Since July 2009, I have been working as an HIV/AIDS outreach worker within the gay community of Kenya, doing HIV testing, distributing condoms and lubes, and providing peer counseling and workshops to HIV-positive men. Interventions like these are important as the Kenyan MSM (men having sex with men) community has an HIV prevalence rate of 18.3%, which is disproportionately higher than the overall national prevalence of 4.9%.
Luckily, I’m not the only one fighting against HIV/AIDS in Kenya. Chris Waigwa, a 20-year old Kenyan friend of mine, also works in the field as an HIV testing and counseling service provider. Seeking to raise awareness about HIV/AIDS and issues facing the gay community in Kenya, he agreed to be interviewed about his important work in Kenya.
On February 29, carrying vintage and traditional Kenyan clothes we had bought in Gikomba Market in Nairobi, we traveled by minivan to the Rift Valley. The shooting location was the traditional rural home of a Maasai family whose son I have met at high school and university. They generously gave us special permission to use the traditional Maasai beaded jewelry for the shoot. Upon completion of the shoot, as a token of gratitude we donated to them the clothes from the wardrobe. I’m speaking about one of the most unique and gratifying shooting experiences of my life.
What is HTS and why is it important in Kenya? Which organizations are leading the fight against HIV/AIDS?
HTS means HIV Testing Service – the process of counseling and testing for HIV.
It is important because HIV has been highly prevalent in Kenya, especially among specific high-risk populations. It is our job to try to eradicate new HIV infections and AIDS-related deaths. Moreover, in my opinion, LVCT Health is the leading organization in Kenya because of its inclusive, approach. They work with all high-risk populations i.e. MSM, Male sex workers, Female sex workers and injectable drug users.
As an HTS provider, what does your role entail? What does a typical day of HIV testing look like?
We are usually at the Voluntary Testing Centre all day serving people who come into the facility or out of somewhere for an outreach, educating and testing people in the community. I personally love going for “outreaches” because I feel that they are more impactful. Sometimes we reach people who had no information about the virus, others with loads of misconceptions about the virus and others who turn out to be HIV positive and they did not even suspect it.
What did your training involve? What was the most difficult aspect of training?
It involved mostly facts and statistics about HIV in Kenya and around the world. We learned how the virus functions, what it does to our bodies, and how the treatment helps. We also learned how to do the pre-test and post-test counseling, which is very important in assessing the risk of infection, and to show support to clients and to prepare them for possible results.
The most difficult part was drawing blood. The first time I pricked a finger and tried to collect it with a capillary- it just wouldn’t come out. Later, I learned a few techniques to get it flowing and now it is very easy for me to collect a blood sample.
You work within the MSM community. Why are the rates of HIV so much higher amongst gay men than the general population and what are barriers that prevent gay men from accessing sexual health resources?
Yes, the reason why the gay community is at a higher risk of infection has to do with anal sex. There is no natural lubrication in the anal canal to ease penetration. Therefore, when having anal sex, there is a huge risk of bruising and tearing in that area. This becomes an entry point for the virus into the bloodstream of a person. Therefore, it is important to use lube for anal sex.
The biggest barrier the Kenyan gay community faces is the stigma against homosexuality. Here, it is illegal to have gay sex. This makes it very unlikely for a gay person to walk into a health center and talk about their sexual behaviors. I mean, it would be hard to explain how you got an STI in your anus as a Kenyan male in a public hospital. That is why some gay men keep these illnesses to themselves only for them to get worse. We are lucky to have LVCT and similar organizations which provide these essential services to these marginalized communities – for free and without any form of stigma.
What are the ways in which gay men are preventing the transmission of HIV amongst one another?
Firstly, through the correct and consistent use of condoms and lubes. Also through testing every 3 months. Condoms are always available since the government provides them. Lubes, on the other hand, are scarce. LVCT and similar organizations try to distribute them as most gay people can’t afford them but it’s not enough. We also encourage every gay man to enroll for PrEP (Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis) which, when taken correctly and consistently, prevents HIV infection in case of exposure.
Experts talk about HIV prevention “U=U”. Could you explain what this means?
“U=U” simply stands for Undetectable = Untransmissible. When an HIV-positive person adheres to their medication, eats well, and stays healthy, they achieve a milestone we call viral suppression. This means that the virus in the body is so low that when assessed using the standard monitoring tests, the results will be negative while in fact, the virus is present but suppressed. When the virus is undetectable the individual cannot transmit it to their sexual partners even with unprotected sex.
What challenges do gay men who are living with HIV/AIDS face in Kenyan society? How are they supported?
There is stigma, even within the gay community, surrounding HIV positive gay men. As a result, the majority does not speak about their status. We have support groups for gay men living with HIV. This is a safe space where they get to share their experiences, opinions, ideas and feelings about living with HIV. It is a very helpful program and we encourage more gay men living with HIV to reach out because there are people who will understand and genuinely validate them.
What do you believe needs to be done by society for HIV rates in the MSM community to decrease?
Most importantly, we ask for acceptance and legalization of gay sex. As a consequence, gay men would have access to their right to proper health care. Our society needs to learn to be kind and appreciate the gay community. They may not agree with the sexual behaviors but there is a lot more to offer if only they would stop spreading hate towards the gay community.
Apart from being a HTS provider, you are also an aspiring model. Tell us more about your career and goals.
Well, you discovered me Justin! Mid August 2019, I was in Taita Taveta volunteering for the ICS VSO program and we started talking. You asked me if I was interested in being a model and I was open to the idea. You came all the way from Mombasa to have a shoot with me. Sweetest thing anyone’s ever done for me.
What are your plans for modeling?
Right now, I’m just hoping to get my first bookings. I know that there is still a lot for me to learn and work on but with gaining more experience, I’m hoping that someday I’ll walk for big shows, bring some money back home and make something good out of it.
How would you describe your personal style? What is one piece of clothing you cannot live without?
Honestly, I feel that my style needs a little sharpening around the edges but I love my Denim shirts! I have two which I borrowed from my dad and I’m obsessed with them.
Who are your favorite designers and models?
Right now, my favorite designer is Minju Kim. I saw her in the ‘Next in fashion’ series and I truly love her work. She is so sweet and her designs are so grand and beautiful. My favorite model right now is Deu Thiong. He’s super talented and despite his experiences as a Sudanese refugee, he is always cheerful and kind. I believe that the fashion industry will see and appreciate not just his looks but his beautiful personality. He’s a star.
What is your hope for the future as a model?
I hope to go places, walk shows, learn and make meaningful relationships with people I can work with to make our communities more inclusive. I believe that modeling will be a means for me to mitigate some of the problems within my community.
What is your hope for the future of the gay community of Kenya and MSMs living with HIV/AIDS?
I hope that the Kenyan community will accept the fact that being gay is not a choice and even if it were, it should not be viewed as a bad one. There are a lot of beautiful gay people out here – but they are are not free and allowed to live their true selves. I know that a lot of gay men living with HIV in Kenya are going through a lot. I hope that they find a support system that will hold their hands through rough times. Someone who will allow them to feel and process the emotions which come with living with HIV and to reassure them that they are not alone.