A few months ago I wrote an entry about the HIV/AIDS epidemic. I had just seen Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart and was inspired by his call to take action. Since then I spent a few weeks in Kenya and I would like to share the story of an extraordinary woman I met there. We met in the most unlikely of places, in a small room in a slum called Kibera on the outskirts of Nairobi, but I have never met anyone with such courage and hope.

Her name is Pamela and she is HIV positive. She has four children, two boys and two girls. When her husband found out she was HIV positive he kicked her out of their home. Pamela found herself homeless and on the streets with four kids. Pamela had no voice to express herself and no way to make a living. Looking around her community she saw other women in like circumstances. The societal stigma of being HIV positive seemed insurmountable but staying in isolation was a certain course towards death. Something had to change.

In 2005 Pamela founded Kibera HIV/AIDS Support Initiative Programme (KHASIP). Through the help of Médecins Sans Frontières she became a fully qualified counselor and began to coach women within her community towards a more positive life. She encouraged them to share their stories – the shame they felt at their stigma, the difficulty of staying optimistic both for themselves and their children, and the hardship of finding access to the right medicines.  Pamela saw employment was a common problem so together the group began to make handcrafts – with 50% of the revenue going directly back to the women and the other 50% going back into their sustainable business. When ongoing economics proved to be another issue the group started their own microfinance program, with the women of the group contributing and financing one another in times of need. Whatever the obstacle, Pamela and her organization overcome it.

But KHASIP’s work is far from done. Of the thirty-eight current members, Pamela tells me that 1/3, herself still included, continue to be homeless. Through monthly contributions of as little as 200 KsH (or $2.33) the members of KHASIP are slowly working towards saving up enough money to buy a small plot of land for a group of houses. They’ve given themselves a period of five years to achieve their goal, and I have no doubt they will make it.

Sitting in that small room I watched as women flowed in and out, merrily greeting Pamela, smiling shyly at me. Pamela sat in her plastic garden chair, her spirit absolutely infectious, nodding to each one. She directed me to their display of sandals, necklaces, and beadwork. She introduced me to several children who receive nutritional and educational support from her group each month. That one woman could do so much simply astounds me.  

If you would like to find out some further information on KHASIP, or even to make a donation, please visit: KHASIP.