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Elderly Women Break Taboos to Talk About 
Sexuality and Aids

By Patrick Mathangani, East African Standard


March 6, 2005

Cecilia Wambui, 70, cuddles her two-year-old grandson Patrick Kamau

Cecilia Wambui, 70, cuddles her two-year-old grandson, Patrick Kamau, and cajoles him to stop crying.

Wiping the boy's running nose with her bare hands, she then hauls him on to her back, singing him a lullaby and hoping he could doze off and let her do some work.

"It has been like this since he was two months old," Wambui, a widow, says. "When his mother died, some people told me to give him up in a hospital. But if I did that, I would not be different from people who throw their babies into pit latrines."

And unlike many people unwilling to talk about HIV/Aids, Wambui makes a startling revelation: her daughter died from the disease two years ago.

Due to traditional inhibitions and taboos, many African people rarely discuss sexuality with their children, and rarely talk about Aids even when it affects their loved ones. 

Experts say this "conspiracy of silence" is one of the reasons why HIV/Aids has spread faster in the region than in other countries. 

But thanks to a project where the elderly are being taught about HIV/Aids in Thika's Kiang'ombe slum where Wambui lives, they are freely talking about the disease and teaching fellow villagers how to avoid it.

Wambui's daughter, who was a single mother, left behind seven children, all of whom she now has to bring up the way she did her own many years ago.

She is a member of Mwiterethia Self Help Group, which involves 90 elderly slum people who are being taught life skills by HelpAge Kenya.

As a result of the teachings they have had on HIV/Aids, how it is transmitted and ways to avoid it, they now agree Aids is real and the best way to be healthy is to discuss it.

Perhaps the deaths of their children, and the burden they are now bearing while bringing up their grandchildren, have served to drive this truth home. 

"I always tell my son to avoid sex with many girls," said Luigia Njeri, 50, who is caring for a four-year-old orphan left behind by her own daughter. "I tell him if he must have sex, he must use a condom."

Asked if she feels uneasy discussing such issues with her son, who is aged 15 years, she said Aids is real and she had a duty to save his life.

"Maybe if I had discussed it with my daughter, she would not have died. I do not feel uneasy because even if I don't talk to him, he gets the message for himself on the radio." 

Her grandchild was still suckling when her mother died.

"It was very difficult for me. I spent many sleepless nights because without her mother's milk, she could not sleep," Njeri recalled. 

She said anti-HIV messages she gets on her small radio and on television have also helped her to break the communication barrier.

The chief executive of HelpAge Kenya, Mr Ephraim Gathaiya, said the organisation was teaching the elderly to discuss HIV/Aids without taboos.

He said with a HIV/Aids prevalence of 24 per cent, many Thika residents had been touched by the pandemic and people could no longer remain silent.

The Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/Aids (UNAIDS) says about 70 per cent of the global infections are in sub-Saharan Africa, where social-cultural barriers prevent parents from discussing sexuality with their children.

This silence has been found to be a major cause of the rapid spread of the virus. 

Gathaiya said as a result, the organisation was helping the elderly, who are also seriously affected, to cope. This is through assisting them and their families to engage in small-scale businesses like selling vegetables, fish, and second hand clothes to meet their basic needs.

The Ministry of Health says there are an estimated 1.6 children orphaned by Aids. Many of these are under the care of their grandparents.

Indeed, the extent of devastation that HIV/Aids has caused, even breaking up families, is monumental.

Another widow, Rose Waithera, 56, said when her son died of Aids eight years ago and left behind two children, their mother ran off.

"She used to be a very good wife. I do not know what happened to her; she has no time for her children," Waithera said.

She reckons that the death could have been so unexpected that it affected the children's mother, who no longer had a purpose to live. 

Recently, the mud-walled house that her son had built collapsed and the children have no house of their own.

Now, Waithera has to take care of the two. Life for her is hard because she has no farm to grow food crops and sell some to buy essential items and educate her grandchildren. 

Recently, HelpAge gave her a loan, which she used to expand her small business where she sells potato fries (chips) within Kiang'ombe. 

With no work to do, many people in Kiang'ombe have turned to brewing chang'aa, a potent and illicit drink that knocks one off after two glasses.

The makeshift bars where young men drink this brew have also turned into lethal dens where they engage in cheap sex, exposing them to HIV. Gathaiya said 20 elderly people have also benefited from the organisation's project to build houses for them.

They are also undergoing training as peer counselors on HIV/Aids, while a number of them have trained on how to care for the sick.

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