After a long walk, crowded taxi ride, overstuffed matatu trek, and boda-boda bicycle ride up the mountainside we reached our final destination in the remote village of Gotayaru. After speaking with the women who greeted us, we quickly discovered that the 3-hour trek that we had just completed with the help of various modes of transportation was the same journey that these women walked each month to reach the nearest center to receive anti-retroviral (ARV) medications. They begin their walk the day prior and continue throughout the night in order to arrive for their appointment at Kendu Bay in the morning. We instantly gained much respect and a new-found understanding of the dedication of the patients we encountered each morning at the AIDS clinic.
The Stepping Stone group is a dynamic group of young and old women, as well as a few men, in the very impoverished rural area of Gotayaru. They are all HIV positive and open to the community about their status. The group began 3 years ago, as some in the community noted many people getting sick without an explanation for the cause. Because of their remote location, many died before people began to realize that HIV was the cause of the devastation in this area. The group began to meet to discuss how they could educate others about this virus, as well as break the stigma that they were experiencing in the community.
The group innovatively uses local dances on the beaches in order to attract an audience for their talks. Once people gather around the dancing, they speak out about transmission, prevention, and their experience with treatment of the virus through ARV therapy. Through their openness and outreach efforts, they are helping to break the stigma of being HIV-positive. The group has expanded in size to over 35 and continues to grow as others witness the improvement in their health once starting ARVs.
The main issue facing this group is the destitute poverty that is keeping them from receiving adequate nutrition. Although the ARVs they receive are free, many are still growing weak and ill due to lack of food to support them through the treatment. The difficult climate of the area only allows for one harvest and recent droughts have not allowed them to rely on their crops for sustinence. Their response has been to collectively distribute food amongst the group by each member bringing a portion of their crops to the host of each meeting. This helps to provide those who are too sick or weak to work and harvest with some staples for the upcoming months.
In order to provide income for those who cannot sustain the manual labor of farming due to HIV, the group weaves baskets made from a local plant called lando. Each basket can be weaved in 30 minutes, allowing each person to make up to 20 baskets a day. The baskets are then sold to local farmers for harvest at around 50 KSh (~70 cents) in the local markets. Money is shared cooperatively to provide funds and food for those most ill, however the funds raised are grossly inadequate for the well-being of the entire group.
It was incredible for us to see such a progressive effort in such a remote, rural area. The basic efforts of outreach, collective support for the administration of ARVs, and income generating activities are making a great impact on their community. Unfortunately, they continue to fight an uphill battle to provide for their basic needs in the face of poverty.