Weapons of the Spirit

| November 10, 2006

FINDING WEAPONS OF THE SPIRIT AMID DEVASTATING DISEASE: THE WORK OF THE INTERNATIONAL MEDICAL CORPS IN KENYA

During the years of my involvement with MAZON’s Grants Advisory Committee, I’ve been struck, time and again, with the work of one of our grantees, the International Medical Corps (IMC), in responding to disasters around the world. The current situation in Darfur and the aftermath of the Southeast Asia tsunami are among those disasters. MAZON’s grants to IMC have focused on reversing the effects of starvation, particularly among children, in some of the most traumatized regions of the world.

Against this backdrop of deep admiration for IMC, when I received an invitation from Rabbi Lee Bycel, IMC’s Senior Advisor of Global Strategy as well as a member of the MAZON board, to join a small group bound for Kenya in October, 2006, I was anxious to participate and to learn. The purpose of the visit was to understand more deeply the health problems facing many of Kenya’s most impoverished citizens and IMC’s responses to the problems that have so devastated the population.

HIV/AIDS, along with “opportunistic diseases”, such as tuberculosis, that prey on sick people, both conditions exacerbated by malnutrition and unsanitary living conditions, have invaded Kenya and other African countries like a plague, leaving in their wake 650,000 children who have lost parents to AIDS. At the other end of the spectrum of life, a generation of elderly people can no longer rely on their now deceased or diseased children for support in their old age, and are, instead, frequently called upon to raise their grandchildren. The disease has further impoverished large numbers of families whose former wage earners (and wages in Kenya are pitifully low) haven’t the strength to work, but must allocate meager resources to health care, frequently having to make the choice between life-sustaining medicines and food.

Yet despair is not all there is. Kenyans, with the assistance of non-governmental organizations of which IMC is a stellar example, as well as of their government’s programs and USAID (Aid to International Development), have rallied to reverse the scourge of HIV/AIDS.

Here are a few impressions from my experience in Kenya:

• The “community empowerment” model, by which IMC works, training local people to educate their peers, urging them to take preventive measures to control the spread of HIV, to be tested for the disease, to have families of infected people tested, and to conscientiously take medications, is beginning to make inroads. People increasingly are acknowledging the existence of a disease that was formerly a taboo subject, then seeking testing and treatment that can allow them to live for many years in relatively good health. Still, many thousands of infected Kenyans aren’t aware of their status and/or do not seek or receive treatment.

• Tremendous power inheres in the women’s groups that have formed to sustain HIV positive women. Women are counseling one another, commiserating, celebrating, and embarking on little commercial ventures to help support themselves. In places, groups of people are taking it upon themselves to care for AIDS orphans.

• The determination of Kenyan health care workers employed by IMC astonished me. To awaken each day to return to Kibera to do God’s work among the sick truly requires angels of mercy. We met such people. Kibera, one of the largest, most degraded slums in the world, located in Nairobi, within sight of the home of the president of Nairobi, is an astoundingly awful, stench-filled, disease-ridden place, with open sewage running down the paths between rows of squalid dirt-floor hovels. The Kenyan government provides no services for Kibera: no sanitation, no running water, no electricity, nothing. With 800,000 residents, it is considered an “illegal” settlement, and has been for years

• Sensitized as I have been by MAZON’s hunger focus, I noticed the difference adequate nutrition could make in meeting the needs of poor Kenyans who have been affected by the HIV/AIDS crisis. Two examples: 1) People who are on ARV’s (the anti-AIDS drugs), must be adequately nourished in order for the drugs to be effective. Nutritional supplements need to be provided for them. The needs for such supplements are great. 2) A school for girls has been established in Suba, a highly impacted HIV area near Lake Victoria. Many of the girls are AIDS orphans. The hot lunch they receive at school is the mainstay of their nutrition. Such meals require resources.

• Finally, I remarked to myself on the extraordinary humanity of the Kenyans I was meeting—the health care workers, the women in the women’s groups who called themselves “peer mothers”, the children. I reflected on the “weapons of the spirit” the people have found to deal with desperate circumstances. In Kenya, I saw new reflections of God”s face.

Evely Laser Shlensky, MAZON board member

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