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Faith, hope and clarity

The rate of HIV infection in Kenya is one of the highest in the world, but safer sex is at last bein

Brenda Rague was 28 and about to get married when she found out that she was HIV-positive. Her fiancé tested negative, and, although shocked, Brenda knew exactly how she had been infected. A few years before, she had been working as a waitress in a hotel in the rural town of Mumias, in Kenya's Western Province. Each day a particular man would come in and leave a big tip. "He was very kind and he asked for nothing in return. So I trusted him." After six months, Brenda allowed him to take her out for a day. Six months later, she says, spreading her hands in an innocent, open gesture, "I gave myself to him. In my diary I wrote, 'I went with a man with no protection.'" But Mumias was known to have high levels of HIV. Worried, Brenda broke off the relationship.

When she discovered her status, she confronted the man from the hotel. He knew he was positive. Why had he had unprotected sex with her? "All of us will die!" was his only response. Brenda found out that he had groomed at least three other young women in a similar manner. Her fiancé is now married to someone else. Overwhelmed at the prospect of a life stricken and shortened by HIV, Brenda attempted suicide. "I thought I was good enough not to get it," she says in a small voice.

We are sitting in a cramped, bare room next to the Deliverance Church in the little village of Lumino, near Mumias. Outside, the sun beats down on the red earth road where children play, stopping to stare intently at the occasional agricultural truck lumbering past. Inside, at the regular Thursday HIV support group meeting, it is dark but calm. "We live positively," says Washington Ochieng, in his forties and the only man present. "We are healthy. We try to teach others how to live."

As the meeting breaks up, Washington, Brenda and the others mill around the church premises, along with leaders from Camp, a remarkable multi-faith organisation that consists of Catholics, Anglicans, Muslims and Pentecostals. It is a happy scene as the Deliverance pastor, Daniel Mandila, a tall, grave man, bids his guests farewell. But it is not one you would have observed a few years ago, for all sorts of dark and violent reasons.

Combat the stigma

In Mumias, nearly one in ten carries the virus, which is above the official national average. The actual average, however, may be higher than is thought. Kenya set a target of having 80 per cent of its population tested by 2010, but so far only 41 per cent of women and 25 per cent of men have done so. And the consequences of infection go far beyond the illness. Children are left to fend for themselves (there are 280,000 orphans in Western Province alone). Property they should have inherited is misappropriated by other family members. And, above all, there is stigma. It's a word you hear again and again.

“If a child tested positive," explains Hawa Omar Juma, the district superintendent of St John Ambulance in Western Province's capital, Kakamega, "the family were very uncaring. They would talk ill in front of him. 'You're a burden to us, you went away and did bad things. Now you're infected.'" Women would keep quiet if they found out they were positive. Otherwise, says Hawa, "people would say, 'She got it because of the immoralities.'" Never mind that the means of infection could have included the cultural practice of wife inheritance, whereby a brother must marry a dead sibling's widow - during which the widow may have to be "ritually cleansed" by having sex with a young man. Men have refused to wear condoms for reasons as bizarre as that they might "suffocate", or that women will then not receive nourishment from the withheld semen. Women, meanwhile, have had little power to negotiate, or even discuss, sex.

In parts of Kenya, however, this is beginning to change. I sit with Hawa, a 48-year-old mother of nine, in an office adjoining the mosque she attends in Kakamega. Next to her is the local imam, Sheikh Idris Mohammed. Hawa is discussing how most of the young people she talks to now accept that they "must do the safe sex". Suddenly she turns to the imam. "Do you do it with condoms?" she asks. Sheikh Idris looks a little embarrassed. "Yes," he answers, prompting roars of laughter from the group.

Such an exchange would not have occurred until very recently. Neither would Brenda and the others I speak to in this poverty-afflicted country - 40 per cent are unemployed and the average wage is just $400 (£245) a year - have felt able to talk openly. When Brenda told her congregation that she was HIV-positive, she says, "I expected people to say 'sinner'. But they showered me with hugs."

What has made the difference for the people I meet is a programme called Channels of Hope. Developed by Christo Greyling, an HIV-positive Dutch Reformed minister from South Africa, it aims to mobilise and sensitise faith leaders to deal with HIV education, amelioration, testing and, crucially, acceptance. Christo is a haemophiliac, so when in 1991, four years after being diagnosed, he informed his congregation in Namibia of his status, they were supportive. "They said, 'You are innocent'" - but only because they knew he had been infected by a blood transfusion. "I don't know how they would have reacted if it had been through sexual contact," he says. "It alerted me to how stigmatising the church can be."

