Featured Story from Kenya
Community Health Information Center Volunteers: The 'hearts and souls' of the Centers

By Pauline Karani
Edited by Pauline Bunyasi
July 2003

Popularly known as "the Computer place", WiRED International's Community Health Information Center (CHIC) in Butula is proving to be the best strategy for fighting AIDS. Confirming the popular notion that "information is power," the story of 11-year-old Joseph is a testimony to WiRED's work in this part of the world.

WiRED Client Support Volunteers meet people from different backgrounds, cultures and age groups. All say that serving the clients helps them understand their communities better. They see more clearly the fears and wisdom of the older generation, the confusion and excitement of the teenagers, the innocence and hopefulness of the young, and the seriousness and urgency of the middle-aged. All of the clients are important to the Client Support volunteers - they are treated all the same regardless of the age, gender, religious affiliation or social status.

All manner of people walk into the WiRED Community Health Information Centers (CHICs) in search of information. Some people arrive out of their own volition and others by persuasion. The volunteers serve them all with enthusiasm. Perhaps the information they give will save one of their own from the curse of ignorance. An informed society, they believe, is a liberated society. The WiRED volunteers use various ways to encourage people in their communities to get the health information they need. Many of those who come in reluctantly at first leave the Center excited and enriched with the knowledge they have acquired. They often return with a friend, relative or both.

Miriam Kamau is one of the 80 volunteers working in one of the 16 WiRED Centers situated in different parts of the rural areas of Kenya. She has a soft spot for women and girls, especially those living under conditions making them vulnerable to HIV infection. She, therefore, uses the only tool she has to help these women and girls - she invites them to the CHIC to get informed.

Getting commercial sex workers (CSWs) to come to the Center isn't an easy task. The greatest hindrance is their working hours. They work at night and sleep during the day. Miriam, however, works regular hours. To reach these women and girls Miriam has devised a method to meet with them. Miriam leaves her work at the Center at five in the evening and dresses up as a CSW. She goes out to the streets where these girls hang out. She mingles with them and even walks into the pubs "in search of clients." Once in the pub, Miriam or one of the other girls orders a drink for herself and fellow CSWs. Even though she doesn't drink alcohol, she keeps a beer bottle nearby pretending to sip from it once in awhile. Meanwhile she talks with the girls and creates a rapport with them. Soon they become friends.

After several days, Miriam manages to invite two of the girls to the CHIC. They, in turn, bring in two others. She goes out again and brings Alice, who comes to the center out of curiosity. Why would one who works in a decent place like this want to be a prostitute, Alice wonders. In her mind Miriam is a prostitute like herself. She doesn't know that it is a strategy to get the girls to the Center.

Miriam soon leads her "friend" to a computer where she explains all she needs to know about the computers and how to access necessary information from the CD-ROMs. Alice looks through various CD-ROMs on health. First she looks at a CD-ROM on nutrition, and then one on TB. Finally she looks at the CD about HIV/AIDS/STDs; the one she had actually come to see. Then Alice notices that she has some of the symptoms mentioned in the CD on STDs. She confides in her friend Miriam who refers her to a doctor she knows for treatment. Alice does not have the doctor's fees, and Miriam offers to pay for the expenses. The friendship grows and a client is won. Since then Alice has become a regular client of the Center, getting information on many other health issues.

Miriam has managed to bring five CSWs to the Center to access information since April. It may sound like a small number, but getting five prostitutes to leave their beds in search of information is indeed a Herculean task. Four of these girls have learned how to protect themselves from sexually transmitted infections and take better care of their health. Another girl has completely left the trade and is now selling vegetables at the market to fend for herself and her son.

This is but one of the many stories of the lives that have been touched by the volunteers working in the CHICs in Kenya. Like Miriam, most if not all of them, believe in the importance of the information they are disseminating. It doesn't matter what one is involved in, who they are or what label they wear. WiRED volunteers believe health information is vital for all people. So, when one steps through one of the doors of a CHIC to access information, they are VIPs and they are treated as such.

No better words can describe the WiRED CHIC Volunteers than the words of WiRED's Executive Director Prof. Gary Selnow, who describes the volunteers as the 'hearts and souls' of the Centers. "They are the indispensable element of this information delivery system," he says. The Centers are about more than computers; they are about people - both the information seekers and the information givers.

* (not her real name)
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