From the time the HIV/AIDS scourge was first reported in Kenya in 1986, health experts and members of the public have remained secretive about this disease. Kenyans had heard of the “slim” disease (named this because of weight loss, emaciation and frailness that occur before death) from a distance as AIDS was devastating neighboring Uganda. Doors in villages in the Ugandan countryside were closed, homes deserted, and children left orphaned as parents were swept away by the AIDS storm.

Kenyans continued to interact with Ugandans, especially along the common border in the western region of our country. Soon the disease was spreading like a bush fire in Kenya, claiming the lives of people both in rural and urban areas. However, even as the number of deaths grew, the factors that were contributing to the HIV/AIDS emergence in Kenya remained difficult issues for people to talk about, even while some progress has been made in reducing the rate of AIDS deaths. This disease has been shrouded in mystery, even by medical experts who ought to be helping the public to understand how HIV is transmitted as a way of preventing its spread.

Beliefs About AIDS in Kenya

In rural villages, people regard HIV/ AIDS as a taboo subject in the community. When it is spoken of, people use the word “Chira,” which is understood to be an ailment that strikes the body slowly and persistently until one is so wasted and tired-looking that no modern treatment can help. Villagers don’t admit that AIDS is real. Illness is believed to strike a man or a woman who goes against communal norms. And the consequences of these transgressions can only be treated by village “medicine men.” In some regions of western Kenya, death from AIDS is attributed to the evil hands of envious neighbors who bewitch their sons or daughters. If not, then the sons or daughters must have done something against the community’s set of norms.

Such cultural practices and myths permeate nearly all of Kenyan society and also exist in many other countries in sub-Saharan Africa. These, among other factors, are stumbling blocks in the fight against AIDS. Scientists, health officials, and workers in Kenya agree on one thing: Cultural practices contribute immensely to the spread of HIV/AIDS in Kenya. For instance, wife inheritance (a practice in which a widow becomes the property of clan members after the husband’s death) is a widespread phenomenon in some communities, and efforts to stop it become divisive national issues. Even when local HIV/AIDS counselors or health officials visit communities to educate people about this disease, their messages are not persuasive. Old habits, especially here, die hard.

The culture of denial and stigmatization among the public and victims’ relatives has also fueled the spread of this disease, whose prevalence increases every year. Even former President Daniel Moi, cabinet ministers, and key government officials continually denied the emergence of AIDS in Kenya, even as the disease was devastating the Kenyan populace.

Reporting on AIDS in Kenya

As a journalist, reporting on HIV/AIDS presented many challenges. The disease itself presents a lot of scientific issues. To cover them accurately requires medical knowledge and science writing skills, and these hurdles have been difficult for journalists here to get past. The primary role journalists can play in reporting on this situation is to bridge the gap between what scientists know and what the public needs to know. And this is only possible if the journalist understands the subject well enough to disseminate information about it.

In Kenya, very few journalists have had training in science writing, and those RELATED STORY
“AIDS in Africa: A Story That Must Be Told”
– Huntly Collins
who are science writers head for greener pastures in research institutions. And editors tend to prefer political accounts about AIDS rather than scientific ones. Such stories don’t require a lot of research work, but they are also often relegated to the inside pages. The brief training I did have through the Kaiser Family Foundation program and my attendance at the 14th International AIDS Conference in Barcelona, Spain have been valuable in improving my ability to cover this story.

Getting authentic information from medical experts is essential to us being able to do this reporting but, in most cases, accurate information has not been forthcoming. Medical experts are not willing to release the information to the media because they fear rebuttal from government authorities, who conceal facts and figures about this disease and work against the interest of the general public. Doctors often won’t release information even when the symptoms leading to a person’s death are clearly the result of HIV/AIDS. They hide behind patient-doctor confidentiality, but this should not bind them to not release information about whether patients they are treating are dying from AIDS.

