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.