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Rebuilding stolen innocence with briquettes

SUNDAY MAGAZINE
By Gardy chacha | June 14th 2015

It is hot and humid in Port Victoria, Budalang’i.

The atmosphere is blithe with laughter and loud conversations by women from the nearby beach on their way to the market with baskets full of fish.

Many a time, Budalang’i is mentioned in the news during the rains, when rge area has flooded.

But there is a numbing calamity that is muffled by the raging floods. The catastrophe of HIV and Aids, teenage pregnancies and poverty, tragedies that have turned dreams in to nightmares.

Hitherto, no resident had instigated a course to address the problems the young in Budalang’i face. It would take two young women to do so.

Claire Nasike is a 24-year old Environment Resource Management student at Technical University of Kenya. Her cousin, Stephenie Ojiambo, an age-mate, is a graduate of Nursing from Maseno University.

“Children learn about sex earlier than expected,” says Stephenie. “As a result, they start engaging in sexual activity at Standard Three or maybe Standard Four. By Standard Seven, or even earlier, they are pregnant and have to drop out of school.”

The two are behind Return-to-Sisterhood Mentorship Programme, and they seek to change the tide of early sexual debut in Port Victoria “by teaching them the truth about human sexuality and provoking their minds towards sustainable environment practices.”

Often, notes Stephenie, a pregnant girl will be forced to marry the man responsible for it. “Parents resort to this to save face so that it does not look bad that their daughter is pregnant at adolescence before getting married.”

Such was the case with Irene* who is now 14. She fell for a charming young man, and the joy lasted between dusk — when Irene sneaked  to the young man’s simba (a boy’s house built away from his parents’ main house) for trysts — and daybreak.

When it was discovered that she was pregnant, her parents could hear none of it.

“I had to get married to him,” says Irene. “But he was no longer as loving as he appeared to be initially.

Her daughter, about a year old, now faces an oblique future with a hapless mother and a runaway father.

About five kilometers from Claire’s home is Port Mixed Primary School, whose deputy head teacher, Resla Olumbe attests to the sad state of affairs.

No term, she says, passes without the school losing a girl to pregnancy.

“At least five girls drop out every term because they are pregnant,” she laments. “This is despite sex education being part of the curriculum.”

Blaise Wangari and Immaculate Ojiambo are both 12 and in Standard Seven at Bubango Primary in Port Victoria.

Both have friends who have had to drop out of school because of either a pregnancy or early marriage. They are among girls under the mentorship of Claire and Stephanie.

Resla points fingers at parents — who value fishing more than parenting.

“Often, parents take off to Mfangano, Sigulugulu, Nasumba, and other islands for weeks, to fish. The girls remain at home with minimal or no supervision.”

For many young women in Budalang’i, the narratives bear stark similarities. Lavender*, 17, who has the responsibility of caring for twin daughters appreciates that something has to be done to shield girls in Port Victoria from early sex debut.

“I was impregnated by someone I had been in a relationship with since I was in Standard Seven,” she says. “This was quite normal for girls in Port Victoria. But I got pregnant when I was in Third Form. I dropped out of school but I hope to go back some day.”

Lavender cites a laissez faire attitude reigning in Port Victoria as the reason why many girls fall to the charms of men and boys.

“We are at the Kenya-Uganda border and many Ugandans come to Port Victoria. They run bars and discotheques and the problem is that they are careless about sex,” says Lavender.

Fishing is the main economic activity in the area. In this society, the fisherman is the mogul. The girls, notes Claire, hold them in high regard.

“If a fisherman approaches a girl for sex, she will most likely agree to it. The girls are gullible and naïve.”

It is such stories that inspired Return-to-Sisterhood Mentorship Programme.

Claire and Stephenie believe it “will change how young girls think and they will know the truth about early sex, the reality of HIV and Aids and how bright the future is if they could hold on to their innocence and focus on education.”

The two often tie up sexuality topics with informative lessons on better environmental practices as they speak to girls in schools.

Claire strongly believes that in Budalang’i, the destruction of the environment and HIV and Aids cannot be separated.

“In Budalang’i, all our problems and successes hinge on the environment. From it, we receive food. But most importantly, fish.

“Good food means healthy residents who can run the economy. When people living with HIV and Aids eat healthy food, they live longer and can raise their children to approach life differently,” she says.

As a result, Return-to-Sisterhood Mentorship Programme is two-pronged: tackling HIV and Aids and conserving the environment. In the last one year, as Claire and Stephenie visited schools around Port Victoria to teach girls about the importance of abstinence, she dedicated a session to teach them how to prepare charcoal briquettes.

These are environmentally friendly version of charcoal.

The idea of charcoal briquettes appeared appropriate “because a lot of charcoal is brought to Port Victoria — even from Uganda — and the sellers pour charcoal dust on the roadsides.

“I collect the dust and use it to teach the girls, and women too, how to prepare briquettes by mixing it with cow dung, soil and water.

“With the briquettes, they do not have to hack into the dwindling tree numbers.”

The briquettes are efficient and produce more heat than charcoal.

“Women sell the briquettes at Sh10 each, and earn more than they do by selling charcoal,” she says.

“The residents’ preference for the briquettes is growing, and that is good for the environment.”

Claire’s exploits with environment projects, which include a tree planting initiative, for and by women has earned her accolades. She won this year’s Wangari Maathai Scholarship Fund, sponsored by Kenya Community Development Foundation and the Greenbelt Movement International.

Her award includes money to be used in furthering Return-to-Sisterhood projects in Port Victoria.

“It would be absurd to compare myself with Maathai, but she inspires me greatly. I also want to bring change to my community,” says Claire.

So far, over 500 girls from schools within Port Victoria have benefited from the mentorship programme.

The two appear to have gained the trust of Budalang’i parents and teachers alike.

A 2014 report by National Aids Control Council says that Busia, where Port Victoria lies, has 6.8 per cent HIV adult prevalence rate.

This, according to Anne Amimo, the Bunyala Sub-county AIDS and STI coordinator, is very high “considering that the national rate is approximately 6.3 per cent.”

The report  adds that approximately 43 per cent of Busia’s adults had their first sexual intercourse before the age of 15.

*Names have been changed to protect the identity of the girls.

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