Two years ago, a government-owned news agency published a story about a young woman suffering from HIV/AIDS who told members of the press about her intention to have the names of men with whom she had had sexual intercourse read at her burial. She said she’d given this list to her grandmother and instructed her to read the men’s names when she had died. She wanted to become the first AIDS victim in Kenya to go public with the names of those men with whom she’d had love affairs so they’d know the fate awaiting them. She saw her actions as a way to fight the disease.

By the time I traveled to the hospital to meet this woman and find out more information from her and ask her if she actually had authored the list, she was dead and buried. She had died quietly in her hospital bed and was hurriedly buried outside of her grandmother’s compound. Family members, and even those in the hospital where she was a patient, were tightlipped. Her grandmother denied having ever seen such a list. Nobody wanted to talk about the incident because government officials had gone there before journalists like me arrived and had given a stern warning to the family, confiscated her list, and guarded her burial.

The public never actually heard the names on her list. What the public did know about the list led to divided opinion about it and the way this woman had been treated. There were those who believed that her intended action could have deterred many people from extramarital involvements. But some felt differently.

Until 2000, when President Moi declared HIV/AIDS a national disaster, all information about the disease was treated with much secrecy, and this hindered openness in discussing issues surrounding the disease. This climate of fear on the part of medical officials and the secretive behavior of victims and their families made it difficult for journalists to report effectively and accurately on the subject. And Moi’s declaration did not change much because it was not accompanied by any full-scale political backing.

After his declaration, the AIDS epidemic continued to grow. The National AIDS Control Council (NACC), where HIV/AIDS programs and funds were managed, was moved from the Ministry of Health to the Office of the President, where the programs to attract donor funding in Kenya were housed. Appointments to this team were based on loyalty and nepotism. Professionalism and experience were secondary and, as a consequence, NACC’s performance was below par. Those appointed to the AIDS programs often succumbed to corruption, and funds meant for the control of the disease were mismanaged and misused, as if this disaster was not of national importance. Without transparency in government, corruption spread just as AIDS continued to spread.

During the Moi regime, members of the Kenyan press were similarly compromised; some of them were accused of being corrupt. Only in rare cases did journalists at mainstream publications expose any of this corruption. Not only as individuals, but also as news organizations, reporters and editors were afraid of repercussions from those who were in power. And they had reason to be fearful: Reporters lost their lives from exposing scandals about drug trafficking, and media owners were warned of dire consequences for publishing such investigative stories.

Using the Internet

Now, because of information technology, I can rely on the Internet to find current scientific and medical information from different regions in Africa and throughout the world. From this information and data, I’m able to compare and contrast what is happening in Kenya and provide an accurate context for my reporting. The information I can find using the Internet provides me with new story ideas and lets me learn about the experiences—both the successes and failures—in fighting AIDS in different regions. Having access to this kind of information sharpens my skills in reporting on this disease and improves my knowledge.

What I’ve been able to convey in my stories about AIDS has changed the perceptions many have of this disease. While in years past the public paid little attention to news about AIDS, now public interest in learning more about how this disease is increasing. This encouraging trend is due, in part, to a concerted campaign by opinion-makers, who today are more willing to speak boldly about HIV/AIDS.

However, many in Kenya still lag behind on information due to the nation’s high level of illiteracy. A majority of Kenyans live in rural areas where they cannot get the newspapers that are read by more educated people and few own transistor radios. And women rarely own or listen to radios so they often rely on information relayed from third parties.

In Kenya today, HIV/AIDS remains a controversial subject. The science involved with understanding the disease, its prevention and treatment, is also quite complicated, so what happens is that the public—and even medical experts—are often confused in terms of how to act. And because of this confusion, less attention than is needed is given to the fight against this killer.

Joseph Ngome is a reporter for BBC radio in Kisumu, Kenya. He has worked with various media organizations including The Daily Nation, The East African, and the former ruling party newspaper, the Kenya Times, where he was a bureau chief. Besides reporting for BBC from western Kenya, he also coordinates a network of journalists with interest in reporting on health and environment issues—the Health and Environment Media Network (HEMNet).

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