits, life habits, and relationship habits that I procrastinate in dealing with, and in my procrastination they become a permanent part of my internal scenery. It often takes an outside perspective to help me problem solve.

People in our work community, faith community, and family are primed to help point out these “internal floor lamps”, and we should each take the time to invite others into our processes (at work, at home, in our marriages), so that we can help each other grow and problem solve as a community.