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January 14, 2004

Beauty Breaking the Silence On HIV

From:, Africa - Jan 14, 2004

The Nation (Nairobi) NEWS

By Omwa Ombara Nairobi

"Aids knows no disability!" Susan Mwikali's signs as she runs barefoot on the white expanse of the Serena beach in Mombasa. Tugging along is Kenya's First Lady, Mrs Lucy Kibaki. The two are shooting the first HIV/AIDS commercial.

"Chanuka!" Mwikali signs.

"Chanuka!" The First Lady echoes in translation.

They leave behind a long trail of tiny footprints. Mwikali slips and falls. As she reaches down to help Mwikali up, the First Lady slips and falls too.

Panting, they scramble to their feet and laugh as they brush off sand from their clothes. The First Lady laughs loudly. Mwikali's laughter is inaudible.

Yet as they hold hands and watch the waves wash away their footprints, they seem to share one common language - a smile.

Mwikali, 23, is deaf. She was the first runner-up at the Miss Disability Kenya Pageant two months ago and this week, she launches Kenya's first HIV/AIDS commercial in sign language, organised by Miss Disability Kenya Secretariat together with the Nairobi VCT Centre for the Deaf.

Although Kenyans may assume that everyone knows President Mwai Kibaki, there is a section of deaf people, especially those in rural areas with no access to sign language, who have no idea whatsoever who he is or even that he exists.

They have never seen him on television and can neither read the newspapers nor listen to the radio. Therefore, unless the president goes round the country with an interpreter and introduces himself, this section of Kenyans will never know him.

Take Charity Ngilu, for instance. Some deaf people in the city may have seen the woman's pictures hundreds of times in the newspapers or on television demonstrating to her constituents how to use condoms. But unless there is an accompanying sign language expert to explain who she is and what she is doing, the minister for health could be just another woman.

Many of them have never learnt of Vice-President Moody Awori, Constitution Review Chairman Yash Pal Ghai, Constitutional Affairs Minister Chris Murungaru or National Aids Control Council Chair Miriam Were.

So acute is the lack of basic information for the deaf community that the Aids awareness campaign has hardly been effective.

This dearth of information is what prompted Mwikali to develop an interest in the Aids awareness campaign.

Mwikali is a voluntary counselling and testing (VCT) counsellor at the Nairobi VCT centre for the Deaf in Buru Buru. She attended Tumu Tumu Mission School for the Deaf which, by coincidence, is where the First Lady did her Primary School before proceeding to Alliance Girls' High School.

Mwikali teaches Lucy Kibaki some sign language.

Tumu Tumu accepts both deaf and hearing students and during assembly, the headmaster has a translator by his side for the benefit of those who cannot hear. Perhaps this is what made it so easy for the First Lady to pick up sign language as fast as she did as they rehearsed the script for the commercial.

Mwikali later completed her Form 4 at Rev. Muhoro Secondary School for the Deaf in Nyeri.

Says she: "I have seen many deaf and mute people perish from Aids-related illnesses yet a number of them had no idea what hit them. The Aids message has yet to reach the deaf community. Even the word Aids does not exist in Kenya's sign language yet, and we have had to create one for the purpose of this commercial."

This was done through the Kenya National Deaf HIV/Education Programme, with funding from the National Aids Control Council. The Nairobi Association for the Deaf produced material on Aids.

Deaf people require visual aids for the anti-HIV campaign, but no such materials have not yet been developed in Kenya, Nor is there information on Aids for deaf people in educational institutions. In fact, sign language for sexuality was developed only last year.

Mwikali explains that deaf people are reluctant to go to hospital even when they are very sick because they need an interpreter, who may charge up to Sh1,000 per hour. Sometimes the queues are long, especially in public hospitals, forcing them to wait for hours.

This pushes the charges of hiring an interpreter beyond the means of many people, so they simply stay away or indulge in the easier option - self-diagnosis and medication.

Most deaf people hold low-paying jobs, Mwikali observes.

"The majority are cleaners, carpenters, sweet vendors, or hospital attendants who push trolleys or do other menial jobs like putting medicine away in stores," she laments.

"It is not because we are lazy or lack the capacity to study up to university. We are only incapacitated by the government's insensitivity to providing us with a conducive educational environment. Until 1999, deaf people had an education system that only went only up to Form 3, after which the ministry of education sent them to technical schools to pursue non-academic programmes. The sign language programme at the universities only trains hearing people so that they can translate.

"How can you lump together a whole community and decide that they are all technically oriented?" asks Mwikali, laughing at the absurdity of it all. "What about those of us who are gifted enough to become lawyers, doctors or secretaries? What are we supposed to do with all our intelligence? Sell sweets?" she asks.

Another factor that discourages deaf people from going to hospital and VCT centres is lack of privacy. A deaf person with a venereal disease, for instance, often feels humiliated, especially during the examination, as the interpreter has to hang around to facilitate communication between the doctor and the patient.

Matters to do with sexuality are private and individuals feel psychologically assaulted and afraid that the interpreter might inform others about their medical condition.

Mwikali says her experience in counselling has revealed that when a deaf person tests HIV-positive, many interpreters do not usually tell them the results. They only learn about their status through gossip within the deaf community.

"Even among deaf people, Aids carries a stigma. Due to lack of information, we are still at the initial stages of awareness. Nobody knows what the disease really is, but we all know that it is a very bad and strange curse," she explains.

Mwikali is proud to have shot the commercial with the First Lady.

"She is motherly and a very easy person to work with. She smiles a lot and is so simple that she agreed to remove her shoes and walk on the sand, and to eat our snacks with us. She also advised us on how to improve the commercial. She said "Thank you" when she was corrected. I walk around with her picture to show the other deaf people so that they can know who she is," says Mwikali.

Says Mrs Kibaki: "This is an area in the Aids awareness campaign that has been overlooked. I am excited to work Mwikali and to make a change in the Aids awareness campaign among deaf people."

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