KENYA: Changing Lifestyles Put Indigenous Communities at Risk
|The Ogiek have battled eviction from their home in Mau Forest for decades|
MAU FOREST, 23 February 2009 (PlusNews) – One of East Africa’s last remaining hunter-gatherer communities, the Ogiek people, has largely remained separate from the rest of society, but NGOs warn that their ignorance and isolation from HIV/AIDS prevention efforts could heighten their vulnerability to the virus.
According to the Centre for Minority Rights and Development (CEMIRIDE), an NGO promoting the rights of indigenous peoples in Kenya, total ignorance of HIV among the Ogiek is not uncommon.
“There are no HIV campaigns at all directed at the Ogiek … the government do not even have statistics about the prevalence amongst them,” said Pattita Tiongoi, a programme officer with CEMIRIDE.
“The disease is penetrating through the Ogiek because of displacement, which has seen them mingle with their infected cosmopolitan neighbours like the Maasai and the Kalenjin.”
Napuoyo Moibei*, who thinks she is about 35 years old, was evicted from the Mau forest in Kenya’s Rift Valley Province several years ago and took up employment on a nearby wheat farm to make ends meet.
“The money was little, and with children and no husband, my option was to have sex with men from other communities who lived in the nearby trading centres,” she told IRIN/PlusNews.
Moibei’s husband passed away three years ago, and she recently discovered that she too was HIV-positive. “I had never heard about the disease called AIDS until I got sick and was almost dying,” she said. “The wife of my employer sympathised with me and took me to Nakuru for treatment.”
“I still do not know much, except that I have to go for drugs [life-prolonging antiretroviral medication] in Nakuru to live – that is what the nurse told me.”
|I had never heard about the disease called AIDS until I got sick and was almost dying|
With no knowledge about the virus, Moibei was unable to protect herself. “I do not know even how a condom looks like,” she said.
Experts say there is an urgent need to start HIV awareness campaigns targeting the Ogiek population of around 20,000, especially as more of them leave the forest for urban settlements and rural plantations, where they interact with higher-prevalence communities.
A study by the Minority Rights Group International and CEMIRIDE found that sex work was increasing as single-parent girls and women sought to fend for themselves, leading to the spread of sexually transmitted infections, including HIV.
“The initial lifestyle of being confined to the forest kind of shielded the Ogiek from HIV spread, but that lifestyle has been disrupted due to displacement,” CEMIRIDE’s Tiongoi said. “This is a small group of people that can easily be wiped out by [HIV] in just a few generations.”
According to Daniel Kobei, executive director of the Ogiek People’s Development Programme, HIV and other health issues have been sidelined as the government and NGOs focused on other Ogiek issues such as landlessness and poverty.
Kobei noted that very few Ogiek were literate, which meant they could not benefit from traditional HIV campaigns and would need specially created messages; health services would also have to be brought nearer the forest to reach the people still living there.
“Those who seek medical help have to come all the way to Nakuru, which is almost 40 kilometres away from where they are; it is a tiring walk for one who is living with the virus,” he said.
Most Ogiek still live in the Rift Valley, which has an HIV prevalence of seven percent, slightly lower than the national average of 7.4 percent.