Adriaan van Klinken is Associate Professor of Religion and African Studies at the University of Leeds, and the author of Kenyan, Christian, Queer: Religion, LGBT Activism, and Arts of Resistance in Africa (Penn State University Press, 2019).
We are heading towards the 32rd commemoration of World Aids Day, on 1 December 2019. The world will celebrate the remarkable successes that have been made in the worldwide response to the epidemic in recent decades. Fewer people are getting infected with HIV, and more people who are infected have access to anti-retroviral treatment (ARVs). Fewer people are dying of AIDS-related causes, and more people are living positively with HIV. Significant progress has been made in addressing the stigma around HIV and breaking the taboo about the disease.
Yet with HIV being a sexually transmittable disease, stigma and misconception continue to be real, hindering effective campaigns for prevention and treatment. In many parts of the world, HIV continues to be a serious public health challenge, especially among key populations such as men who have sex with men, sex workers, and injection drug users.
The theme of World Aids Day 2019 is “Communities Make the Difference”. This theme is to recognise the crucial role that communities have played, and continue to play, in the response to the epidemic, at local, national and international levels. In this blog post, I’d like to draw attention to one community-based organisation that, at a local level and in a very practical way, has contributed to a relevant and grounded response to the challenges of HIV and AIDS among a community that is particularly at risk.
Since 2015, I’ve been conducting research in Kenya on the use of religion in LGBT activism, which has resulted in my recent book Kenyan, Christian, Queer. During this research, I learned about the presence of hundreds of LGBT refugees, mostly from Uganda, who are based in Nairobi and other parts of Kenya. Living under difficult circumstances, they experience double marginalisation on the basis of their refugee status and sexuality. While trying to come to terms with traumatic experiences back home in Uganda, for many their life in Kenya is a day to day struggle. The process of resettlement through UNHCR is notoriously slow, and during this process they receive very little support. Engaging in sex work is one of the strategies for survival, but it renders them vulnerable to abuse, exploitation, and HIV risks.
The Nature Network is one among various groups in which these LGBT refugees have organised themselves. They join forces and money to collaboratively provide in basic needs, such as shelter and food, and to offer mutual support. I met Raymond Brian, the founder and leader of The Nature Network, several years ago, and have come to know him as a charismatic and resilient community organiser.
Together with him, and with my Leeds colleague Johanna Stiebert, last year I developed a research project for which we secured some funding. Titled “Tales of Sexuality and Faith: The Ugandan LGBT Refugee Life Story Project”, the project explores how life stories, in combination with biblical stories, can be an empowering means and a resource for activism towards social justice for LGBT refugees, and can be used as part of creative, activist research.
Based at the far outskirts of Nairobi, The Nature Network runs a shelter offering accommodation to a group of about 15 refugees. In fact, the place is not just a shelter, but in their own words, an alternative family.
When Johanna and I visited the place in September 2019, we were struck by a series of paper posters put on the wall, many of which had hand-written HIV-related slogans.
One of them read, “HIV is a virus, but stigma is a deadly disease”. It captures the insight that stigma around HIV is the real killer, as it stops people from getting tested and seeking treatment.
Another slogan stated: “U = U. Undetectable = Untransmittable. True!!!” It reflects the well-established fact that when people living with HIV are on treatment with ARVs, chances of them transmitting the virus to others are negligible.
The shortest, but perhaps most powerful slogan was: “Am HIV Positive & Am Human”. It makes the fundamental point that no one’s human dignity should ever be questioned: not because of their HIV status, and neither because of their refugee status or their sexuality.
Narrating the background of these posters, Raymond Brian told me about the realities of HIV among members of The Nature Network, including one of their peers having died because of AIDS some years ago. Realising that community members were a key population at high risk for the disease, TNN leaders sought training in the area of HIV care and prevention. Searching for Information, Education, and Communication (IEC) materials to use among members of the community, they realised that the material available in Kenya was mostly in kiSwahili, a language not spoken by most of the refugees. Hence they decided to develop their own material in a workshop. In Raymond’s own words,
“Our research had revealed that stigma around HIV positive diagnosis was what discouraged many from seeking help. This was followed by fear of consequences of an HIV diagnosis in a country that is not one’s home. The third, was how to adhere to the requirements around consistent taking of ARVs, while at the same time being a refugee.
We used the “talking walls” approach where one pins up thematic charts which seem to be saying things people are afraid to divulge. We created a wall of belief, preservation and determination to stay alive. This is how we started using IEC materials and had them pinned up.
We wanted to empower ourselves; make a safer space available. We wanted to show that we are not here to stigmatise but to support each and every member of our community. And it worked.”
Although not a faith-based organisation per se, practically all members of The Nature Network identify with a faith tradition, mostly Christianity or Islam. Religious language is naturally part of their conversations, and religious belief and practice informs many of the group’s activities. This is most evident in the worship services they frequently held on Sundays, as an alternative to the faith spaces where they don’t feel welcomed as LGBT people of faith, and as an opportunity to worship in their own language.
In church or mosque, they may frequently hear the message that LGBT people are sinners in the eyes of God, and that HIV is the result of (if not a punishment for) immorality. The slogan about being HIV positive and human demonstrates that the Nature Network is one of these groups that, at a grassroots level, provides an alternative space and presents an affirming message. Or, as it was written on a different poster, “Being gay is a blessing, and it’s something to be thankful for every day”.
The theme of World Aids Day 2019 being “Communities make a difference”, I salute the leaders and members of The Nature Network, and of similar grassroots organisations in Kenya, across Africa, and in other parts of the world. Through their work, that often remains unrecognised, they make a critical difference. They help making our world a truly humane place for each and every one.
Written By: Adriaan van Klinken
Image Credits: Adriaan van Klinken