"Aids the biggest killer of youth." I was concerned to see this headline on the front page of the Daily Nation newspaper today. According to estimates by the National Aids Control Council, more than 435,000 adolescents, age 10-19 are HIV positive and almost 120,000 more have not been identified. A Health Metrics and Evaluation study just published reveals that 2,531 youth age 15 to 19, most in secondary school, died of HIV/Aids in 2013. There were 2,398 HIV/Aids deaths of youth between 10 and 14 years. Anyone who though that Aids, which is now largely preventable and treatable, was under control must rethink that assumption. But that is another story.

There are many people who are living and surviving with HIV. One group of courageous women that Africa Circle of Hope has been working with for more than 10 years is the Meru Association of Positive People (MAPP). This group of 20 women, ranging in age from their late 20s to their 60s, is surviving and doing well taking their medication and supporting each other. MAPP meets every two weeks at Thiiri Centre in Meru, have lunch and spend time together. Today they tell me about their “Supermarket” where each meeting one of the women receives some small groceries from the other members. Today the women have brought a kilo of rice, two kilos of flour, a bag of sugar, salt, and three bars of laundry soap. Other times there might be some greens or chipati bread. Each one brings what she can. The next meeting another member will receive some items. This is a variation of the merry-go-round in some women’s groups where each person contributes 100 shillings or more and the money is collected and given to a different person each time.

After lunch the MAPP women work on their project, a small business making and selling soap. They mix the ingredients into a large tub and take turns stirring with a long wooden paddle.  The women also discuss other projects that they might do such as knitting sweaters for school uniforms or crocheting covers for sofas and chairs.  Their concern is that there is no market. They do not have time for projects that are not realistic. Yet they want to do something.

One of the biggest challenges for these women is adequate nutrition. Before we began providing food supplements for the women one of the members died because she was only having a cup of tea. Today we have purchased cooking oil and rice for the women. The leader carefully divides their shares out of the 30-kilo bag of rice and 20 liters of cooking oil. They have brought plastic bags for the rice and empty bottles and jars for the cooking oil. Some members ask about black beans and green grams, which are very nutritious but too expensive for them. This would be a special treat. They also say that vitamins do help them feel better. We have brought these in the past and will check on suppliers.

ACOHF works with Thiiri Centre and ACOHF board member, Marilyn Makandi, to provide lunch and transportation for the MAPP women who attend their bi-monthly support group. We also ensure that the women receive some basic food supplies. Last time it was beans for eating and planting.  Corn and beans are a staple of the local diet.

The MAPP women say these gatherings provide them strength and energy as they come together to share their feelings and experiences as a group of friends."We discuss what we have gone through and by the end of the day we go fresh. We release stress and talk to women who have the same thing. We support each other. We are coming to see if friends are strong and taking their medicine.”  “I rest. I share. I go happy. I come not feeling well, but I feel well with others. I feel happy. I feel strong.”

The consensus of all the women was that the MAPP group provided great benefits for them in just coming together and sharing. "I go happy" was often repeated. The feeling that “I am not alone” confirmed the value of the group interaction and support. “Others who are not in our group have died.” There is still stigma in the community outside, but in this gathering there is no discrimination. The women face problems in everyday life and challenges with relatives who talk badly to them or don’t want to give rightful land to “someone who has HIV and will die.” As one of the members stated, “I come here and know that I can continue to survive with HIV. I will die when God comes for me, but not from HIV.”

The women of MAPP are truly amazing people who always inspire me. Their faith is strong and their friendship and concern for each other continues to be powerful. They will survive and Africa Circle of Hope will continue to support their heroic lives.