Kenya's Iron Lady Takes a Stand on AIDS

Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki and his wife Lucy. (Photo: Anna Zieminski / AFP-Getty Images)

As reported by the BBC, Kenya's first lady, Lucy Kibaki admonished students to "abstain from sex in order to avoid infection with H.I.V." last month while addressing a school prize giving ceremony in the capital, Nairobi. Her remarks caused a stir in Kenya because the government's policy is to promote the distribution and use of condoms.

Situated on the equator along Africa's East Coast, Kenya, "the cradle of humanity," has a population of 32.8 million. Around the Great Rift Valley, Paleontologists have found evidence of man's ancestors. Presently, ethnic diversity has created a vibrant culture although it is also a source of conflict. High unemployment, crime, and poverty have plagued its populace, where most people live on less than $1 a day. A severe regional drought leaves millions very desperate and dependent on food aid.

But among Kenya's best-kept secrets are its beauty and its resilience in the fight against AIDS.

"Those who are still in school have no business having access to condoms. Those who are in university and are not married have no business having condoms in their halls of residence," Kibaki said. But as the report noted, research shows young people are sexually active by age 14.

"Let us be frank," the BBC quotes the national coordinator of the Kenya Network of H.I.V.-Positive Teachers, "because I think abstinence is not there. If it was there, kids who are 15 years old would not have been giving birth."

"The truth is that in Kenya even a youth who is 12 years old knows what sex is."

Unusual as Kibaki's statements were, perhaps, they are in line with a growing number of influential Africans, like Ugandan first lady Janet Museveni.

It is estimated that 1.5 million Kenyans have died of AIDS or H.I.V.-related diseases.

According to a recent survey conducted in both South and West Africa, the virus that transmits H.I.V. is dominant in South Africa, where circumcision is voluntary and most males have not been circumcised. The virus hides within the skin of the penis of those who have not been circumcised. Early circumcision, before males become sexually active, may result in lower H.I.V. acquisition, the study claims. But the researchers have not yet reached unchallenged, conclusive results. Additional vigorous research is currently under way.

Recently, Kenya's tourism minister, Morris Dzoro, who was with police during a raid on hotels in the coastal towns of Mombasa and Malindi that were offering sex with girls as young as twelve to tourists, vehemently warned that hotels involved in promoting such an unscrupulous trade will be closed down immediately. But how effective is the warning in a country where so many parents and young girls are plagued with poverty?

"Poverty is the worst form of violence," a critique lamented.

In South Africa, 200 children are born daily with the H.I.V. virus. There are about 300,000 AIDS orphans, and sadly, 2.5 million people in Africa will die of the disease this year. One out of nine South Africans will be infected with the virus. According to statistics from the United Nations, Africa has about 26 million people carrying the virus.

Although cheaper drugs are made available to sub-Saharan Africa, poor people still cannot afford to buy them. The efforts of the United States and nongovernmental organizations, including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the William J. Clinton Foundation have helped to create awareness of the disease and make retroviral drugs affordable and available to destitute or desperate patients. But the wisest and cheapest therapy is to develop a more responsible sexual behavior.

Clearly, when a passionate appeal for abstinence comes from the nation's first lady and mother, the probability that her message will resonate at home is very high. It is at the very least a step in the right direction.

View the Worldpress Desk’s profile for Roland Bankole Marke.