Editor's note: This is the first in a series of articles on CLOUT Cares and its work with HIV/AIDS victims in Kenya.

In "The Blue Sweater" Jacqueline Novogratz writes, “…generosity is far easier than justice, and…it is far easier to veer only toward the charitable, to have low – or no – expectations for low income people. This does nothing but reaffirm prejudices on all sides.” 

Prologue

I am writing this short series with the hope that what we have done so far will show you that anybody can do something, even you. If we can, so can you. You don’t need special training; we certainly had none. You don’t need lots of money; we started with $100 we were willing to share. You do need a willingness to take a chance and see where that chance leads you. I’ve learned that whatever you can or can’t do, you are better off having tried, and the people you try to help are better off too (even in failure) - if you give them the chance and the dignity to determine their own fate. Also, I’ve learned that the stigma of AIDS in an African community is strong, but it can be overcome.

I. Preparing for the Race

This year, a Kenyan named Emmanuel Mutai broke the men’s record for the New York Marathon, but he finished second in the race, bested by another Kenyan, Geoffrey Mutai. Mary Keitany, also from Kenya, finished the women’s race in third place, being overtaken near the end by two Ethiopians after her very fast start. The race was not only for the fastest; everybody got a prize, even those who finished last. At the moment this race was taking place, women at home in Kenya, and others around the world, were in a different kind of race - a race against HIV/AIDS and its consequences to them and their families. To the winners, life is the prize. To the others, there is no prize.

My wife, Sandy, and I were introduced to the race against AIDS in Africa early in 2006. Before then we knew what many Americans knew and did what many Americans did. We had seen the pleas for help on TV – emaciated African children, flies, distended bellies, sad eyes, and so on. We had sent the occasional check and even sponsored a boy in Benin through PLAN/Childreach for his four years in high school. But we were never really involved or invested. That changed in January, 2006.

Let’s step back a few months to the end of the school year at Yale in the summer of 2005. We were planning our first trip to Africa to go on a safari and to visit the boy we had sponsored in Benin and with whom we had corresponded by mail (through an interpreter) for the last four years. Friends who knew of our plans asked if we’d like to meet a woman from Kenya, Constance Ambasa Shisanya, while she was in the U.S. Of course we would.

Connie had just finished a year of post-doctoral study at Yale, just a few miles down I-95 from our home. She was about to return home to set up a project in Kasavai, Kenya to help widows whose husbands had died of AIDS. We thought, “AIDS is a big problem throughout Africa, so this could be interesting.” After a nice dinner and a few cocktails, we were headed to Kenya in January, 2006 rather than to Benin.

We arranged a two-week guided photo safari and gave ourselves a week or so after that to visit Nairobi and vicinity, with a day or two set aside to visit Connie and see what she was doing. The safari was great and worth every minute and every penny but the days that followed changed our lives and put us in the HIV/AIDS race, at least as coaches.

Before I go further, I need to say a bit about myself, my wife, and about Connie and her husband Chris Shisanya. 

Sandy and I have two grown children and five grandchildren. I retired from Bristol-Myers Squibb in early 2005 after 34 years as a research scientist, ending my career in the department dealing with drug labeling issues, some of them AIDS drugs. 

Sandy taught music and music education in Iowa, Kansas, and Indiana until we moved to Connecticut in 1990. She then “retired” and took up painting. She has become an accomplished, award winning oil painter who paints a lot and would like to sell even more (like many). Her paintings can be seen on her website www.KenslerArt.com. Proceeds from her Africa series of paintings and prints go to help HIV/AIDS widows and orphans of Kasavai, Kenya.

Connie and Chris both have doctoratal degrees and live in Nairobi. 

They were born and grew up near each other in small villages in Western Province near Lake Victoria, some 250 miles or 8-10 hours by road from Nairobi. They have three children. Connie started the HIV/AIDS program in Kasavai, Kenya in late 2005, and both Connie and Chris serve as volunteers for CLOUT and CLOUT Cares (separate organizations). 

In 2005, Connie was a lecturer in the Divinity School at Kenyatta University in Nairobi and Chris was in the Department of Geography, also at Kenyatta. Today, Connie is a researcher for Family Health International (specializing in AIDS) and Chris is Dean of Humanities and Social Sciences at Kenyatta. Their fathers were educators and politicians in their working years. Connie and Chris are both from the Luhya tribe/ethnic group, the second largest of more than 50 tribes in Kenya. Although they live in Nairobi, the Shisanyas have strong and deep roots in their home villages in Western Province.

