Unrecognized Heroes

The debilitating impact HIV/AIDS has had on Africa’s oldest generation is a story often missing from the discussion on AIDS programs and policy. Despite the numerous programs to support people living with HIV/AIDS funded by governments, international agencies and the donor community, the issues faced by this particular demographic remain unseen.

These overlooked members of society and unrecognized heroes are thousands of African grandmothers, who suffer the terrible tragedy of having to bury their own children. At the age of 50, 60, even 90, they find themselves becoming mothers again to their grandchildren, many of whom also suffer from HIV/AIDS. These women bear the enormous emotional burden of looking after their orphaned grandchildren with little money, little food and little to no outside assistance. After decades of hard farm labor to put food on the table – these women are often no longer physically capable of providing support for their families.  In addition, they face limited access to healthcare, insecurity and poorly ventilated shelters with leaking roofs.

CTC International’s health program has embarked on a journey in Kenya to empower these “unrecognized heroes” through GAPA (which stands for Grandparents against Poverty & HIV/AIDS), a project funded by Bristol Myers Squibb Foundation. GAPA’s goal is to fight poverty and HIV/AIDS through training, psycho-social support, income-generating activities and capacity building.

Teresia Wanjiku is over 60 years old. She looks after her seven orphaned grandchildren after her three children died from AIDS related illness. Their deaths and the deaths of many others like them highlight that while HIV/AIDS itself is not an automatic death sentence, the combination of HIV/AIDS and abject poverty can be lethal.

CTC partners with Kijabe Hospital through their AIDSRelief program. The program is part of a consortium funded through the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR). Without the existence of such a program, there would be no hope for people living with HIV/AIDS in our community. AIDSRelief provides AntiRetroviral Therapy to those who are HIV positive, increasing their life expectancy. While drug treatment is a necessity to give people the chance to live long lives, its effectiveness is curtailed by a poor diet. Good nutrition strengthens the body’s ability to fight diseases and reduce opportunistic infections. Malnutrition and lack of access to clean and safe water can speed up infections and lower immunity. In some cases, drugs are not enough. More needs to be done.

Teresia, however, is a living example that with the right tools and the right partnerships, there can be brighter future for her and her entire family. Due to the GAPA program, she has benefited from a shelter improvement project, psycho-social support, micro lending and intensive training on income generating activities. Through CTC’s partnership with a national cheese manufacturer that collects milk for cheese making, she now earns an income by selling milk to a ready market.  Her grandchildren have food, school fees, clothing and a roof over their heads.

Creating solutions to improve the lives of those affected by HIV/AIDS takes collaboration and dedicated support, from all sectors. It takes strong partnerships, directed funding and innovative ideas to recognize those in need and the gaps that lead to their needs not being met. Good aid must go deeper to find effective solutions to end the destructive cycle of HIV/AIDS for all generations.

About the author: Zane Wilemon, Founder/Executive Director of Comfort the Children International

Back in 2000, Zane was introduced to Maai Mahiu, where he experienced a level of poverty and desperation he had never known. Since his first visit, Zane has been returning to Kenya, listening to stories from the community, addressing problems, and promoting fundamental human rights. With the help of a lot of amazing people, CTC was born and has been creating sustainable change in Maai Mahiu for the last 11 years.