Fresh challenges in Kenya HIV battle

June 25, 2010 12:00 am

, NAIROBI, Kenya, Jun 25 – Jimmy is 40 years old and has been married for four years. He has three children.

To the outside world his is the average Kenyan family. But he has a secret that threatens the very core of his family’s existence.

He is gay. 

“I love my wife but I have sexual relations with men.  I have had three boyfriends since I got married but my wife doesn’t know anything about that.  I currently have a boyfriend with whom I’m in a serious relationship.  We meet in his house, hotels or any other place away from prying eyes,” he says.
Jimmy tells me that he has always had a liking for men as opposed to women.  I ask why he got married.  Did he do it to please his family or perhaps hide his sexual orientation?

“I did it because I love this woman.  I have known her since childhood.  We lived in the same neighbourhood, schooled together and yeah… I love her although at times I have sex with men,” he repeats softly.

At that point I feel as if he is fighting an emotional battle within himself – maybe out of a sense of guilt and I can tell it is not easy for him.

 “It is hard to live as a bisexual. It is hard to live two lives at the same time. Sometimes you love a man and then you love a woman and you cannot love them equally,” says Jimmy as he looks at the gray sky with a fixed gaze.

Jimmy seems only too aware of the impact his lifelong secret would have on his family. But my immediate concern is on the risk surrounding HIV/AIDS contraction.  Just how does he ensure that the health of his partners is not jeopardised?

“Although I don’t use protection with my wife I do it with other men.  Safe sex is the only way for staying safe in this game because I know how easy it is for a gay person to get infected by sexually transmitted infections,” he says.

Jimmy goes on to add that he has also had sexual relationships with other married men which he says is emotionally easier.

“People are different; some are purely gay and some are bisexual. With bisexuals you share almost the same thing because he also has a woman beside him and you have one beside you so you feel more comfortable than you would feel with a person who is totally gay,” he says.

After this revelation, more questions about our country’s fight against HIV/AIDS come up. Is it time for us to repackage the HIV awareness message and include homosexual persons as well? Are we fighting a losing battle by ignoring gay persons in our HIV messages?

That is a question whose answer I leave to official health workers.

Meanwhile there is 23 year old Rodney. He is a college student who is also gay. In high school he had 40 relationships with men; some were sexual others were not.

“I used to write down each of their names and I still have the diary with me up to now. I have met others outside high school – not less than 10.  You see, the government assumes that we are a minority but we are very many and we belong to that majority,” he says cheekily.

Rodney who also doubles as a VCT Counsellor tells me that he always uses protection as he knows too well of the risks involved.

For him protection is not the question. His main worry, he says, is that the country ignores health concerns of homosexual persons. He says Kenyans have become like the proverbial ostrich, choosing to bury their heads in the sand at the face of danger.

“Sensitisation is required; from the chief to the DO. Because gays are there and will always be there no matter what maybe even in your family. It’s just that he or she is doing it in secret like the way in my family of eight siblings only my younger sister knows. You just never know,” he quips.

But it is after meeting Erica that I start looking at things from a different perspective.
She is a lesbian who has a girlfriend and goes out with a married woman.  She (Erica) is 32 years old.

By now, I am not exactly sure who is safe and who is not and Rodney’s ‘you just never know’ keeps going through my mind.

“When my married partner comes to see me she tells her husband that she has gone on an official trip and maybe when she is doing this her husband also has his ‘mpango wa kando’ (sexual fling). Then when they get back together they engage in sexual relations. We are all at risk; it is a vicious interconnected cycle,” she says.

Erica alleges that Kenyans assume sexual minority groups don’t transmit HIV.

“We are very vulnerable. For us lesbians we don’t even have any form of protection and people still think we can’t get affected and are at low risk and that’s not true. We need to be involved in the battle against HIV,” she says.

Just when I begin to think I’ve heard it all, I meet John who is a gay commercial sex worker.

He tells me that he is 26 years old but he looks much older than that.  Perhaps because life has been a bit harsh for him or maybe because of the skin lightening creams he uses.

But that’s a story for another day. My concern at the moment is on the link between HIV and homosexual relations.

“A client will come to you and tell you ‘if I have sex with you without using any protection, I will give you Sh10,000 but if we use protection, I will give you Sh1,000’. Now if you were me, would you look at your health first or would you look at the size of the wallet?” he retorts.

Although for me the answer to that question is obvious, John says the poverty levels in his home are so bad that buying a condom is a luxury.

“Sometimes I can’t even afford to buy that protection even if I wanted; so I am forced to use a nylon bag because I have to make a living. I have to make sure that at the end of the day, there’s food on my table, a roof over my head and clothes on my body,” he says.

I ask him if he is afraid of contracting HIV and he admits he does.

But there’s a ‘but’. The discrimination gay men face in hospitals is enough to keep them away.

“Maybe you have gonorrhoea and instead of the doctors treating you, they start calling each other saying ‘come and see a gay person’.  Sometimes they even call the press so at the end of the day when we get sick, we get traditional herbs or just stay home and wait to get better or die,” he says.

A report conducted in 2008 dubbed Modes of Transmission Survey showed that 15 percent of all new HIV infections are transmitted by men who have sex with men.  Sixty percent of these men are in heterosexual relationships.

In a May interview with Capital News, University of Nairobi researcher Preston Izulla said Kenya had largely ignored the link between gay persons and HIV transmission.

“We cannot talk about HIV prevention in Kenya without considering homosexuals and other marginalised groups like sex workers and fishing communities who contribute to the overall pandemic. We need to address the issue of HIV and MSMs as a health concern and provide proper control actions,” he said at the time.

After my encounters, I agree with him.

We might not accept homosexuals in the society but they need to be targeted in our HIV awareness campaigns. Otherwise our battle with HIV and AIDS almost becomes a failing effort.

(Names have been changed to protect the identity of interviewees).


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