That’s where the village of Kasavai comes into the picture. You won’t find it on a map, but it’s just about half-way between Kisumu, Kenya’s third largest city (on Lake Victoria), and the much smaller city of Kakamega about 40 miles to the north. Kasavai is in the center of a geographically defined catchment area of about 15,000 people, primarily subsistence farmers. Chris’s father has lived in the Kasavai area for his entire life with his wife (recently deceased) and family. Chris has younger siblings, and by custom as the eldest son, he was given land near the homestead on which to build a home when he grew up. Thus, Chris, Connie, and their three children live in Nairobi but have their “home” in Kasavai. They travel to Kasavai every month or so and are active in village life. Connie’s native village is a long hour’s walk away from Kasavai, and her roots have now spread to the village of Kasavai.

When we met with Connie and Chris in Nairobi after our safari in 2006, we rented a Land Rover because that’s what Sandy and I thought we had to do to see the countryside. Connie and Chris turned out to be our companions and guides for a full week. On our first day, we drove south to Namanga on the Tanzania border, passing zebras, ostriches, camels, and other exotic wildlife right along the side of the road. I didn’t know camels lived in Africa other than in the Sahara and zoos. 

On the outskirts of Namanga, we visited a Maasai encampment to hear about and see a start-up bee keeping and aloe growing project funded and overseen by CLOUT. At that time, CLOUT was already a well established non-governmental organization (NGO) operating in Kenya with the mission of helping (primarily) women become self-sufficient through the use of sustainable technologies – hence, the bee keeping and aloe growing projects. CLOUT stands for Centre for Livelihood Opportunities Unlimited and Technologies. Our CLOUT Cares work with the widows and orphans of Kasavai grew out of a CLOUT project initiated by Connie. More about that later.

The Maasai women of Namanga along with local officials and guests from as far away as Lake Baringo, well north in the Great Rift Valley, were there to meet with us, the Wazungu (British, Europeans, or generally, white people; singular, Mzungu). We were treated like dignitaries – little did they know how wet we were behind the ears.

And this is where we first learned that Kenyan meetings go on forever – this one five hours. Twenty, I counted them, twenty prepared speeches in the equatorial heat in the local language(s) plus my impromptu remarks in English and a tour of the aloe plants and beehives left us exhausted. At the end of the day we thanked the ladies and bought a bunch of beaded body ornaments and a beaded belt that I still wear. And, I bought an o-rinka (club) from one of the Maasai men just in case I needed it to fend off lions or hyenas at a later time.

The next day we piled into the Land Rover and took the 10-hour, 250-mile trip from our hotel in the northern suburbs of Nairobi to Kakamega. There is no way to adequately describe the condition of the roads. I can only give an example or two: at many points, nobody drove on the road and nobody drove on the shoulder either. The pavement and the shoulder were in such poor condition that all traffic drove on rutted makeshift paths outside of them. One such path carried traffic in each direction, with cars and trucks plodding along in the choking dust around and through potholes the size of Kansas, oh, maybe only Rhode Island. Under the presidency of Mwai Kibaki, and with the help of the Chinese, most roads have improved markedly since 2006. Nonetheless, just this year, 2011, I saw an 18-wheel truck stuck with its drive wheels in one pot hole, its rear trailer wheels in another, and the trailer bottomed out on the “pavement” between them – at the main intersection in the city of Kakamega!

The scenery between Nairobi and Western Province is stunning. Just after heading north from Nairobi we turned west and down into the Great Rift Valley. The Valley is so big that whole mountain ranges are in it. It extends nearly 4000 miles from Syria to Mozambique. Navigating the eastern escarpment down into the Valley never ceases to frighten. The road is narrow and winding, and run-down, beat-up trucks are innumerable. Besides that, thanks to Kenya’s British colonial past, they all drive on the wrong side of the road. To make things worse, many of the never ending line of trucks come from Uganda and are configured with the steering wheel and driver on the left like in the U.S. I rented our Land Rover for the week but Chris would not let me drive for this part of the journey... I can only characterize this decision with one word: smart.