The Christian development agency World Vision has subsequently adapted Channels of Hope for other continents. One of the biggest and most successful projects has, however, been in Kenya. By this year, 4,506 community leaders had undergone sensitising workshops lasting up to 12 days, during which they are given the tools (including a doorstopper of a manual) to help train others. The leaders are also asked to take an anonymous survey about their own sexual behaviour. The questions are startlingly frank, as are the answers. "Whoever we ask, whether it be bishops, Christians, Muslims, the results look similar," says Christo. “It makes them realise that this is not about people who are promiscuous versus 'us'. They understand they are also at risk. Once they learn about their own vulnerability, all theology flies out of the window."

Sex with wisdom

An example of this is how the Channels of Hope-trained leaders deal with extramarital sex; it is, after all, frowned upon by nearly all faiths. Do you, I ask Hawa, say that it is khalwa ("impermissible seclusion" between a man and a woman), but if you must do it, use a condom? "Yes, like that," she replies. Sheikh Idris leans in. "It says in the Quran that if you suspect something will harm you, don't do it," he says. "But if you have to, then do it with wisdom."

Some question why theology should have anything to do with development work. Why do faith-based organisations have to be involved? President George W Bush, in particular, was criticised for supposedly favouring Christian agencies, and World Vision is an example of that benefice: in 2008, it received $281m in US federal funding (as well as nearly £3m from the UK government). It is explicit about its religious mission: "Motivated by our faith in Jesus Christ, World Vision serves alongside the poor and oppressed as a demonstration of God's unconditional love for all people." But the organisation also insists that it "does not coerce nor demand that people hear any religious message or convert to Christianity before, during or after receiving assistance".

Michael French, director of advocacy for World Vision UK, admits that sometimes there might be "unavoidable witness": someone is impressed by the work a Christian is doing and wants to find out more about this faith. The fact is, however, that World Vision's 40,000 staff are there in 100 countries, and 80 per cent of its funding comes from private sources. Who will do their work if they do not? Besides, in Kenya at least, it is otiose to complain about faith intruding into a secular sphere. This is a highly religious country: some 85 per cent of the population of 39 million are Christian (25-30 per cent are Catholic), around 10 per cent are Muslim, a small percentage follow traditional beliefs and the numbers of those with no religion are tiny. Asked about the latter, one Kenyan
development worker looked perplexed: the question simply made no sense to her.

From Kenya's capital, Nairobi, to the western borders, the roadsides are dotted with churches, often no more than corrugated iron shacks but still proudly bearing slogans advertising their purpose. From Nyanza Province's capital, Kisu­mu, I spot countless such signs on the journey inland from Lake Victoria to Kakamega. There is the Jesus Healing Centre, the Christ Miracle Church, the Seventh-Day Adventists and, most simply, a board declaring: "This land is the property of Jesus."

When violence broke out after the presidential elections in 2007, the churches were not spared, but they were among the first to respond. "The rioting and skirmishes were everywhere," recalls Pastor Daniel. His family fled. While he is Luhya, the dominant tribe in the area, his wife is Kikuyu, the same as President Mwai Kibaki, whose alleged vote-rigging sparked protests that led to more than 1,000 deaths and 600,000 people being displaced.

“Five times people came to burn down my house," recalls Pastor Daniel. "Even members of my own congregation said that they couldn't guarantee our safety." Father Blaise Masumbuko, the local Catholic priest, was also threatened by a marauding gang. "They said, 'You're a Kikuyu, you're not a Kenyan. You're not even a human being.' " He managed to escape only after promising to bring them money and then jumping into a passing car.

But, says Pastor Daniel, just as "this place was the first to have problems, it was also the first to have peace". He and the other leaders of Camp went to see the district commissioner to argue for immediate action. The DC, Samuel Laboso, acknowledges how vital their role has been. "Luos, Luhyas, Kikuyus - Camp draws from all ethnic groups," he says, when we meet in his office. "Intercommunity action is very important in bringing peace." Pastor Daniel nods. "We are going to ensure, through God's grace, that we are reconciled," he adds.

Learning to live together

Camp has been able to use the Channels of Hope training because great care has been taken to adapt to the teachings and strictures of non-Protestant faiths, with special material for Muslims and a sensitivity towards Catholic teaching on condom use. Emphasis is placed on information, rather than overly firm guidance, and a distinction is made between using prophylactics for birth control and to prevent HIV. Especially so, for instance, in marriages where one partner is positive and the other negative.In front of a group of these so-called "discordant" couples, gathered in a wooden bungalow just outside Mumias, 51-year-old Joseph Sitech gives his testimony. Already married with five children when his brother died in 2001, Joseph had to "inherit" his brother's remaining wife. "It was not my wish," he says, but great pressure was put upon him, and after drinking the local brew he "found" himself with his brother's wife that night. It was only after his third child by his new wife became sick that they were tested: both wife and child were HIV-positive.

