By Christine Ennulat, with reporting by Joan Ng’ang’a, ChildFund Kenya
Halima shakes the hand of Nadzua, one of the mothers she works with.
On any given day, Halima has her work cut out for her. As a community health volunteer in a rural area outside of Mombasa, she makes one or two home visits per day, checking in on families participating in ChildFund’s program to help children and families affected by HIV and AIDS in Kenya’s Coast and Nairobi provinces. Halima has 50 children on her list.
Launched in 2011 and run by ChildFund and several other partner organizations, the USAID-funded program takes a comprehensive approach to ensuring that these children and their caregivers have a safety net so they can build toward a more hopeful future. The program works to ensure that basic needs are met, including:
- Health: Families have improved access to health care. Trained community health volunteers provide prevention education during home visits. Increased access to safe drinking water and improved hygiene and sanitation help protect children’s and families’ health.
- Protection: When a caregiver dies, the children left behind are often vulnerable to abuse, exploitation and other risks. ChildFund works to protect children and help families stay together.
- Psychosocial support: Through home visits, trained volunteers monitor families and educate them about stress management. Support groups for both children and caregivers help them cope with the stigma of HIV and AIDS and learn how to stay healthy.
- Food and nutrition: Families receive nutritious food to supplement their diets and sustain their fragile health.
- Education: Families receive help with school expenses, and schools are supported to become more child-friendly, with training for teachers. Schools also offer support groups, child rights clubs, financial literacy education and hygiene training.
- Economic empowerment: Hundreds of savings and loan groups help thousands of adults grow their small businesses so they can support their families and overcome financial barriers that keep many HIV and AIDS patients from receiving care. Training and support for income-generating enterprises help families improve the circumstances.
Today, Halima’s first visit is with Nadzua, age 35, mother of 11; she is a second wife, married into a family who lost their mother to HIV. In her packed-dirt front yard, she greets Halima warmly, a sleepy toddler balanced on her hip. Her 2-year-old son, Mbega, is the only one of Nadzua’s children home this morning — the others are at school, and her husband is in town.
The women sit outside, facing each other, and begin. Before moving on to today’s subject — how Nadzua can gain skills to improve her family’s income — there’s a lot to talk about: the children’s health and immunizations, how things are going at school, how their improved hygiene practices are working out, whether the family is getting the nutrition they need, how Nadzua is doing in the literacy classes Halima encouraged her to take.
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It’s all hard with 11 children to care for, but life has improved since Halima’s visits began. “I have gained a lot from Halima,” Nadzua says. “I am more educated, more informed on how to take care of my children and my household.”
And she’s especially proud of herself on this day: She just harvested and sold 10 bags of green lentils, which meant she could cover her oldest son’s high school fees.
Nadzua and her 2-year-old son, Mbega.
As Halima leaves a little later, she breathes a happy sigh: She loves her work. She loves seeing families thrive despite the devastation of HIV and AIDS. Because she knows exactly how hard it is.
Halima, a single mother of four, has taken in the three children left behind by her two sisters, whom she lost to AIDS. All three children are HIV-positive.
And, thanks to Halima and all she’s learned, all seven children are thriving.
On her way to her next appointment, Halima passes a school she visits nearly every week, educating parents about children’s needs, sanitation and more. “I’m proud to see that the parents in the village understand the importance of growth monitoring, and that they’re interested in their children’s school performance and attendance,” she says.
She’s also had a hand in one important improvement to the facility itself: Until recently, the toilets were dirty, spilling human waste outside — a biohazard. Halima contacted the local public health officer, who ordered the school administrator to either fix the latrines or close the school.
Halima’s next client, Mwau, is a widowed father of four, and he’s waiting. His wife died four years ago. “When one parent dies, it gets even more difficult to take care of the family,” he says. His children are a girl, 16, and three boys, 8, 12 and 14.
Mwau has participated in several of ChildFund’s workshops — on child rights, nutrition, health and economic empowerment. With other farmers, he’s a member of one of ChildFund’s village savings-and-loan groups. The men are also working together to find better markets for their wares. Thanks to what he’s learned and earned through the overall program, Mwau has been able to move his family from a rickety mud hut into a stone house.
Still, he worries about his children — especially his daughter.
Mwau points out his old home as he stands next to his sturdy, new stone house.
“My daughter was most affected when her mother died,” he says. When the 16-year-old began coming home late after school, he wanted to yell at her, but he didn’t — in the workshops and from his talks with Halima, he knew there were better ways to handle teenagers. But this was really a job for a mother … and his children’s mother was gone. So, at his request, Halima stepped in.
“I explained that while she may want to enjoy the company of friends, some will not have good intentions toward her,” Halima remembers. “There are risks such as rape, and the consequences can be unwanted pregnancies and dropping out of school.”
Halima also encouraged the girl to help out at home — her family needs her. They all need each other.
It’s moments like this that keep her moving forward. “My drive is that people in the community listen to me,” she says. “I have a deep desire to see them grow and lead better lives.”