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.