“The community stigmatised us, even in church," he says. His first wife had left him when he inherited his brother's wife; the family was fraught with despair and anger. Joseph's local priest, sensitised in the Channels of Hope programme, spent lengthy sessions counselling the first wife. "And then," says Joseph, "the love came back into the house." He and his second wife are now regulars at the group, learning how to live together as a discordant couple.

As well as "working hard on her salvation", Brenda is studying for a certificate in catering and hopes one day to be a hotel manager. Although she was knocked down by a tractor last year and must walk on crutches, Hawa continues to visit widows, orphans and others affected by HIV. As one of her assistants, Abdallah Maende, says: "It is about how to break the silence with love and compassion."

In the face of such stories and statements as these, cavils about clerics and conversions appear irrelevant. In Mumias and Kakamega, it is religious groups that are healing divisions in communities where neighbour turned upon neighbour less than two years ago, and they who are removing stigma and ignorance about HIV. It takes no faith to see that, here, they are channels of hope indeed.

Sholto Byrnes is a contributing editor of the New Statesman.

 

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Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 21 December 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas Special

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The fish-eaters and the fasters

With a population split between whites and Asian Muslims, in some ways Nelson in Lancashire feels like similar-sized towns in Ulster: two communities separated by a gulf of non-communication.

In the late afternoon of local election day this month, the chairman of Nelson Town Council was working the terraces of old cotton weavers’ houses on his patch. Sajid Ali was wearing a red rosette and a navy blue cardigan over his capacious white shalwar kameez, and what looked like his dancing shoes.

This was not the forlorn ritual of unanswered doors, blank looks and curt responses habitually experienced by Labour canvassers even in more promising political times. Along these streets Sajid is a figure of some consequence: a jolly fellow and, as one opponent put it, an “interesting character”.

Almost everyone was in; Sajid knew almost all of them; and they in turn understood what was required. Sometimes a quick burst of Lancy Punjabi did the job: “Salaam alaykum, yoong maan, how yer doing? What time yer coomin’ to vote?” To older voters his spiel would be entirely in Punjabi and the response would often be a head-wobble, that characteristic south Asian gesture, which, when given to Westerners, can be baffling, but in these cases clearly signified solid intention.

The Labour candidate in the Brierfield and Nelson West division of Lancashire County Council, Mohammed Iqbal, held his seat comfortably on the day his party lost control of the county. And he did so on a poll of 58 per cent: a far higher turnout than in any of the other, whiter areas of Pendle; the highest in Lancashire; and higher than wards with these demographics would usually expect even at a general election. The average across Lancashire on 4 May was 37 per cent. It seems reasonable to conclude that the votes from those of ­Pakistani heritage, marshalled by Sajid, were wholly responsible.

Nelson is a strange, sad, divided, forgotten old cotton town, not without beauty. The weavers’ houses are stone not brick, which, elsewhere, might make them rather chic. A few minutes from town is wonderful Pennine countryside, and to the north the view is dominated by Pendle Hill itself, brooding like some sleeping sea monster.

Pendle is both the borough council and the constituency, where the mix of urban and rural has delivered it to the winning side in seven of the eight general elections since its creation 34 years ago. (Labour took it, five years prematurely, in 1992.) No one seriously believes the 5,400 Tory majority is in play. Nonetheless, Nelson can explain a lot about British politics in 2017.

“This was a cracking town,” said John Bramwell (“John the Fish”), who has been purveying cod, haddock and non-stop banter to Nelson for 41 years, first on the market, now from one of the last white-run, independent shops in the town centre. Nelson had a football team that played fleetingly (1923-24) in the old Second Division, what is now called the Championship. And in 1929 the Lancashire League cricket team, flashing cash in a manner that baffled the national press, signed Learie Constantine, the most gifted and thrilling West Indian all-rounder of his generation.

“When he arrived, no one in Nelson had ever seen a black man close-to,” said Derek Metcalfe, the club’s historian. “People would cross the road when he passed by. But he grew into their affections. He was a highly intelligent man as well as a great player.” Constantine, after a post-cricket career in the law, Trinidadian politics and diplomacy, finished life in the House of Lords as Baron Constantine of Maraval and Nelson, Britain’s first black peer. In July 1943 the Imperial Hotel in Bloomsbury accepted his booking but not his presence, and he promptly sued. His victory at the high court the following year was an early landmark in the fight against racial discrimination.

