The recent drought combined with rising food prices have made the plight of people living with HIV dire. Poor roads often mean that emergency food aid, if there is any available, cannot reach many villages. And many patients are too weak to walk long distances. By the time food aid reaches them, many have gone without food for days.
Every morning, Julia Aukot walks 17km to eastern Kenya’s Isiolo town in search of work so she can feed her six children and ailing husband; the journey is punishing, but as her family’s sole breadwinner, she has no choice. “Here in the village, there is [absolutely] nothing you can do to make money to buy food. So every morning at six, I go to Isiolo town to do menial jobs for people and… buy food for my children and my husband,” the 39-year-old told IRIN/PlusNews.
When she cannot find work, Aukot begs on Isiolo’s streets – which she finds deeply humiliating – or visits a nearby slaughter house to scrape what little meat is left on the carcasses. “After they have taken the good meat from the slaughtered animals, I follow them with a knife and cut meat from the remaining skins,” she added. “When I gather enough, I take it home and we eat; my children and husband have now gotten used to eating the meat without any ugali [maize meal, a Kenyan staple]. I can’t afford maize flour.” A 90kg bag of maize, which in April 2011 cost about KSh2,500 (US$27.10), now costs as much as KSh4,800 ($52).
Aukot’s husband used to help out, but the poor diet the family has subsisted on recently has left him very weak. He is on antiretroviral medication, and insufficient food increases the side-effects of the drugs, leaving him unable to contribute to the family income. “He is sick, it’s not his fault; if he doesn’t eat, the medicine can’t help him,” said Aukot. “I can’t sit back and watch him just waste away… he is so weak – for me, there is no difference between him and the children.”
Partly because of a prolonged dry spell, some 3.6 million Kenyans need emergency food assistance. While Aukot and her family qualify for aid, poor roads mean the food does not reach her village. Most villagers walk to Isiolo town to access food aid, but the weakest often do not have the energy to walk that far. “We have food meant for the hungry people but some areas are just too hard to reach,” an aid worker in Isiolo told IRIN/PlusNews. “By the time the food [aid] gets to them, many have already gone without anything to eat for days.” Lillian Naseo, a community social worker in Isiolo, asks local well-wishers to donate food, which she then shares with people living with HIV and those infected with tuberculosis.
Too weak to walk
“They can’t walk to look for food, not just for themselves but also their families, so I beg for them… I walk into restaurants and when they give me leftovers, I take them to these people,” she said. “But this is not enough because I don’t know all those living with HIV in Isiolo District.” According to local health officials, Isiolo’s HIV prevalence rate is more than 4 percent. Junnius Mutegi, the district nutrition officer for Garba Tulla District, in upper Eastern Kenya, says: “Life is hard for everybody, but when food aid is not getting to people in the rural areas early enough, many of those suffering from HIV find it extremely difficult to survive, because they can’t make the journeys to trading centres to look for food. It is either you get it to them or they die of hunger.”
On a dusty street corner in Garba Tulla, Hawa*, 41 and HIV-positive, begs passers-by for money and food. She is too weak to work and without a strong support network, she says her options are to beg or die. “I need to eat but I can’t work and I rely on relief food, but it doesn’t come every day, so I moved to town to beg,” she told IRIN/PlusNews. “In the village you can’t beg, because everybody is just like me… they need food just like me.”
According to Mutegi, the situation calls for new ways to ensure the most vulnerable have access to food assistance. “I think the situation now calls for some innovativeness, so that even if the roads are bad, we can use camels or donkeys to ensure food reaches those who need it in good time,” he said. “People living with HIV and taking antiretrovirals seriously ne ed food… Otherwise we are faced with a situation where people will start to default on their drugs, and it is bad if we get there.”
*not her real name
[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]