We sent Wouter van Dongen to Kenya to visit an MTV Staying Alive grant winner working with prisoners
It’s 2 pm and the blistering sun is burning our faces. We’re in in Kiambu, Kenya, and about to enter the Kimiti Medium Security Prison where MTV Staying Alive Grant Winner AYC (Amazing Youth Centre) is organising an HIV-awareness-raising session this afternoon. After a few formalities the gates of the prison open and we follow the guards into the main court yard. I’m filled with excitement and trepidation—I’ve never been in a prison before, let alone a Kenyan prison. As we enter the court yard we’re greeted by Daniel, AYC’s project leader. Suddenly, we’re standing in front of a group of 200 prisoners, many of whom have lined up underneath a marquee for some shade.
Opposite is another small marquee with chairs, where we take place. It’s a rather awkward situation: for a few moments there is a silence and while we stare at the prisoners, the prisoners stare back at us, obviously curious to see three ‘musungu’ (white people).
The afternoon kicks off with a rap battle between two prisoners, each of whom has incorporated an HIV-prevention message into their lyrics. The prisoners cheer and shout. It’s clear that for many of them this is a welcome distraction from prison life. And this is exactly one the strengths of AYC’s project—by combining education with entertainment they manage to capture the prisoners’ interests and attention and effectively convey safe sex messages.
Throughout the afternoon there’s a range of other activities: a condom demonstration, music and dance performances and a debate about safe sex practices. The debate revolves around questions such as what is HIV, how do you get it, and how can you prevent infection.
The discussion gets heated when Daniel asks the group about what men who have sex with men can do to protect themselves against sexually transmitted infections. Uproar ensues. Some prisoners shout that sex between men is not natural.
Daniel stays calm. He stresses that he is not judging anyone—he simply states that sex between men happens. He then tells the group about his friend, whose cellmate was raped by another man in prison and as a result got infected with HIV. Most of the prisoners shake their heads in denial. However, a few brave participants speak up and say what everyone secretly already knows: sex between men in prison does indeed happen.
As a result of the activities of AYC, sexual health is now finally a topic that is openly discussed in many Kenyan prisons. By visiting prisons and training prisoners and wardens as peer educators about HIV prevention, AYC has reached more than 4,300 prisoners with safe sex messages in 2013.
The afternoon at Kamiti Medium Prison ends with a testimonial from a prisoner who is living with HIV. The other prisoners listen quietly as he tells them that with the right medicines people living with HIV can live a long and healthy life. A few years ago, such a confession would have been unimaginable. Thanks to the work of AYC things are changing for the better. The environment of stigma and discrimination is slowly subsiding, making way for a more open debate about HIV and safe sex.
My visit to Kamiti Medium Prison has nevertheless made me realise again that tackling the taboos surrounding HIV is a long-term process and that the fight against HIV is far from over.
To support the amazing work of organisations like AYC, click here.