It was the 1950s before Nelson would get used to seeing non-white faces again, when the mill owners, battling labour shortages and overseas competition, turned to Pakistan to find biddable and affordable workers. They found them in Gujrat District, which is not one of the more worldly places, even in the rural Punjab.

“The first group were young men who in many ways integrated better than they do now. There were no mosques. They went to the pubs with their workmates and knocked around with local women. Then they had to go to the airport to collect the intended wives they hadn’t met yet,” recalled Tony Greaves, the Liberal Democrat peer who is deputy leader of Pendle Borough Council.

The mills disappeared, gradually but inexorably, but the Pakistani community kept growing and has now reached its fourth generation. The young men do not normally spend time in pubs; indeed, in a town of 30,000 people, there are only two left, plus a couple on the outskirts. It is hard to imagine anywhere that size in Britain with fewer. There are, however, at least a dozen mosques. The 2011 census recorded 40 per cent of the population as Asian, but on market day in the town centre the proportion seems much higher. The most prominent retail outlets are two bazaars: the Nelson (the
old Poundstretcher) and the Suraj opposite (the old Woolworths). Few white faces are seen in either: the saris and hijabs are beautiful but of little interest. They are all imported to this textile town from south Asia.

The white people have retreated, either out of the town altogether or to the semis of Marsden, on the hill. In the visible life of Nelson, they are clearly a minority. Population change on this scale can be accommodated, if not always easily, in large cities. It is a different proposition in a small town that was once tight-knit and, despite its closeness to larger places such as Blackburn, Accrington and Burnley, largely self-contained.

Even after 60 years, hardly anything has melted in the pot. The early migrants were villagers who placed little value on education. Recent history has led Muslims all over the world to turn inwards, to their own religion and culture. This is being exacerbated by white flight and by the advent of religious free schools, a disaster for anywhere in search of cohesion. The old Nelsonians have turned away. “Nelson is not multiracial or multicultural. It is biracial and bicultural,” says Greaves. “I would love to tell you that I go round to Abbas’s house to have chicken jalfrezi and he comes to mine for steak pudding and chips,” says John the Fish. “It’s just not like that.”

Unemployment is high at 18 per cent; there is no shortage of taxis. Educational attainment is patchy. Teachers at the two high schools fear their best pupils will be creamed off further by the promised grammar-school boom.

The vicar of Nelson, Guy Jamieson, and at least some of the local imams do their utmost to make connections between the communities. In certain respects Nelson feels like similar-sized towns in Ulster: two communities separated by a gulf of non-communication. In other ways, this description is unfair. When Burnley, just four miles away, suffered riots in 2001, Nelson stayed quiet. I could sense no threat, no active tension, merely resigned indifference on both sides. “There’s a poverty of confidence,” Jamieson said. “They don’t know how to sit down and engage.”

***

A modern English town council, subordinate to Brussels, Westminster, county and district, is an improbable power base, but Sajid Ali seems to be making Nelson’s work. Its precept is only £330,000 a year but this is not capped, so it suits both district and town if Pendle offloads smaller assets: parks, play areas, community centres. It is a minimalist form of devolution, but harks back to the days when Nelson was a borough in its own right, and looks forward to an improbable future when our towns might again be allowed to take their own decisions as they do in more grown-up countries.

But the council votes on party lines, Labour’s 16 councillors trumping the Tories’ eight. “They won’t work with us,” Sajid says flatly. “They don’t run it fairly for the town itself,” says the Conservative Neil McGowan. “If we put something forward for Marsden, we are always outvoted. One council official told me they’d never come across a town like it.” In Tony Greaves’s words, “The
politics in Nelson were always sour.” In the 1930s it was known as Little Moscow.

When I first met Sajid, however, he was outside a polling station doing a stint as a teller and laughing merrily along with his blue-rosetted counterpart, Arshad Mahmood. Yet things were not quite as they seemed. Mahmood was part of a mass defection of Pakistani Lib Dems to the Conservatives which appears to have nothing to do with Brexit, extra taxes for the NHS or Maymania. What it does have to do with remains elusive even to local politicians: “clan politics” and “personal ambition” were mentioned. It may be even more complicated than that. “So you’ll be voting for Theresa May next month?” I asked Mahmood. “Oh, no, I like Jeremy Corbyn. Very good policies.”

Perhaps this helped Sajid maintain some enthusiasm for the bigger campaign ahead, though he was daunted by one fact: the general election coincides with Ramadan, and dawn-to-dusk fasting comes hard in these latitudes when it falls in summertime. Still, he was impressed by all the new members Corbyn had brought to Labour: “The way I see it is that each new member has five, ten, 15, 20 people they can sell the message to.”

