Know Your Status: HIV Testing in Kianda

A chorus of school children on a primary school’s second floor balcony called out to me as I walked along the streets of Kianda.”Mzungu! How are you!” They were all leaning up against the railing, looking sharp in their uniforms of dark blue sweaters and khakis.

“Sasa?” I called across the corrugated iron rooftops, turning the heads of a couple of nearby women washing their clothes in plastic buckets. In reply, I received a deafening, “POA!” Laughing and waving, I stepped across a ditch carrying waste down towards the river and continued along on the day’s door-to-door campaign.

This past week, CFK’s Sexual and Reproductive Health program carried out its quarterly HIV screening campaign, and I was invited to tag along to see how it’s done. I was sent off with Daniel, a trained VCT counsellor who is training to be a nutritionist, and Ali, a Youth Peer Provider (YPP) who grew up in Kibera but is currently an international relations student in Turkey. We walked out to the very edge of Kianda, where the cramped houses give way to open fields with children kicking soccer balls around. There, we began our door-to-door testing campaign. The process was pretty simple: Ali would knock at the door and say, “Hodi?”, the phrase for “May I come in” in Kiswahili. He would then start to explain who he is and what Carolina for Kibera does, before asking them if they are willing to take a 5-minute test for HIV. If they agreed (all tests are completely voluntary) Daniel would step in, donning gloves before pricking the patient’s fingertip with a tiny needle. He collected a couple of drops of blood in a capillary tube, transferred the blood onto a little plastic slide, and added some buffer to make the reaction run. Within a couple of minutes, the result would appear in a little circular display: one band for negative, two bands for positive.

As Daniel carried out the tests, Ali and I had plenty of time to chat. He is the same age as me, 21. He received a full scholarship to attend a Turkish secondary school and subsequently university. He loves his schooling in Turkey, and spoke excitedly about the places he had visited during his university years. Each summer, when he is on break from school, he comes home to Kibera and works as a Youth Peer Provider, feeling that it is his responsibility to give back to the community. He has been offered a job at the Turkish embassy in Kenya once he graduates, and while sad to be leaving Europe he looks forward to coming back to Nairobi.

Ali also told me about the changes he had seen in his years in the slum, which was absolutely fascinating to me. I recently read It Happened on the Way to War, the memoir of one of the three founders of CFK, and had been shocked by how dangerous Kibera had been in the early 00’s. Ali told me that things had been getting much better in the years since he left for school. “When I was growing up, I wouldn’t go a day without seeing someone getting attacked for stealing,” he said, referring to the “mob justice” that used to be common practice for punishing thieves. “Now things are a lot better.”

He credited the new president, Uhuru Kenyatta, and his wife for many of the positive changes the slum has seen. “This president, he actually cares about the poor,” Ali said passionately. “He has built roads into the slum and put in lights.” Ali also sung the praises of the First Lady of Kenya, who had begun a campaign called Beyond Zero to battle urban poverty in Nairobi. The program had installed small clinics in each village in Kibera, and created community police stations to help maintain security. I had seen the presence of this initiative in Kibera: one of the clinics sits next to CFK’s main office, and a community police station is visible from my front doorstep in Ayany.

About halfway through the morning, I decided to take my own HIV test. I did so partially because I wanted a woman who was nervous about the needle to feel more at ease, and partially since I felt like a hypocrite encouraging people to get tested without ever having done so myself. Within four minutes, I saw my result show up on the slide: one band. Shortly after, the woman who I was testing with received her own negative result with relief.

The campaign occurs every three months over the course of five days, in which five pairs of counsellors and YPPs knock on doors in Kianda, Gatwakera, and Soweto West. The quota for each day is 20 people tested per pair, so in total 500 people participate in VCT over the course of the week. The program isn’t perfect, though; many people are too scared of the results to get tested, despite them likely being the ones who are the most at risk. Ali also tells me that in the past, things have gotten ugly when people have received positive results: “Once a man tried to attack a female counsellor because he was angry with his result. So now we try to make sure the women don’t go out alone.”

That being said, the people we met were extremely friendly and welcoming. I used my broken Swahili to chat with them as we strolled through Kianda, which definitely helped. My Swahili is slowly improving – I bought a Swahili grammar e-book and dictionary upon my arrival, and have been spending most of my evenings dutifully studying noun classes and conjugations. However, despite my growing knowledge of the language I still find myself getting nervous and self-conscious when the time comes to speak in a public setting. Mama Mary says that I am afraid of getting things wrong, and I completely agree with her, but have decided not to let that stop me. Mistakes or not, it shows I am making an effort to get to know people, which others really appreciate.

I am truly beginning to feel at home in Kibera, and to feel comfortable with my place in the community – or lack thereof. As I walked through Kianda, I didn’t have an internal monologue raging in my head about how I wasn’t “contributing to the community” in the way I had imagined. Instead, i just took the time to learn and to take in life in Kibera. When I walk to work each day, I no longer feel uneasy about the stares directed my way; instead, I meet them with smiles and Swahili greetings. I comfortably clamour into packed matatus, introduce myself using my African name to new acquaintances, and adeptly bargain prices with cab drivers. By opening myself up, I feel like I am just now being able to see true Kibera, and even though I can’t believe it took me this long, I’m happy to finally be okay with not fitting in.

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