Our many hours in the Valley were punctuated with broken down trucks, women carrying firewood on their heads, men with huge sacks of charcoal or stacks of Coca-Cola cases on their bicycles, cows and burros wading in streams near the road, women getting drinking water and doing laundry in the streams with the cows, and roadside markets and “hotels” selling everything from rope, cloth, and hardware to food. 

Local snacks can be obtained from any hotel along the road. Hotels in Kenya are not necessarily a place to stay but are more often small dark, dank, smoky tar-papered, tin-roofed shacks with a few chairs, benches, or tables inside. They sell chai tea, chapati, samosas, and small vegetable and meat dishes cooked over charcoal fires for lunch for local workers or for passers-by. A cup of tea with sugar and milk and a snack or light lunch might cost the equivalent of 50 cents or, if you’re a local, less.

As we drove, the western rim of this portion of the Valley approached us gradually. We encountered miles of rolling hills where tea fields stretched to the horizon. These green patchwork quilts of the tea plantation blanketed the ground, dotted with rows of small red- or green-roofed white stucco houses in which tenant workers and their families live. These workers pick tea and groom the plantations by hand. Loose leaf tea is sold in small bags at plantation “outlets”, truck and bus stops, gas stations, and by men standing along the road. Vegetables are sold elsewhere along the road, almost always by women.

The Valley’s western escarpment on our route was less pronounced than the eastern escarpment where we had entered. But the road was not without its perils. It was rough enough outside Kisumu to vibrate the lock off our rented Land Rover’s tailgate. We tied the car together with rope and then skirted the shore of Lake Victoria in downtown Kisumu before we headed due north to Kakamega, then to Kasavai and the widows.

After a comfortable night at the Golf Hotel in Kakamega, we were ready to hop into the Land Rover and drive the 15 or so miles south to Kasavai to meet the widows in the morning. But first we had to learn to tell time, the Kenyan way. Connie and Chris were to drive from their home in Kasavai with Connie’s brother, Boaz, and meet us at 9:00 am at our hotel so we could do a little shopping in Kakamega for a few things to give to the widows. The 9 o’clock hour came and went, then 10 o’clock did the same. We had no way to contact Connie and Chris, so we just waited, impatiently. At 10:45 or so they pulled up serenely and greeted us as if they were right on time. We had (and still have) lots to learn.

Off to the local wholesalers we went to get the “few things” for the widows. Boaz had his pick-up truck to help. Sandy and I had about a hundred bucks we were prepared to spend. We bought two 90 kg sacks of maize, laundry soap, matches, sugar, cooking oil, and other items needed for daily life by the widows. Our $100 was quickly exhausted and the Shisanyas picked up the rest of the tab – thanks! Everything went into the Land Rover or into the bed of Boaz’s truck. And we were off to the village – almost.

First we needed to get gas in the pick-up. It turns out that nobody keeps gas in the tank of their vehicle. They buy only enough to make the trip at hand. We have not figured out exactly why but it may be that excess gas in the tank is something that could get stolen or that it’s better to have cash in your pocket than invested in gas sitting in a tank and not going anywhere. Whatever the case, the practice seems to be universal - put only enough gas in the tank to fulfill the immediate need. The top ¾ of gas tanks goes unused and the needles on gas gauges seldom go above “E”. So, we put 5 liters of gas in the truck at about 80 Kenyan shillings (just over a buck) per liter, and we were off to the village – really. Well, except for the short stop to get 5 cases of soda and sweet biscuits for the many children, grandchildren, god children, nieces, nephews, etc. under the widows’ care.

Our “early morning” meeting with the widows and children started at 1:00 pm. And what a start it was. We were greeted by a procession of 30 widows (the Watafutaji or seekers), almost all in their uniforms, white dresses with green polka dots. Praises to God, ululations, singing like we had never heard, and the sounds of drums and other indigenous instruments surrounded us as we were escorted into the local Quaker church for the introduction to our six-year (so far) odyssey and the widows’ race to regain dignity.

More to come in the next installment of A Race to Dignity.

Terry Kensler is the president and a founder of CLOUT Cares, Inc., a philanthropic organization based in the US and dedicated to assisting AIDS widows and orphans in Kasavai, Kenya regain dignity and self-sufficiency through HIV/AIDS management and treatment, education, and small business enterprise. His wife, Sandy, is the secretary of CLOUT Cares and also one of its founders.