This seemed a bit strange: it implied he thought politics in the rest of Britain worked as it did in these streets. He had boasted earlier that he knew everyone. “All over Nelson?” “Oh, no,” he had backtracked. “In the English community nobody knows their next-door neighbour.” Which was an exaggeration, but perhaps not much of one.

There were no posters along Sajid Ali’s streets – not one. The information about which house to choose was on the canvass return and, more significantly, in his head. Just once he got it wrong. A little white girl opened the door and then a tattooed, muscular figure in a singlet barrelled towards the door. He wasn’t aggressive, just brisk. “Naaw. I doan’t vote.” End of. It was a sudden reminder of the norms of modern British politics.

***

Another norm is that, at any local count, no one ever thinks much of the big picture. The rise and fall of prime ministers, earthquakes and landslides are no more than distant rumours, of surprisingly little interest to the principals; what matters is the here and now. Where did that ballot box come from? How big is the postal vote? Any chance of a recount? When the five seats for Pendle were counted the next day at the leisure centre in Colne, one stop further up the clanking branch line from Nelson, no one was talking about the Tory takeover at County Hall.

Here there was something for everyone: Mohammed Iqbal won, just as Sajid predicted. Azhar Ali took the other Nelson seat even more easily for Labour. Both results were greeted with more effusive male hugs than would be considered seemly in Berkshire. In Pendle Central the Tories knocked out the sitting Lib Dem, but – heroically, in their eyes – one of the Lib Dem candidates grabbed a seat in the rural division.

But the most interesting result came in the most trifling contest: a twinned by-election for two vacancies in Nelson Town Council’s lily-white ward of Marsden, so electors had two votes each. The seats were won by a Conservative married couple, the Pearson-Ashers, who got 426 and 401; the single BNP candidate had 359 votes, with one Labour candidate on 333 and the other on 190. The first of these was called Laura Blackburn; the second Ghulam Ullah. This suggests a good deal of vote-splitting that Labour might find rather unpalatable.

In fact, Marsden already has one far-right relic: Brian Parker, who sits on Pendle Borough Council, is the last survivor in the top two tiers of local government of the BNP mini-surge that took them to 55 council seats across the country by 2009. Of Parker, two opposing councillors told me: “He’s actually a very good ward councillor.”

Curiously, Ukip has made little impact in Nelson or in Pendle as a whole. So there is not much scope for the party to fulfil what appears to be its immediate destiny: as a way station for Labour’s historic core voters to catch their breath on the arduous journey into Theresa May’s arms. According to John the Fish, whose shop functions as a kind of confessional for white opinion, they may no longer need a stopover: “I’m getting plenty of people, staunch Labourites, telling me they can’t stand Corbyn.”

I asked him how many Pakistani regulars he had. He broke off from chopping hake and held up five fingers. On 8 June the fish-eaters of Marsden can be expected to rouse themselves more energetically than the Ramadan fasters across town.

***

Seedhill, the cricket ground graced by Constantine, is pretty Nelson rather than gritty Nelson, even though a chunk of it, including the old pavilion, was lopped off years ago to form an embankment carrying the M65. Upstairs in the pavilion is a wonderful picture of the great man, eyes ablaze, down on one knee for a full-blooded cover-drive. It would have made a better monument in the town centre than the 40-foot weaving shuttle that has dominated Market Street since 2011. I thought it was a torpedo; children think it’s a giant pencil.

The packed houses that watched Constantine lead Nelson to seven league titles in nine years have dwindled now: there were only a couple of dozen to watch his successors play Accrington recently. But it was a drab day with a chilly breeze and Burnley were at home to West Brom in the winter game down the road.

And generally the club thrives better than the town. Given the lack of hotels and pubs, the pavilion is much in demand for functions, and the team remains competitive. Nelson fielded four local Asians for the Accrington match, which suggests that, in one activity at least, integration is just about where it should be.

It seems unlikely that a similar situation would apply at the crown green bowls or the brass band, or any other of the long-standing recreations in Nelson (though small but growing numbers of Pakistanis are now taking allotments). The knee-jerk liberal reaction might be that this is somehow the fault of the white Nelsonians. I think this attitude is a grave oversimplification that has done much damage.

In one respect the incomers have re-created the old life of Nelson. In the hugger-mugger stone-built terraces, the neighbourliness, the power of extended families, the external patriarchy and the internal matriarchy, the vibrancy, the sense of communal struggle . . . that is exactly what this cotton town must have been like a century ago. 

This article first appeared in the 18 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Age of Lies

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